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Anthony’s Audio Asylum # 2

By | Anthony's Blog

Nobody loves an In-Wall.

No aspiring rock star ever says: “When I become rich and famous, I’m going to snag a pair of mediocre speakers that I can cut into my wall, paint over and ignore.”  World-class audio is the stuff of dreams, yet it becomes ever more difficult for qualified customers to buy it.

Back in the 1980s, Cerwin-Vega’s ad slogan was: “Life in order of importance-Food, Shelter, and a Pair of Very Loud Speakers.  “Those were the days! In the system-design articles I wrote during my freelance days, I routinely simplified the speaker selection process with the quote, “speakers make sound by moving air.”  The more air you want to move, the bigger the speaker (and/or drivers) needed. During my stint as Automotive Editor at Maxim, I often borrowed the phrase, “there’s no replacement for displacement,” which explains the direct relationship between power and engine size. What these auto and audio examples have in common is that you can’t cheat the laws of physics: if you want more horsepower, you need a bigger engine; if you want more bass or sound pressure, you need a bigger loudspeaker.

During the twenty-three years since I started Specialty Sound and Vision, no component category has changed as dramatically as Loudspeakers. Before the 90s, most consumers bought box-type speakers, either Towers or Monitors, after visiting a local HiFi store, consulting with a salesman, auditioning multiple models and choosing the speaker best suited to their taste.

Those days are gone. Few customers visit HiFi stores anymore, in part because there are ever-fewer stores and in part because purchasing behavior has changed. In the past, great sound was a priority and those individuals able to afford top-notch equipment would actively seek out the best gear: visiting dealers, reading magazines and soliciting expert advice. Nowadays, most affluent buyers abdicate their “sound decisions” to decorators or architects whose product choices are determined by visual impact or, more precisely, lack thereof. One of the largest integrators in our territory told us that Invisibles comprised eighty percent of their speaker sales and the best-selling models from virtually every speaker company—even High End ones—are architectural.

During my life in audio, loudspeakers have marched the “Trail of tears” from Tower, to Bookshelf, to In-Wall, to In-Ceiling and finally…Invisibles. At every step of the journey, sound suffered, to the point where today’s standard “Millionaire’s System” is at once more expensive and worse-sounding than those of two decades ago.

Don’t get me wrong, HiFi equipment has steadily improved and if we’re comparing “Apples to Apples” there are compelling sonic improvements to be had in the latest gear. Problem is, we’ve moved from Analog to Digital to Bluetooth, from Tubes to Transistors to ICs, from Towers to Bookshelves to In-walls to Invisibles. Convenience, installation-friendliness and domestic acceptability have skyrocketed…at the expense of performance.

So, here we are in the twenty first century, at a time when High End Audio has realized its ultimate expression, hawking a bunch of wimpy, low-performance products which condemn consumers to the sonic stone-age. Designers and architects seem contemptuous of High End Audio. Customers—and we’ve witnessed this—request great sound, only to have performance beaten down by designers who couldn’t care less about performance. End users still care. We recently met with a music-loving “Master of the Universe” who hired Elvis Costello and Joan Jett to play his birthday party. After his integrator spec-ed and installed a house full of invisibles, the fellow called his salesman, screaming “Get this shit out of my house NOW!!!” As I write this, Leon President Noah Kaplan is custom-designing bespoke speakers that will combine luxury aesthetics with the performance this customer demands.

Big bland boxes precipitated the downfall of in-room loudspeakers and the rise of architectural alternatives. Think back to your Large Advent, Acoustic Research AR-3a or KLH Nine from the late 70s: pretty sloppy, in retrospect, and certainly nothing one would proudly display in a modern living room. Now, think about the latest Wilson Wamm, Maarten Coltrane, EgglestonWorks Viginti, etc. These are gorgeous, intricately-shaped objects which radiate quality and exclusivity…and that’s before you turn them on! High End speakers can be as sculpturally stunning as they are sonically sublime. They can be objects of profound pride and admiration, if we can only convince designers to spec them and integrators to sell them.

The central point is this: big speakers can be beautiful. They don’t disappear the way architectural and invisibles do…and that’s the point! If we accept that a speaker will be seen, we can choose something that looks as special as it sounds, enhancing décor instead of competing with it. I’ve spoken to a couple of “heavy-hitter” architects and there is genuine enthusiasm for integrating large, high-performance speakers into the design of high end living spaces. For integrators, the margin from a single pair of “Statement” loudspeakers easily exceeds the profit of a dozen pairs of Architecturals.
Better quality for the consumer, more profit for the dealer and a design showcase for the architect. Everyone wins. All that remains is for dealers to initiate a return to performance….

