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Audiophilia Is A Messy Hobby- How Build It And They Will Come Doesn’t Work In AV Retail

by Jerry Del Colliano December 03, 2021
Build it and they will come AV Retail

Build it and they will come AV Retail

The audiophilia business done right might not be that luxury oriented despite the hobby’s alternate name of high-end audio. Oh, not to say the prices aren’t high for audiophile gear. The finishes as well as some of the technologies for the gear can be exotic, but is this really a luxury goods business or something else?

1-Brioni-Store-BH

3-B&W-803dsYears of experimentation with “build it and they will come” audio-video showrooms suggest that the hobby/business of audiophilia has never translated well in the lexicon of overall luxury goods. In terms of quality, what is the difference between say a Hermes “Kelly Bag”, a bespoke Brioni suit or say a pair of 800 Series Bowers + Wilkins speakers in an exotic finish? They are all expensive, time-tested products that all have a bit of design appeal outside of their core audiences. The way (and the venue) that they are sold are very different. Hermes, sadly even on Rodeo Drive (and they should know better) still has that “Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman” level of snobbery. Their gorgeous leather goods, textiles and beyond are sold with an ever-present limited edition exclusivity that one might expect to get from say Ferrari when it is time to invite collectors to buy an F70. Buy it or we will sell it to the next guy. That rarely happens at a good audiophile retail location.

Brioni has the craftsmanship and unique tailoring to make even overweight, orange-tinged former world leaders look halfway decent in ways that the best golf clothes can’t. They would never exude the same level of “buy it or somebody else will” like Hermes, but like the French leather goods brand, Brioni delivers a beyond slick customer experience. If you are a good client, they are apt to pour you a $100 few-fingers-full of good scotch while you are getting uniquely fitted for your next suit or picking out all of its accessories, be it shirts, ties, belts etc… That might happen at an audiophile store if the owner is an enthusiast but stores built with the sleek lines, spectacularly gorgeous lighting and wow factor are historically proven to be rejected by the enthusiast audio crowd.

How does the sale of audiophile products compare to these other luxury goods-products? Audio enthusiasts aren’t looking for the same experience delivered to date even though retailers around the world have replicated it over and over. For decades, there have been global efforts to build showrooms that can deliver the luxury as well as the technological story of audio. And nearly every one of them I can think of has failed at some level or another. I moved to Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago and worked at the legendary Christopher Hansen Ltd. in Beverly Hills towards the end of its run as a retail location. Indonesian royalty funded building a massive audiophile and home theater emporium in the old Rolls Royce showroom on Olympic Boulevard around 1990, this was to replace the messy, clutters and all-time uber-successful showroom up the road on Robertson Boulevard which saw more big ticket audio products sold than perhaps any other venue in audiophile history. When the new, award-winning, stunningly beautiful location opened, the audiophiles stopped coming. In droves. Yes, there was a post-cold-war military-inspired economic recession, but that wasn’t the issue. The issue was that the new store was too fancy. Cables were hidden in ducts. Showrooms were fantastically back-lit with Hollywood drama with the presentation quality you’d expect on Rodeo Drive, Fifth Avenue or Les Champs Elysée. It put off audiophiles irrecoverably.

Others have tried the build it and they will come retail model for audio. The store that I grew up learning about true high-end audio was called SoundEx. Like Hansen’s, they sold close to everything audio. Every brand, even ones that directly competed like Krell and Mark Levinson or Transparent and MIT cables. They did their sales from a dumpy house in a somewhat retail location near the Pennsylvania Turnpike outside of Philadelphia. In their heyday, they had a community of buyers from all over the area that would congregate over piles of rare Mobile Fidelity CDs, recently printed copies of The Absolute Sound and talk about the hobby on any given Saturday morning. They had the most high end gear tucked somewhere in the location and stuff that mainstream people could afford in this packed-to-the-gills retail dump and it was great. People from Manhattan would rent a car and come to the suburbs of Philadelphia to get the same discounts that they could have gotten in the Big Apple but the unspoken secret was that they were also looking to save on New York sales tax. That made SoundEx a juggernaut back then. The only problem is that SoundEx’s owners didn’t understand that value proposition. Long after the lesson of Chris Hansen and packing a warning from me, they built a 26 room, two-story showroom that had everything. Everything but video in the era of $10,000 plus plasmas that sold like hotcakes. Their community eroded despite having everything audio under one roof and displayed wonderfully. The New York people bought more in New York or from dealers with lower overhead (think: more margin to give away). SoundEx went out of business in pretty short order after that.

