The High-End Audio Dealer and You | The Vinyl Anachronist











high-end audio dealer

Just a few days ago we received an email from a grateful reader that brought up an important subject: the high-end audio dealer. I’ve seen these emails dozens of times before, where the reader tells us we’re doing a great job with our reviews and then that last sentence appears, a question about whether or not we could be hired for private consultation.

Words by Marc Phillips

The first time I was asked that, back in 1998 when The Vinyl Anachronist columns started to appear in Perfect Sound Forever, I was flattered. I remember calling the guy. We talked about high-end audio, and we discussed his needs. I decided to help him, but I never heard from him again after that initial discussion. He got a couple of nuggets of wisdom and he was off to the races with the little bit of info that I gave him.

That’s one of the many reasons why I don’t respond to such questions anymore. It’s a waste of time in most cases. But our own Eric Franklin Shook came up with an even better reason to ignore these requests: “Consulting is the territory of a high-end audio dealer. Not us.” Yes Eric, you’re absolutely right.

ready for an audition

“Your High-End Audio Dealer Is Your Best Friend”

I’m certainly not the first high-end audio writer to bring this up. I still remember John Atkinson placing a blurb somewhere on Stereophile‘s masthead that said “please don’t call our offices asking for someone to make recommendations because we’re kinda busy, pal.” (My paraphrasing, of course.) That was probably started in the ’80s. It is an old problem, and I’ve addressed it numerous times. Go back to my VA archives and you’ll find another column back in 1998 where I specifically wrote about the importance of the high-end audio dealer in this hobby and why they are so vital in terms of consultation.

My point has always been this: a high-end audio dealer is your best friend. You need to trust them or, more to the point, you need find one that you can trust. I was lucky to find Gene Rubin of Gene Rubin Audio back when I did in 1991, when I was still a journeyman audiophile living in a 564 square foot one-bedroom apartment in Encino, California.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that I could trust Gene. He steered me away from products that weren’t exceptional values. He told me I didn’t want that, because this sounds far better and costs less money. He taught me things. For instance, if you’re looking at two $1,000 integrated amplifiers from different manufacturers and one is the flagship model in the line and the other is the entry level model, buy the entry level model. (The flagship is the best that company can do, while the entry level probably benefits from the R&D of the more expensive models. The More You Know.)

So many audiophiles tell me that they don’t trust high-end dealers. They’re just trying to sell me something! Yes, and you’re just trying to buy something, right? “They’re just snooty and rude!” Yeah? Well, I’ve asked some dealers for their side of the story and it’s shocking. But we’ll come back to that in a minute.

Once again, your high-end dealer is your best friend in this hobby. Period.

the voice that is! and doug white

The Voice That Is Slightly Concerned Right Now

Things have not changed one bit since I first wrote about this issue back in 1998. I recently had a phone conversation with Doug White of The Voice That Is! He’s certainly one of the most respected high-end audio dealers in the country, and he represents some of the finest products in the history of hi-fi. The Voice That Is! is certainly a glamorous spot to be if you’re an audiophile, but Doug still deals with the same prospective “customers” that everyone else does in this industry.

We talked about collecting stories—not just from him but from many high-end audio dealers—about the crazy things these “customers” do. Once Doug got two or three stories in, I began to realize that I’ve heard these exact stories many times before. In the world of high-end audio they’re pretty common, but I’m sure there are plenty of Ferrari salespeople who will also tell you about the jokers coming in off the street and demanding a test drive.

These stories are often just variations of this old chestnut: “I got a phone call from a guy, wants to hear a $50,000 pair of speakers, I set up an audition for him, he’s a no-show, he then calls me back and asks if I can knock off 20%, I tell him I can knock off 10% and he books another appointment with me. He shows up, listens for an hour, then tells me he’s gonna think about it and then he calls me back and tells me he bought it online but he needs a new pair of speaker cables. He wants me to bring a bunch of speaker cables to his house so he can hear them with the pair of $50,000 speakers he didn’t buy from me.”

If you don’t trust a high-end dealer, it’s not them. It’s you.

high-end audio dealer alma audio

Time Is Money

It all comes down to that, right there. A high-end audio dealer invests time and money in you every time you walk into their store or make an appointment or bombard them with fifty questions on the phone before you buy online and try to save a few bucks and then wind up with something you don’t love because you didn’t bother to listen to it carefully in your own home before you handed out your credit card number to an internet bot.

One successful NYC audio salesman I know told me, “If you come into our store a second time without buying anything, we’ve officially started losing money on you. We’re in the hole, plain and simple.” When I was in retail management, I was fond of saying that the customer is always right, but you stop being a customer the moment I go into the red by dealing with you.

