High-End Audio: Demo or Die!

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High-End Audio: Demo or Die!

Demo or Die!

Robert Harley

“Publish or perish” is a well-known phrase in the academic world—if your work isn’t published in professional journals, your career will perish. The high-end audio industry should adopt a parallel mantra—“demo or die.” That is, the only way for high-end audio to thrive is to demonstrate, to one customer at a time, the joy of hearing music wonderfully reproduced.

There’s simply no substitute for hearing your favorite music recreated with an involvement and intensity you never thought possible. The demo allows you to instantly “get” what high-end audio is all about, a phenomenon I’ve written about previously (“Ten Minutes in the Sweet Spot”). Hearing descriptions of high-end audio, reading magazines, or looking at pictures of great gear will never begin to convey that electrifying experience of connecting with music at a deeper level. I’ll bet that every one of you vividly remembers your first high-end experience and the resulting epiphany. You instantly knew that you had to have the gear that would, for the rest of your life, deliver that thrilling experience night after night.

The fact that there’s no way for music lovers to discover our hobby or for manufacturers to find new customers other than by demonstration leads to the inescapable conclusion that the high-end audio retailer is the lynchpin of the entire industry. It’s the retailer who’s on the front-line representing high-performance audio, and who is essential to its survival.

The retailer isn’t just vital to the industry’s health—he’s also the surest path to your long-term musical satisfaction. There’s no substitute for the value added by a skilled and caring dealer. When I’m asked for specific equipment recommendations my advice always begins with “Shop for a dealer, not for equipment.” That aphorism reflects my belief that if you find a great dealer, you’ll end up with a great-sounding system.

It’s no secret that high-end dealers have had a rough time over the past ten years. The first blow to the industry came, ironically, in the form of home theater. Many traditional dealers were tempted by the huge influx of money from homeowners wanting “media rooms,” and whole-house audio, lighting, and control systems. Sound quality was a distant afterthought. Many traditional high-end dealers who entered that arena found that the hassles outweighed the gains. Others were dissatisfied with being gadget purveyors rather than ambassadors for music and high-end audio ideals. The second blow, of course, is the current economy.

Nonetheless, there’s been a resurgence in the traditional values long espoused by high-end retailers. Many who converted their store’s two-channel listening rooms into theater demo rooms have switched them back to music rooms. Those who maintained their core principles of delivering great sound, operating from a position of integrity, and basing their business on musical values have found their companies thriving. This trend is part of a larger movement away from trophy theater rooms and back to the fundamental values of the musical experience. Performance-based audio, and the musical involvement it delivers, is ascending as customers tire of the shallowness of remote-controlled lighting and whole-house in-wall speakers. Music is a universal human need that transcends the latest technological fad.

There are many outstanding high-end retailers whom we should all recognize and support. They’ve made a substantial investment to provide their unique expertise and to offer you the ability to audition products. We intend to spotlight these exceptional retailers in the coming months by publishing profiles of the country’s best dealers. In the meantime, I encourage you to develop a long-term mutually beneficial relationship with your local dealer. You’ll not only end up with better sound in your home, but you’ll be supporting the essential vehicle that brings the high-end audio experience to a new generation of music lovers.

(I invite everyone to post your nominations for the country's best high-end retailers.)