4-WorldofMcIntosh

How Do We Attract  New Blood to the Audio Hobby?

Beer GartenIn the more modern era, The McIntosh showroom in So Ho is a very cool place if you’ve never been there. It is a somewhat hidden New York City gem that is worthy of making an appointment to experience. They’ve got the best in audio and state-of-the-art home theater and 4K video on display in the most chill, supercool location. Yet somehow the showroom seems to be sustainable more than creative office space and specifically as Lower Manhattan event space. Other globally known retailers in the heart of the audiophile world simply can’t turn enough top-line revenue to have ground-level retail stores. They are moving higher and higher up into second floor (or higher) spaces that have smaller rents but have little to no walk-in traffic.

In effect, the audiophile hobby presents itself like a luxury goods product, but it plays out something else. Perhaps audiophiles are hunting down a passion project or they view the hobby more like a unique religion. Each audiophile is on an (often non-scientific) journey to find what sounds best to them or what other people think sound best for them. Used gear has been and plays an increasingly important role to the hobby. Presenting the best of the latest technology in a glamorous setting is historically proven not to be as important.

So, where do we go from here? Successful audiophile locations in more affordable “retail” locations seemingly are the future of AV retail. Perhaps they aren’t retail locations at all? You need room to highlight what the best of audio and video can do and that’s crazy expensive in the world’s most well-known locations. Looking at Sunny Components east of Downtown Los Angeles, I see a warehouse-like location that sells some of the best products in a very approachable way that isn’t too offensive to the remaining core audience of audiophiles. Smaller, multi-purpose stores like boutique bookstores, craft beer gardens and other more off-beat locations are uniquely good for promoting new, younger audiences into entry level gear. If you sold beer for a few bucks a pint, wouldn’t you like to make the occasional $1,000 audiophile system sale? The industry would benefit from another nationwide retail option such as the one that Circuit City offered, yet you will notice nobody stepped into that now decade-old void.

The lack of new blood in the hobby is going to demand that there is more and more creativity in terms of how the future of the audiophile business plays out. The COVID-inspired lack of audiophile shows isn’t helping matters much. The lack of regional and national chains of AV isn’t good either. The great hope is that the Millennial generation, who loves music perhaps more than any before it, will embrace higher end “performance audio” as they late-bloom into home ownership and delve deeper into technology.

 

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Recent Forum Posts:

Am_P posts on January 04, 2022 20:51
Bucknekked, post: 1529730, member: 81008
Specialty & high-end audio will most likely die with us old guys: well, there's a cheerful thought. I have expressed that same thought many times so I'm not arguing. We are all enamored of a hobby that most of us have been unable to pass on to our younger friends and family. Maybe it's a hobby because of the time and place we lived through from the 1950's onward. For those coming along much later, there just isn't the hobby appeal. I'm not sure of the why. But I do think it's a dying hobby from a longevity point of view. I certainly enjoy it as much as I ever have. But it's not catching on like it used to “back in the day”.

It comes down to a “point of reference”, which many younger music lovers may not usually have. I only even got into audio because i had the privilege of listening to my “audiophile” old man's $$$$$ gear growing up. When I was a teen, I would go anywhere else outside of the house, listen to music and immediately come to the reality of “why the hell does this sound so terrible….i better run back to the old man's gear at home”…I am eternally grateful to the old man for sharing his gear with me. But, most younger people of today (guys in my age group) may not have that kind of exposure/point of reference (i think) to be able to appreciate high end gear and how freaking good it can sound. They or my friends at the least all seem to appreciate music though…. just as much as me or any other generation before them…

