Re-Tales #20: You never forget your first gorilla

You never forget your first time. Ask any audiophile about that first moment hearing music through a good hi-fi system—how it rocked their world and changed their life. Maybe it was at a friend's parents' house when they were a kid. Often, though, it was the first time they found themselves in a hi-fi dealership, back in the day.

Yes, back then, hi-fi dealerships played a critical role in exposing people to good sound. According to industry stalwart Anthony Chiarella, they still do—indeed, they must. The industry, though, faces serious challenges—including continuing to introduce newcomers to hi-fi. He shared his perspective with me in a recent Skype call.

Chiarella used a film—not music—to illustrate the role dealerships play in transformative hi-fi epiphanies. In the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist, a man who captures baby gorillas to sell to zoos asks angry primatologist Dian Fossey (Sigourney Weaver) where she first saw a gorilla. "The zoo, wasn't it?" His point: If she never had seen that gorilla in a zoo, she would never have embarked on her career.

The metaphor evokes odd images—hunters with nets pursuing amplifiers through the steamy jungle; loudspeakers behind bars at dealerships—but it gets the point across.

"If you can't go someplace and hear and see and touch and taste what we do, how do you get involved?" Chiarella asked. "How do you get a kid who has earbuds and an iPhone to understand what hi-fi is all about if they can't hear it? Our industry's survival demands that there be places where we can see and hear the stuff."

Chiarella started in hi-fi when he was 16, on the sales floor of a famous—or infamous—brick'n'mortar dealer, Crazy Eddie's. He went on to work at Lyric Hi-Fi, Harvey's, and Woodbridge Stereo. After college, he went to Wall Street for a while, but hi-fi beckoned. In 1995, he founded Specialty Sound and Vision in Bergen County, New Jersey, where today he services 25 brands including Dynaudio, EAT, Octave, and Moon by Simaudio. He wears other hats, too: He's director of sales and marketing for Brinkmann Audio, the German manufacturer of fine turntables and audio components, and recently, he took on a similar role for Danish manufacturer Gryphon. He also works with audio distributor VANA.

Chiarella remembers an Esquire magazine story from around 1979 about dream jobs for guys. Hi-fi store owner topped the list. Those were different times. The industry has changed, and it continues to change. As I've mentioned more than once in this space, hi-fi sales have been shifting online. "Online" didn't exist when Chiarella started out (although mail order, which is similar, was a thing back then).

Online is a fine place to sell less-costly items. But, for traditional hi-fi dealerships, overhead is too high and volume too low to make a living selling cheaper products, particularly those also sold online and in chain stores. There's rent, utilities, a cleaning service, a couple of well-paid salespeople, furnishings for a well-appointed showroom, food and drinks for special events. There's the cost of demo equipment and store inventory. Those expenses can be calculated per customer or per sale. A dealer once told me he calculated his cost per demo song.

A customer may spend hours auditioning a product, picking the dealer's brain—then some of those customers walk out and buy the item online or from a dealer in another state who illicitly offers a discount. Some customers call dealers all over the country seeking a discounted price, a practice Chiarella calls "dialing for dollars." "It's happening literally right now—there is a customer somewhere getting an audition with no intention of buying from that dealer," Chiarella said. Occasionally, a distributor may sell the item direct to the customer, at a discount, leaving the dealer out to dry. Not good. What happens then when the customer requires after-sales service?

Many audio salons stock less-expensive items, but often they're not set up for demonstrations. Demonstrations are too time- and resource-intensive if the dealer's going to make, say, $100 from the sale.

Those customers aggressively pursuing the lowest price also aren't good for the industry, Chiarella said: "If it's all about price, then our industry goes away, because it doesn't pay at that point for a retailer to keep everything on display and have a salesman and a pretty showroom and overhead."

If you've ever felt a snooty vibe or felt unwelcome at a hi-fi store, this is probably why. Some dealers have grown cynical. Which isn't good for the industry.

In order for this situation to turn around, customers need to recognize the value of local dealers—and support them. Dealers must do their part by offering valuable services: educating buyers, helping with setup and system matching, staying in touch after the sale. Be useful. That leads to long-term relationships, future upgrades, and more sales. Both parties benefit.

There's one problem with the model, though—the gorilla in the room, you might say. Less-expensive items are what bring in new customers, to the hobby and to the dealership, which is essential. How do you bring in new people if dealerships aren't selling what new customers want to buy?

Here's an approach one dealer is taking to selling less-expensive equipment, Chiarella told me. "If you want to hear it, if you want me to set it up, if you want me to demo it, if you want me to service it, it's $150 an hour." That's not a promising approach, I'm thinking.