Yours,
Anth

Anthony’s Audio Asylum # 1

By | Anthony's Blog

Six Reasons Why High End Audio Is a “Sound Investment”?

As a professional writer, I hate clichés. So, why did I use one to title this blog? Because there really is enduring value in a great two-channel audio system. Let’s be precise here: I’m talking about a discrete stereo system with, at the minimum, a high-performance amplifier and a pair of top-quality loudspeakers. Anyone who has purchased Home Theater, “Distributed Audio” or whole-house control and AV systems has suffered the sharp depreciation to which each of these purchases is subject. A “Super Stereo,” on the other hand, holds its value over decades of ownership and certain components will actually increase in value. So, why does two-channel gear hold its value while other media products don’t? I think there are a few reasons:

Reason #1: The Stereo Format hasn’t changed in decades. Buy a Home Theater processor and it’s a safe bet that (with the exception of software-upgradeable products such as Trinnov) it will be obsolete, within two years. Fact is, multichannel formats change more quickly than a chameleon on a patchwork quilt (OK, another cliché) and, perhaps by design, the gear just can’t keep up with the algorithms. Buy an expensive projector and it will be surpassed just as quickly, and at a lower price. Control systems are even worse, as lower pricing and higher sophistication are the driving force of that market segment. Stereo, on the other hand, is pretty much the same as it was in the 1970s, and much for the gear from back then is still utilized and cherished today. There’s something to be said for stability.

Reason #2: It’s never going to get much better than it is today. Decades of relentless refinement have brought solid state electronics, Digital-to-Analog Converters—even record players—to a state of near perfection. Whereas past generations obsessed about future “Mk II versions” which solved a host of sonic and reliability issues, today’s components embody the excellence of Swiss watches. Buyers’ Remorse has become a non-issue.

Reason #3: The best pieces become classics. Audio geeks know that McIntosh and Marantz components from the “Golden Age” of HiFi have skyrocketed in value, but those aren’t the only audio products with investment potential. Have you searched ebay for classic receivers? A Marantz 2600 from the late ‘70s (about one grand new) recently sold for over $6250 and most similar-vintage Pioneer, Sansui, Yamaha, Technics and Kenwood Receivers and Integrated Amplifiers are selling for several times their original MSRP while Open-Reel Tape Decks, Technics “Broadcast Series” Direct-Drive Turntables, original Mark Levinson electronics and NOS Telefunken, Western Electric and Mullard Tubes appreciate like fine wine.

Reason #4: Prices of new gear keep rising. In 1978, the Audio Research SP-6B—widely considered the best preamplifier available—retailed for $1,295. Forty years later, $15K is the de facto standard for a world-class preamp while flagship models from Simaudio, D’Agostino, MAC and, of course, ARC now flirt with $40-grand. Six-figure Monoblocks have become commonplace, as have speaker systems in excess of $500,000. As prices escalate, you can be confident that the gear you buy today will look like a bargain in 10 years.

Reason #5: Rich people crave it. Let’s face it, there wouldn’t be so many exquisite and expensive products hitting the market if there weren’t customers to buy them. A state-of-the-art stereo system might not have the ubiquitous snob appeal of a Ferrari or Patek-Phillippe but there are certainly a group of wealthy connoisseurs who chase the best gear and, as a result, have become not only the patrons of our industry but also the catalysts for higher-budget gear. Expect this trend to continue.

Reason #6: It delivers continual joy. Most exotic cars sit in garages and are driven infrequently, Ultra-luxe watches are worn on special occasions. Even a home theater is only utilized when the owner can devote two hours of uninterrupted viewing time. By contrast, a great HiFi is used and appreciated daily, not only as an end in itself but as a backdrop for parties and other activities, both social and solitary. How many discretionary purchases can provide infinite pleasure?


Completely aside from its appreciation potential, a fine sound system is one of the most rewarding indulgences available, and among the most decadent. Trying to decide how to spend your next bonus? I have a few suggestions….

Yours,
Anth

 

 

“Teach Your Salesmen Well”

By | Anthony's Blog

“Teach Your Salesmen Well”

Why Manufacturers Need Product Training Programs

It has been a few months since I’ve posted a blog but Friday night, during a two-hour conversation with Richard Vandersteen, I was inspired. (Richard has a way of inspiring people!) We were talking about the fact that finally, after eight miserable years, 2-channel business seems to be making a comeback. Problem is, most of the old-time salesmen with a deep understanding of sound and equipment have either retired or uhhmmm… died. And since the audio business has been on life support for the past few years, dealers haven’t exactly been offering vast sums of money to entice a new generation of qualified HiFi salesmen.

