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Monthly Archives

August 2014

From the Sublime(ly expensive) to the Ridiculous(ly cheap)

By | Anthony's Blog

–Nordost Valhalla 2 and ARCAM miniBlink–

Now that Summer is drawing to a close and we’re (hopefully!) starting to sell stuff again, thought I’d take a break from chronicling the challenges that face our industry. Instead, let’s discuss what the High End has always done well; namely, building fantastic, highly desirable products that have a positive influence upon our quality of life. There have been some incredible components introduced in the first half of 2014–the Leon OTO Powered Soundbar and PrimaLuna “HP” Amplifiers come to mind—but for me, the two most life-changing products of 2014 have been Nordost Valhalla 2 cables and the ARCAM miniBlink Bluetooth Streamer. Although these two items occupy opposite extremes of the price spectrum, both have contributed equally to my enjoyment of music.

Nordost V2: First of all, this is NOT a “Product Plug.” As many of you know, SSV no longer serves as Nordost’s Representative. The company has gone “Factory Direct” and so my comments here are as far from self-serving as could be. Fact is, however, these cables are so mind-blowingly good and have wrought such massive improvements to our Sim/Wisdom System that I’m compelled to share my findings with you. I’m still amazed at how often audio geeks—even hard-core ones—dismiss high performance cables as nothing more than “Tone Controls”. These simplistic statements might be true in the case of poorly engineered product, and there’s no doubt that many consumers use cables to “Band-Aid” the tonal balance of a problematic system, but I’ve always found that properly designed and engineered cables enhance a good system in many different ways. What if it were possible to prove that a given cable’s performance benefits had nothing to do with frequency and tonal balance?

Fortunately, an integral component of Wisdom Audio’s higher-level systems is a “Controller” which includes parametric equalization and Audyssey Pro digital room correction; as a result, it is possible to obtain in-room response curves, as we’ve regularly done with our Wisdom system. (Okay, Dylan has regularly done it…but I watched!!!) Last Tuesday, Dylan, Scott Campbell and I rewired the entire system—every analog and digital interconnect, every Power Cord and Speaker Cable—with Valhalla 2. When I tell you that EVERY aspect of audio performance improved, I’m not exaggerating: bass was simultaneously quicker and richer, trebles were silky yet ethereal, high- and low-level dynamics were more impactful, the noise floor pretty much vanished and sounds emerged from the deepest black background I’ve heard from this system, which also means that fine detail became much, much better resolved. Most impressively, however, the entire frequency spectrum—which, in this system, ranges from about 16Hz to 40kHz—was smoother, more cohesive and more apparently “Cut from the same sonic cloth.” No mean feat for a tri-amplified system! Incredibly, all of these improvements occurred without any change in frequency response whatsoever. Once and for all, we can disprove the assertion that cables are merely tone controls. Our system—always impressive in so many respects—has become so much more listenable and inviting that it has rekindled my 40-year love affair with HiFi.

Two days later, a renowned NY dealer visited for a demo and, after hearing the system, wound up acquiring one of our product lines. In the days since, I’ve found myself spending less time parked in front of the television and more time spinning CDs and Vinyl. No higher praise. Sure, at $7,599.99 MSRP per meter pair, V2 ain’t cheap. In the context of a “Major Statement” system, however, it might just be essential!

ARCAM miniBlink or, how I learned to stop worrying and love Computer Audio. Anyone who knows me understands that I’m pretty much clueless when it comes to computers. Which is part of the reason why ARCAM’s miniBlink is more than just a product: it is virtually a “Disruptive Technology,” a new and better means of connecting listeners to their music.

CSR, the company which developed the aptX audio codec for Bluetooth, is headquartered near ARCAM in the Cambridge suburbs, and the two companies’ engineers had discussed the possibility of a cooperating on a special product using CSR codecs and ARCAM’s knack for making things sound great. The result, many months later, was the rBlink, a compact aluminum ingot that streamed Bluetooth at a higher level of fidelity than was previously possible. ARCAM’s adaptation of Bluetooth technology boasts, in the miniBlink, 106dB Signal-to-Noise Ratio, 40dB Greater Signal-to-Noise Ratio than other companies achieve, hence the higher-end sound quality.

At $249 MSRP, the rBlink is a one of High End’s great modern products. At $149, the miniBlink is even better. True, you lose the antenna, and therefore a bit of reception range, and the absence of a digital output means you’re stuck with the excellent Burr-Brown 24-bit DAC that’s standard with ARCAM’s rSeries products; on the other hand, not only do you save 40% but the miniBlink is easier to use and has a form factor worthy of the MOMA’s Permanent Design Collection.

