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Anthony’s Blog

Anthony’s Blog – April 2020

By | Anthony's Blog

“I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it.”
(Or, how a cast iron pan inspired me to fire up my tube amps.)

Mae West probably never realized how well her innuendo explains the correlation between “High Maintenance” and “High Performance”

I realized this the other day while searing steaks.

When it comes to cooking, I’m a total gearhead. Over the years, I’ve collected dozens of pieces of cookware, many of which, clad in stainless steel, enamel or hard-anodized aluminum, are virtually maintenance-free and cost more than a turntable. But last week, when I wanted to prepare two insanely expensive USDA Prime Ribeyes, I dug out the cheapest pan in my arsenal: a cast iron skillet purchased decades ago for less than $20. In a kitchen packed with pricey pots, this slimy skillet is the ugly duckling: wrapped in plastic, slathered in vegetable oil and crusted by years of high temperature cooking, the thing weighs a ton, takes forever to heat and demands fastidious maintenance. In short, this pan is a pain. So why do I bother?

Anyone who knows cast iron knows that, for preparing a pricey piece of meat or any recipe that requires consistent cooking temperature, no other material comes close; for this reason, experienced chefs suffer the masochistic rituals of care and cleaning demanded by these cheap, ugly vessels. Which brings me to the audio business….

SSV’s offices adjoin our demo room, which houses complete hybrid, tube and transistor stereo systems. Dylan and I typically have background music playing all day and, to keep things simple, our solid state rig is powered-up continually, fed by Qobuz streaming through a world-class DAC and driving one or another pair of statement speakers. Sounds pretty damn fine, especially given the low levels at which we typically listen. Frankly, considering the long hours we spend in the office and the coddling which tubes require, I hadn’t stoked the valve rig in weeks. Until I seared those steaks….

If it had been two months since I connected my tube gear, it had been three since I last grabbed my cast iron skillet…long enough to have forgotten its capability and be amazed by it. After my steak experience, I sought one after another recipe which played to cast iron’s strengths. Not even the annoyances of cleaning and re-seasoning could diminish the mouthwatering memories of charred asparagus, potatoes au gratin and skillet cornbread. Thoughts of which, strangely enough, compelled me to fire up the tube amps.

As with the skillet, music played through the tube system proved an epiphany: bigger soundstage, more fleshed-out images, richer tonal colors, more detailed timbres, well, you get it. Of course, there was the half-hour warm-up, the need (read: compulsion) to check tube bias and all the other chores which had prompted me to embrace solid state in the first place. Eventually, these drudgeries will probably coax me back to transistors but for the moment, I was falling in love with HiFi all over again, so much so that I took the dustcover off the turntable and started spinning vinyl which, despite the need to clean records and styli, clamp and unclamp each disc and jump up every 15 minutes (tougher after the second Martini) to change albums, elevated my listening to an even higher level of palpability and involvement.

Like All-Clad and Le Creuset cookware, Transistor and Digital Audio Gear are virtually flawless: extraordinary performance, low maintenance and ultimate convenience. And yet, despite the hardships—or perhaps, perversely, because of them—which attend tube and vinyl fandom, these ancient technologies offer a connection to the music that modern devices have yet to equal. There’s a bit of “Magic smoke,” those powder-fine details that elevate recordings to reality, that’s lost in the pursuit of convenience but which, once experienced, becomes addictive.

Okay, I’m not crazy and I don’t expect any of you to ditch your modern music systems; on the other hand, I’d commit a disservice if I didn’t emphasize what’s missing as well as what’s not. As Luxury Audio struggles to recover from this pandemic, we’re going to have to sell “Magic smoke.” We’re going to have to demonstrate those subtle-but-tangible differences which make High-End a value proposition and we’re going to have to train customers to appreciate those differences and pay for them.

During the past few weeks, our clients have probably spent more time listening to music and watching movies than they have in the past year. They’ve been enjoying their systems and also, hopefully, noticed “What’s missing.” There has never been a better time to demonstrate the benefits that Luxury Audio can offer connoisseurs. We can either use this opportunity show our customers what we deliver or, like Coronavirus, fade away. Before the sound in our clients’ ears—or, as with that perfectly-seared steak, the taste in their mouths—fades into memory, let’s prove we’re better.

HOW TO MAKE STEAKHOUSE-QUALITY STEAKS AT HOME
Place a cast iron skillet on high heat, coating the cooking surface with grapeseed oil; meanwhile, turn your broiler on. Once the skillet starts smoking (5-10 minutes), gently place the seasoned steaks in the skillet. After 3-4 minutes, flip the steaks, place pan under broiler and cook another 3-4 minutes. Remove, transfer steaks to a warm plate, tent with foil and wait 5 minutes…perfection!

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!