As a result, we’re now confronted with a situation whereby consumers once again want to buy high end audio but there aren’t many individuals qualified to sell it. As the remaining “Old Guard” retailers (…and hopefully a few new ones!) gear up to court a new crop of stereo customers, they’re going to have to staff their showrooms with salespeople. But, since HiFi is, at best, an “Esoteric” discipline, the salespeople with which we’re likely to wind up might be experienced at selling Luxury Goods—cars, watches, pens—but know as much about High End Audio as I do about brevity.

It’s too late for us to do much about it: the industry didn’t incentivize educated young men and women to become professional High End salesmen, so we just don’t have any. Instead, we can draw from a pool of well-groomed, well-spoken luxury goods hawkers, most of whom have never owned a great HiFi and even fewer of whom know what makes a HiFi great. The challenge becomes training these newbies so that their audio knowledge approaches their sales ability.

So, who’s going to train these guys? Dealers will have to provide some instruction, magazines will be helpful and the customers themselves will offer guidance but it won’t be enough. And then, it occurred to me: this is the ideal opportunity for manufacturers to offer training as a means of gaining an advantage on their dealers’ sales floors!

In terms of audio knowledge, these “New Recruits” are a blank sheet upon which manufacturers can write their stories…and boost their sales. Let’s say a dealer offers three brands of loudspeakers. If only one of those three vendors offers sales training, you can bet that—all things being equal—the brand that trains will sell best. Dealers will welcome this service, as their training resources have always been marginal (dealers have historically hired enthusiasts who came to the industry with strong product knowledge). Problem is, very few manufacturers have developed comprehensive training programs. This should be easy enough to remedy and the benefits, as described, are obvious.

The lesson here is simple: product training is good business. The first vendors to develop training programs will be the most successful. Let’s get to work!

All The Best Salesmen Are “Phone-y”

By | Anthony's Blog

Remember when we called it “The Information Superhighway?”

The internet has revolutionized the way we live, as well as the way we do business but, for all of its advantages, the internet has atrophied the skills of our salespeople. This problem became apparent last week while I was chatting with one of our dealer’s salesmen. It was a gorgeous day in Manhattan, so the streets were jammed but the store was empty. One of the guys, an industry veteran, was bemoaning the lack of business. “How am I supposed to make a living?” he complained. I looked around the sales floor which was entirely empty except for two salespeople, both of whom were web-surfing, and replied “Well, why don’t you call some of your “Regulars,” ask them how they’re enjoying their systems and invite them to check out some of your newest product arrivals?”

From the look on his face, you’d swear I asked the guy to lend me money.

“I don’t have time for that,” he shrieked. I pointed out that the store was empty and he was, in fact, doing nothing. “I don’t want to hassle my customers,” he countered, “Besides, the owner sends out e-mail blasts whenever something new arrives.”

Where do I begin? First of all, salesmen aren’t “Hassling” their customers by placing the occasional call. Good salesmen in every industry constantly work their regulars and, so long as they’re not continually pushing for sales and asking for money, customers appreciate the personal attention. More worrisome is the comment about e-mail blasts. We’re quickly becoming a world wherein any sort of spoken communication is being replaced by e-mail. Whatever you think about this from a social interaction standpoint, it’s a terrible business decision.

Much as e-mails are an indispensable means of communicating detailed information to large groups, they’re NOT a replacement for phone calls. We know that e-mails are only opened by a small percentage of recipients, even fewer actually read them and a still smaller group takes action. On the other hand, phone calls have a very high rate of success. The downside? Whereas hundreds of clients can be reached with a single blast, phone calls are time- and labor-intensive, as each client must be phoned individually; in other words, phoning one’s customers requires effort and, sadly, I see fewer and fewer salespeople willing to expend that sort of effort. Of course, they have no problem complaining about not making money.

If you think this is an indictment of AV salesmen, you’re wrong. It’s an indictment of their superiors! This sort of behavior couldn’t exist were it not tolerated by store owners. When I worked at Harvey in the early ‘90s, salesmen were required to make regular phone calls, usually with some sort of “Call to action” to intrigue our customers. And it worked! I want to say that most of the guys added 10-15% to their income during the slow Summer months and, since the store was “Dead,” we didn’t ignore a single customer. Thing is, if my Store Manager hadn’t forced me, I wouldn’t have made a single call! I wouldn’t have made that extra money, either.

The moral of the story: Bosses, plan a series of meaningful messages and make your salespeople execute. You’ll all be happier!

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