A black plastic egg measuring less than 2” at its largest dimension, the miniBlink slips easily into a pocket, a soft-touch button its only control. Pressing this button provides instant pairing with any Bluetooth-enabled device. miniBlink also happens to be one of the most durable High End components ever made, as we discovered when PAC’s Ralph Tarnofsky tossed it to an unsuspecting Dylan: the miniBlink skipped across Ralph’s conference table like a stone across a pond, then landed on the floor. It worked perfectly. (Kids, don’t try this at home!) Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay the miniBlink is that, in the two months since I installed one in my office, I haven’t played a single CD in that system and I don’t miss them.

Historically, periods of economic hardship inspire better products at lower prices: a sort of “Economic Darwinism.” As we finally start to come out of The Great Recession, we’re left with a host of superb new products—including the two discussed here—that prove the thesis.

Happy Labor Day from Specialty Sound & Vision!!!


Help Wanted

By | Anthony's Blog

Hiring the next generation of HiFi Salesmen

In the inaugural installment of this blog, “Where have all the audiophiles gone?” I asked who was going to buy the stuff we sell. The next question is: who’s going to sell it?

Walk into most Audio Salons and you’ll see a bunch of middle-aged guys—there are virtually no gals in HiFi—dressed in khaki slacks and golf shirts embroidered with store logos, clustered around the front counter. Most of them are college-educated, virtually all of them are “Lifers” in the HiFi industry but ALL of them have one thing in common: they all started out as audio hobbyists.

This sort of resume worked well for the first generation of High End salespeople: after all, enthusiasm sells! Back then, we had hundreds of customers lining up to buy gear, prices were reasonable, there was no internet competition and the customers, like the salespeople themselves, were Audio Geeks. There was both a kinship and a common viewpoint that made this salesman/client relationship work. This will not, I think, be the case in the future.

At SSV, we’ve seen an increasingly large proportion of our sales come from our most expensive products. These items are being purchased by wealthy professionals, so the salespeople who cater to these clients need to be just as professional. Audio knowledge, though essential, will be secondary to sales professionalism. As opposed to hobbyists, sales professionals will focus on making as much money as possible by promoting the best interests of the dealership and its brands first!

Going forward, salesmen must recommend products based upon the needs, desires and budgets of the customers, as well as the best interest of the dealer. In the past, a salesman developed a Love Affair with a particular component or brand and would therefore make “Blanket Recommendations,” advocating that product to everyone with whom he spoke, regardless of whether it made sense for the individual. We still see this silliness today: a salesman so focused upon selling a given item that everything else is neglected, or even denigrated. (Sales 101: NEVER bad-mouth a competitor!) What’s worse, we see salespeople underselling: spending a millionaire’s money as if it were their own…and leaving serious profit on the table! These aren’t just bad habits: they’re poor salesmanship! Imagine a doctor who wrote the same prescription for EVERY patient, regardless of the symptoms? Just like a doctor, the salesman will need to interview every customer to make an educated assessment of what products will satisfy each client’s requirements. Any other behavior is amateurish. It is an injustice to both customer and dealer and oh, by the way, it takes income out of the salesman’s pocket!

Even more importantly, salesmen need to exploit all of the programs and promotions offered by the dealer’s suppliers. If a vendor has a “Trade-Up Program,” EVERY relevant customer needs to know about it. Same thing if there’s a new product or a special deal. Again using SSV as an example, Simaudio offers a VERY generous Trade-Up Program: one-year at full MSRP, two years at 75%. Every Sim customer should be called 30 days prior to expiration of the offer. (You’d think that commission salespeople would know this without being told!) To our chagrin, Dylan and I keep hearing from customers who never heard about this offer! Two years ago, we started selling a $19K processor by Datasat (you probably know them better as DTS) and explained how dealers could pluck “Low-hanging fruit” by calling all of their past theater customers and pitching the new processor. To this point, only Lyric has done this. Funny thing here is that Lyric salespeople aren’t paid commission! They’re just behaving professionally.

Almost every day on the road—especially during Summer—I’ll walk into a dealer and hear the salesmen moaning about how bad business is, how little money they’re making, etc., etc. And yet, rather than complaining, if those same salesmen worked the phones and took advantage of all of the “Calls to action”—cash spiffs, points for product, trade-in/trade-up programs—provided by their vendors, they’d be generating serious cash!

Lately, I’ve encountered a couple of young, money-motivated salespeople. They dress better, know less about HiFi, more about selling, come to work every day with a game plan, spend less time kibitzing and complaining, more time on the phone and they treat everyone who walks through the door as a serious opportunity to promote their store…and themselves. Do I need to tell you they’re making money?

The streets really ARE paved with gold, guys…reach out and grab it!