I’ll explain a few simple facts about this, and I must warn you. I really tend to piss off audiophiles when I talk about this, but if you have a decent argument I’d love to hear it. It’s as simple as this: audiophiles don’t drive the high-end audio industry because audiophiles don’t buy anything. You know who drives this industry? It’s the customer who walks into a store, sees and hears something that brings value to that person’s life, and pulls out their money right then and there. I’ve written about this before as well—these are the people who don’t have to read a review before they pull the trigger, and they don’t worry about what their audio buddies think of their buying decisions.

The most expensive product I ever sold as an importer and distributor was to a person who walked into a high-end audio dealer of mine and immediately fell in love with one of our tube amps at first sight. The whole transaction lasted twenty minutes. A high-end audio dealer has a better chance of staying in business if all their customers were just like that customer. (On the other hand, buying a luxury product should not be done capriciously. But that’s just me.) By the way, that customer was ecstatic about their purchase and never once considered that there might be something else out there that is better.

high-end audio dealer

High-End Audio Dealer and Profiling

That’s why nearly every high-end audio dealer, salesman or vendor has been trained to size up customers at first contact. They are looking for that customer who can make quick and decisive decisions about what they want. If you walk into a store with a rolled-up TAS in your back pocket, if you start talking about reviews that you’ve read in high-end audio magazines, if you start mentioning high-end audio reviewers by name, then that high-end audio dealer already knows you’re probably you’re not buying anything, and you’re just there to learn a few things for free.

Let me tell you another high-end audio dealer story. Once I saw a guy post on a high-end audio forum that a certain dealer he knows is now charging $250 for “initial consultation.” That means a salesperson will not acknowledge your existence in the showroom until you cough up $250. It’s a one-time fee, a deposit on the slim chance that you’re going to make a substantial purchase sometime in the future.

I thought that sounded a little severe, although I understood the reasons behind the decision. This was a super-duper high-end audio dealer, a dealer who sold Wilson and CH Precision and Magico and stuff like that. When someone walks in off the streets demanding an in-home extended audition with a TechDAS turntable, it’s like the hobo in the Ferrari dealership who wants to see how these babies perform on the street. It’s not gonna happen.

But I knew this high-end audio dealer well, and I was surprised he’d resort to such drastic action in order to perform triage. “Oh, that guy!” was the dealer’s response to criticisms. Apparently that guy was famous for habitually visiting the local dealers (this was in a large metropolitan area, so there were quite a few), demanding in-home auditions without a deposit, asking for huge discounts and never buying anything from anyone. I remember shutting that guy down on that audio forum after I spoke with the dealer, but it didn’t stop him from spreading the same story in all the hi-fi forums he could find that day.

If a high-end audio dealer wants to charge you $250 to come into their store and ask a question, it’s not them. It’s you.

hi-fi shows are the best places to meet dealers

It Goes Beyond the High-End Audio Dealer

Did you know that I used to be a high-end audio importer and distributor? You mean I haven’t mentioned that enough? I often had to get involved with my dealers when these types of “customers” would make contact. It was quite common to wake up to ten phone calls or email messages from my dealers requesting the same exact piece. That was because one person was calling around, trying to find the best price, pitting dealer against dealer within a network where each high-end audio dealer had a territory they had to honor.

Once these “customers” realized that I had stepped in and ruled on the situation with an iron fist, they would immediately contact me and try to get me to sell direct—at the dealer’s cost, no less. (I also had dealers who would buy one thing from us, at dealer cost, and we would never hear from that person again—an early lesson we needed to learn.) I stopped taking calls from retail customers for that very reason—they always assumed they would get a better price from me by circumventing the dealer. If I did that, however, my dealer network would disappear overnight. The high-end audio dealer was my customer, not some random audiophile who wants 50% off on a one-time purchase.

The last straw for me was the guy who tried to buy a big-ticket item directly from me as a distributor. “I’d rather just deal directly with you from now on,” he said after we talked on the phone. No can do, I replied. Buy through one of my dealers. “Who’s going to give me the best price, do you think?” Since I had a strict policy about dealers trying to undercut each other on price, I told this guy it was unlikely he’d see a discount from one dealer and not another. What goes on in private between a retail customer and a high-end audio dealer, however, was beyond my control—as long as the news of the deal doesn’t get out into the wild and suddenly everyone wants the same deal, right now. You instantly de-value that brand. Everyone loses.