One thing dealers are doing to bring new people into hi-fi is diversify. As hi-fi has stagnated, the custom-install business has boomed. In-wall speakers and whole-house systems may not provide the best-possible sound, but it's music in the home, and it gets customers in the door who someday may want something better. "The customer might say, 'Give me one room where I can have great sound,'" Chiarella said. "That's really going to be one of the things that hopefully will help us survive." Chiarella has "very positive feelings" about the industry's future. That big question, though, remains unanswered. "What about the kid who doesn't get to hear it, doesn't ever get that epiphany? Why does he buy it?" Chiarella asked. "If dealers don't survive, this goes away. Where did you see a gorilla for the first time?"

cognoscente's picture

my first 'my music' moment was when I had just turned 13, September 1979 when I was sititng on the floor in front of the tv watching the Dutch equivalent of Top-Of-The-Pops and Adam Curry, later of MTV, announced a new group that represented a new music movement. For 3 minutes I watched and listened hypnotized to the TV. I knew, this is my music, this is my (clothing) style, this is me. I'm alive. It was the song / music clip Gangster by The Specials.

I had my first 'gorila' moment 2 years later when I had collected and worked for my first hi-fi stereo set (a Dual record player (?), the Marantz SE1010 receiver and Technics SB4500 loudspeaker - all stolen during my first week at college, anyway). I sat down between the speakers on the floor and for the first time heard the music not coming from a speaker but from between the speakers, so instead of 2x mono 1x (real) stereo.

The second 'gorilla' moment was when I bought my first serious hi-fi stereo set in the mid-1990s, the TEAC VRDS10 CD player, the Sphinx project 10 amplifier and the JM-Lab (now Focal) 908 Spectral loudspeakers connected by unbranded silver cables. Also the sound from my TV went through this set. I was watching a tennis match and for the first time I heard very clearly (on a TV sports program) the wind blowing through the leaves of the trees next to the field. WOW, unbelievable I thought and smiled. I still own these components and the Sphinx amp is still in use in my wife's studio, as are the speaker cables in my current set. However, now looking back this was not a good set, too much emphasis on detail and too little on musicality. But maybe that was the general trend at the time after the arrival of digital music / the CD player.

Jack L's picture


Those were the days....

I wish I were so well off like you that you had everything available handily.

When I was 12 or so, we were so tight to afford only a table radio.

My first 'gorilla' moment was when I tuned in an AM radio channel for the first time from my first DIY germanium AM radio.

With peanut money provided by my dad to buy the materials, I built it on a small brown fiber board made up of only 3 components: A handwound copperwire tuning coil with a few tapped outs for tunning radio channels manually, a germanium "whisker" diode (1N34A) as RF carrier detector, with one end of it selectively pinned into to any one of the coil taps for tuning in radio channels, & a hi-impedance crytal earbud which was connected to the other end of the detector diode. It was self-powered: no battery was needed to operate the radio !!!

When the tuning coil of the radio was hooked up to the long rooftop AM antenna wire hung between 2 top posts on our house flat roof , it worked like a chime !

It pulled in only 2 strong local AM channels - loud & clear via the crytal earbud.

Wow, what a treat for yours truly, a primary school graduate from a poor family.

Jack L

MT_Guy723's picture

My dad's sister, her husband and their mother... and the 5 kids in that household lived across town (Great Falls, MT) from us we would go over there often on Friday or Saturday nights to visit.

We kids would shut the two doors into the dining room where they had one of those little 3-component stereo systems - 2 speakers with a amp/turntable in the middle. It sat atop their upright piano. That's where I first heard "What'd I Say" by Ray Charles and got introduced to Soul music. About 1965 or thereabouts one of the cousins bought himself a sound chair - a sort of recliner piece with a 'shroud' that came up above and out to the sides of your head. When reclined and something was playing with that baby hooked up was nothing short of mind blowing to me. I heard details in there that I did not hear at our house with the same album being played on our console TV.

About 1965 Art's Electronics opened up in the new mall about 3 blocks from our house. I was stunned by what I heard in there. Lots of visits just to hear what was being demo'd.

In 1968 I got a job in the mailroom at a bank and starting at $1.60/hr and moving up to $1.72/hr after my first year I managed to save up $300.00... which resulted in my first component system. 100 watts a side and I was a goner. Receiver, Garrard turntable and two 3-way speakers...

Sound was not as clean and tight as that sound chair... but it was mine to appreciate as much as I could. Without Art Minor and his patience with a snot-nosed kid I would not have had a life where listening to music often was an important component to overall happiness for this ol' boy.

stereostereo's picture

I had a woman come to my door right before I opened Stereo Stereo and asked to see some of our artwork. She had her 13 year old daughter, Jules, with her. She told Jules to sit down and watch the TV. I approached Jules and asked her if she loved Taylor Swift? "Oh I do!" I inquired as to how she listens to her? She did not understand my question but eventually told me she listens through her phone or computer. I said "oh my. Jules you cannot feel Taylor's emotion through those. Come over here." I played her a song from Red, on a red Rega turntable some small Wharfedale speakers and little Rega amp. She was transfixed for several minutes. Her mother asked me what kept her precocious daughter seated for so long? I showed her. The mother bought it for her birthday. That was Jules gorilla moment and everyone involved could not be happier.

