Hi-Fi Retailing: The Avid Audiophile's Advisory

I hate hi-fi stores.

Even after years of intensive Small Business Therapy, it appears my audemporiphobia will remain a destructive, debilitating syndrome (after all, I make my living selling to these places).

For maximum therapeutic effect I shall not presume with this article merely to perpetuate a manufacturer's biases; I confess to having owned a hi-fi store at one time, and working years as a salesperson in another; this message is directed at the music-loving consumer rather than at the few sincere and knowledgeable audio merchants, or the (regrettably larger) quantity of carnival barkers masquerading as same.

At the outset, I must reveal certain sympathies with the proprietors of high-quality audio outlets; this is no easy business. Merely the selection of inventory is a daunting process. For example, 300 brands of loudspeakers are available domestically, offering in excess of 1500 models. Small wonder that our retailer has clogged his sales floor with systems that were in vogue only a month or three ago, but now stand orphaned by their erstwhile champions, the critics. Audio retailers are besieged almost to distraction by clamoring sales reps, deep-fringe consumers, and ever-changing magazine recommendations; forgive them for less than startled enthusiasm when you appear at their doorstep demanding a brand they cannot carry, or lack the space to demonstrate adequately.

And my oh my, look at those prices. Individual components securing five figures are no rarity, nor are complete systems costing six. Discounts may well be impossible to find, particularly in the high-rent districts the best outlets often inhabit: this industry works on a margin of 40% from retail, dealer cost, and overhead frequently gobbles 25 to 30% of that cushion. During slow season, even the established high-ender who advertises nationally may experience a crunch or worse. Small suppliers such as myself therefore learn to regard the merchant's business check not as a solemn promise to pay, but as rather a kind of personalized sweepstakes ticket where one indeed may not already be a winner. Whenever I read favorable press comment on an esoteric product followed by the caveat "poor distribution" or "limited availability," I sympathize mightily with its maker: often as not, this is a man who insists on payment in advance from his customers.

Still, the dedicated audiophile has little choice, and often ends up patronizing the modern, metropolitan, storefront salon staffed by salespeople whose demeanor suggests they know more than you do. And they speak a language all their own: "Say, can I interest you in our new Groovedigger phono cartridge? Happy Earson gives it three stars in the $5000-and-up category! No? Well howbout these great 'CD' interconnects from Wiredwire!" ('CD' means 'Certificate of Deposit'! "J. Meter Pontiff says they got the most Intransigent Silence he's ever heard!" etc., etc. Pause not to ponder who or what they're talking about; search for the main soundroom, recognized by picture-window walls and a phalanx of loudspeakers arrayed therein like Space Invaders.

Enter and shut the door; you will need a few minutes to yourself. In these contemplative moments, a flash of insight impacts my retail-proof psyche: this room is why I don't like hi-fi stores!! It is here that music is mangled, good brands can sound worse than bad ones, and what you hear is definitely not what you get. So let us do something about it. Fortunately, you prepared for your visit by bringing such necessities as handtruck, hammer and nails, marking pen, masking tape, your favorite records, and about 30 lengths of hookup wire 6" long, with alligator clips on each end. Before starting to listen, I want you to make a few alterations for the sake of musical accuracy and an informed buying decision. Here's what to do:

Find a comfortable chair and place it in the rear third of the room, near the signal source. Clear the wall behind you of superfluous items and take down any damping material you find there. Roll up rug so that it stops well in front of your chair, leaving you sitting on wood or concrete. Move all loudspeakers (handtruck!) except the pair you intend to audition, and stack on the wall behind. As you do so, attach the jumper cables you have brought across the input terminals of each system, shorting them out. Make tall, irregular columns and stack the speakers so that they face each other on the rear wall. Leave occasional 3" to 8" gaps between columns and place planar speakers on edge, perpendicular to the wall.

That's much better. Now, take the damping material (Sonex, fiberglass panels) removed from the listening end and use hammer and nails to affix it to walls and ceiling of the speaker end of the room. If necessary, ask the salesman for more damping material to cover these surfaces fully. Position the speakers to be audited at favorable spots in the damped area (some hints: dipoles belong almost in the center of the room, as far apart as they are from the side walls; box systems with rear-firing vents need a back wall no more than 3' away; minimonitors need baffled stands high enough that their woofers are at seated ear level); mark the best placement with your masking tape and write the system name on the tape with the marker. Repeat with each system of interest, returning the pair not in use to the stack behind you.

Congratulations: You have transformed one of the world's notoriously bad listening environments, a dealer showroom, into an acoustically correct live-end/dead-end complete with diffusor grating on the rear wall! Be cautioned that store personnel might not fully appreciate the magnitude of your accomplishment. Should anyone object, refer them to me, and I'll do my best to have your bail reduced.

The failings of the mainstream audio dealer have led to the proliferation of a curious but viable alternative: the one-man outlet selling name-brand sound from his living room. Lacking funds to purchase an army of boxes, this fellow displays usually only one or two speaker systems. The listening space is generally treated to flatter their output. The owner often lacks the financial wherewithal to demand or receive credit. Many small manufacturers offer their wares exclusively through such outlets. If your product interest is represented by such a fellow, give him a fair try; listening impressions in such homey places can be more revealing of the true sound of the equipment than the big store's demo room, even if suitably modified as per the above. If you hear something you really like, take it home for a test audition, for as long as the poor retailer's patience permits.

It would appear our 50-minute hour has expired; enough for today. In any case, I hear my faithful ethnic sidekick/credit manager, Kato, yelling that the buyer from the big Egregious Audio chain is on the horn again, asking 10% ever/net forever terms, six months' free flooring, and 90-days-same-as-cash. Now, if I can just find the detonator button on my fax machine...

Footnote: Author Brian Cheney, when not busy making his VMPS loudspeakers somewhere in Northern California, recommends "Louie the Brick" Collection Services after 60 days.