Here's an experiment i conducted on my “non-audiophile” wife's work from home PC audio setup (she listens to music all day while she's working). I plugged a dragonfly DAC in her PC without her knowledge and let her listen to it for a couple of months. I then took it away for a couple of days. All of a sudden, my “non audiophile” wife starts complaining that her music sounds like sht and something's wrong with her computer!! This is why the idea of instantaneous A/B switching to compare gear does not work with many test subjects. A listener needs enough time to really soak in a piece of audio equipment before they can recognize/acknowledge a change in the quality of sound….
Bucknekked posts on January 03, 2022 17:51
Am_P, post: 1529696, member: 96697
- Technological advancements have made modestly priced audio gear sound very good for the younger audiophile.
- The younger generation doesn't have much as much spare change or safety nets as the previous generation did.
- Specialty/High-end audio will most probably die with the guys who are currently 60 and above, 50 and above, if pushing it. A simple observation of attendee age groups at shows like RMAF should be all the confirmation high end audio needs (to know that its days are numbered).
3 Succinct observations that I think all have some validity.
Technology today has indeed put great sound within reach at modest prices. If great sound is the goal, one doesn't need to spend huge or even large sums. If being ostentatious is the goal, well, that's a different story.

The differences between generations and their spending money are up for discussion. I don't know how anyone can accurately quantify that but it makes for a nice discussion at least.

Specialty & high-end audio will most likely die with us old guys: well, there's a cheerful thought. I have expressed that same thought many times so I'm not arguing. We are all enamored of a hobby that most of us have been unable to pass on to our younger friends and family. Maybe it's a hobby because of the time and place we lived through from the 1950's onward. For those coming along much later, there just isn't the hobby appeal. I'm not sure of the why. But I do think it's a dying hobby from a longevity point of view. I certainly enjoy it as much as I ever have. But it's not catching on like it used to “back in the day”.
Am_P posts on January 03, 2022 15:08
- Technological advancements have made modestly priced audio gear sound very good for the younger audiophile.
- The younger generation doesn't have much as much spare change or safety nets as the previous generation did.
- Specialty/High-end audio will most probably die with the guys who are currently 60 and above, 50 and above, if pushing it. A simple observation of attendee age groups at shows like RMAF should be all the confirmation high end audio needs (to know that its days are numbered).
panteragstk posts on January 03, 2022 15:05
Danzilla31, post: 1529692, member: 85700
I've had that experience before but never in that store. It's why I was do shocked but my dealer Mike and me had a really good relationship and this was my first attempt to speak to a new sales person after his retirement

Still willing to go speak to a supervisor and see if we can work something out one bad experience in over 15 years of good ones I'm not willing just to throw that relationship away just yet

I agree. I just wonder how much of this is “douchy sales guy” and how much management is telling him to push certain stuff. All up to the salesman how to push the stuff though, and this dude didn't do it right. Making a customer that angry isn't acceptable. He should have sensed you getting pissed and offered up other solutions, even if he doesn't agree.

I'll never understand how sales people can be so bad at sales. It's pretty simple to just find a solution for the customer that fits their budget and makes them happy. Assuming folks are like you and are actually reasonable customers.

Now, if you'd gone in and said you want the best you can get, but don't want to spend more than $500 out the door (including install) I probably wouldn't have spent a lot of time with you as a sales person, but that's not what happened.

Stuff like this just irritates me.
Danzilla31 posts on January 03, 2022 14:48
panteragstk, post: 1529690, member: 61217
Sounds like what I've dealt with in the past from high end shops. One in DFW told me that the Dali line in their demo room was the only speaker they had that would satisfy my tastes. Sure dude, whatever. He also said Mac amps were the only thing good they sold. He didn't like it when I asked him why they had other brands if they were all so bad.

My one and only venture into that shop.
I've had that experience before but never in that store. It's why I was do shocked but my dealer Mike and me had a really good relationship and this was my first attempt to speak to a new sales person after his retirement

Still willing to go speak to a supervisor and see if we can work something out one bad experience in over 15 years of good ones I'm not willing just to throw that relationship away just yet
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