windansea's picture


Penguin's picture

Thanks for sharing this.

stereostereo's picture

Thanks very much. Actually, this experience has had a very positive effect on my life. Jules and I have become music buddies. Her Dad brings her in to purchase vinyl and we talk about new music we are both enjoying. She has become a Sufjan Stevens junkie and her parents are thrilled with her new passion. She came in the other day and her eyes lit up over the bright red KEF LS50's. She is always the bright spot of my day when she visits.

topdwnman's picture

Gorilla moment for me happened way back in 1971, where I heard quads for the first time wow so clear ! Key to getting youth and public in general
is there has to be another reason to go to a venue and explore new hardware, a destination if you will, a place to renew,relax, and refresh.
Said destination may need to be membership driven.

Property would have jogging and bike paths, a small (500 seat or less)performance center and recording studios, this arts center would offer music lessons, have symbitoic retail, but with more green space (gardens-water features ect.) one could just go for a picnic, see a show, get a massage, or take a jog, gated and safe with water and rest areas. Tucked in the woods are several "Audio Homes" that would have several retail levels,entry, mid line and hi-end. Jogging and bike paths stratigicly placed to go right by them, with staff ready to "usher/invite" them in.

See where I am going with this ? There has to be a broader reason to audition new hardware, intimidating racks of equipment in a conventional retail, is not going to cut it, furthermore "paying membership" means the consumer has skin in the game right from the start, and with the right staff to guide them and keep them coming back, buying online would be diminished.

windansea's picture

My first time was in a used gear store and I heard some old maggies and had to have them. Also remember hearing my first tube amp, a Jolida, but it still opened my ears. College system was maggies and Onkyo. Then Stax and Grado. Finally earned some scratch for Krell and Martin Logan. And today I have 3 systems, a little tube SET with full rangers, ribbon monitors with a smaller Pass amp, and I came full circle with Maggie 3.7 in the big system. It all started with hearing those old used maggies.

I think the dealers should charge for demo listening, but credit the amount paid against a purchase. My tennis club demos racquets this way. I'd be happy to pay to audition awesome systems. It shouldn't be free. Deter the tire kickers.

PeterPani's picture

was at a garden party in UK, when the inviter (and later dear friend) got me into his listening room with state of the art turntable, Quad II's and ESL 63 electrostatics and played a Mozart piano sonata to me. It was really the first hit on the keyboard, the first single note of the record that was pure magic. I still can remember this one note hanging in the room like a sculpture you can touch and see, setting the stage for an emotional ride through Mozart's soul - spitting out a 30 years old audiophile and classical music lover at one instant.
Later I learned that it was a bit mean to play this record to me. It was/is a very special one, still sitting on top of my 5000+ record collection (after I found a playable copy, too).

joe149's picture

My moment was in 1965 when I visited a friend's house (I was 15). His dad had a Fisher receiver driving KLH 6's. The absence of that 'boomy' bass I was used to from my father's Silverstone console system was striking to me! I was hooked on the idea of acoustic suspension. It took me more than 30 years to accept that ported speakers could also be good!

mmole's picture

1965. Harpur College dormitory. Upgraded from the "suitcase" system I brought from home to the KLH mini system with the Garrard changer and small outboard speakers. Ten seconds into the first Sandy Bull album and I found a lifetime passion.

joe149's picture

My best friend's father had that KLH system - it was amazing!

bhkat's picture

Going with my dad to an audio store in Milwaukee in the late '70s listening to Dahlquist 10 speakers using GAS amplifiers. Thanks, and RIP dad.

MattJ's picture

Going over to a work buddy's house and hearing his Infinity R6000A's. First time I ever experienced "Holographic Imaging". He played a Car's track, and I was slackjawed. I could see the individual toms on the drumset, I could see that the bass player was in front of the drumset, etc. Extraordinary. And yes, I bought those Infinity's when he upgraded to Vandersteens lol.

hifijim's picture

In 1959 my father built a pair of Heathkit tube amps with a Garrard turntable to Utah and Alter speakers in home made cabinets. Probably not the greatest sound over all but it sure set my interest in audio. Fast forward to April 1974 I has saved up for several years and purchased a 1946 Piper J-5 airplane which was located in Hope, Arkansas. I was 23 and camped out at the airport waiting for the bank and FAA to finalize paperwork when a distinguished gentleman asks if I'd like to go flying with him in his plane. Turns out it was Paul Klipsch of Klipsch speaker company. After flying he invited me for a tour of his speaker factory followed by dinner at his home. The audio test system at his factory was the greatest sound that I had ever encountered to that day. I was totally hooked and enjoy two systems in my home using Klipsch Cornwall and Klipsch Forte speakers to this day.