“Oh, I never pay retail on anything,” he said smugly, and that’s the last time I took that guy’s call.

mcintosh store

Your High-End Audio Dealer & You

I’m reminded of that line in the indie film Clerks where Randal says, “This job would be great if it wasn’t for the @#%&ing customers.” The job of a high-end audio dealer is getting tougher every year. The internet has changed the way everyone conducts business. Those who break the rules can often get rich quick, and it’s frustrating for honest dealers who play the long game, the people who are always trying to find a way to engage more people and get them interested in this endlessly esoteric and undoubtedly expensive hobby. In many cases they’re selling Ferraris in a world where everyone wants a Kia. (Which, incidentally, have turned into really good cars over the years so don’t get mad at me for this analogy.)

It bears repeating that the high-end audio dealer really is your best friend in this hobby. I’ve said all this many times before, but evidently my audience has grown and some people haven’t realized I’ve been here for decades, saying these same exact things over and over. Reviewers are strangers to you. You don’t know their backgrounds or qualifications or allegiances. They definitely don’t want to come to your house and help you with your set-up. Your high-end audio dealer does. So quit asking the wrong people for help.

Sure, there are bad eggs, but most dealers are knowledgeable people who want you to be their customer for the rest of your life. That’s why they get mad when you take up their time and buy from someone else on the internet in order to save a few bucks. It hurts their feelings. That’s not how you get special treatment and discounts and advice that’s tailored to your needs and budget and your desire to bring beautiful music into your home every single day.

They get it. Audiophiles need to start getting it, or these high-end audio dealers will continue to disappear from the landscape at an alarming pace.

high-end audio dealer














6 Comments

  1. As someone who has been active in the hobby for 30+ year and never had a relationship with a dealer, I’d welcome the option to pay an hourly rate for consultation instead of the current arrangement of opaque, cross-cutting incentives. The current hi-end dealer situation reminds me of nothing so much as (a) car dealers and (b) stock brokers who get paid per trade. Do good ones who put the customer first exist? Sure. But on average, the incentive structure doesn’t breed trust.

    As more manufacturers opt for direct sales models (PS Audio, Schiit, etc.) to meet the demands of the mid-priced tier of audiophiles, I predict a growing opportunity for “consultants” to address the higher-end audiophile customers, getting paid up front for their expertise. This opens the door for manufacturers to provide lower pricing to customers, because the dealer won’t depend on the MSRP markup to get paid. Of course, that would be yet another nail in the coffin of traditional dealers…

    • As someone who has been at every level of the Hardware supply chain (dealer, wholesaler, manufacturing) I would say that your perspective is lacking the vital information needed to construct a valid opinion. What goes on behind the counter at all segments of the supply chain is an indispensable part of how products make their way to you.

      Even when a manufacturer dispenses with a dealer network they then assume all of the duties, costs, and headaches that a traditional dealer does; while often providing a far less than ideal experience for the customer when it comes to technical and seemingly complicated products.

      If mail order is your thing however, so be it.

      Also, “consultants” often do not have access to current trade-level information, they are typically nothing more than an experienced retail customer, a former industry castaway, or someone else looking to profit off of others lack of awareness. Once you contact a consultant, you’ve already labeled yourself as the “unsavvy customer” (aka: a mark).

      • There are exceptions. Stirling Trayle comes to mind. Of course, he works at the high end of the cost spectrum. I doubt it would be feasible as a profession otherwise.

  2. Most dealers are playing the long game; the last thing they need / want is a customer with buyers remorse. As a “consumer” I learned a long time ago that my best move was to cultivate a win/win relationship with knowlegeable re-sellers. And yes it has paid off….. especailly when things go wrong!

  3. Great piece — really enjoy these big-picture posts.

    My first system entailed zero reviews. Went to the best-reviewed dealer in town (30+ years in business), spent 45 minutes there, pulled the trigger on a complete rig. Dealer comes to my apt that weekend, dials in the system for me, and I enjoy it for the next seven years, with nary an OCD audiophile thought.

    Second system. New city, new dealer. This time I’m somewhat informed by reviews — specifically one reviewer, who shares the same taste in music and gear as me, and is unusually good at describing the sound of music. Buy new speakers in half an hour. I’m not a time-waster so I get a discount without asking. A couple months later, I feel like a better amp would elevate things. Quick visit, buy an amazing amp. Music is sounding even more beautiful. Again, get a nice deal without asking. Decisiveness equals dollars for everyone involved.

    So two points about audiophile tire kicking. One, you might be getting a WORSE deal, because you’re being annoying. And two, you’ll never enjoy your system as much as the person who’s NOT a tire-kicker, because you’re having all these OCD opportunity-cost audiophile thoughts that a decisive buyer doesn’t have. You’ve been reading the internet too much.

    Everyone’s different, but I vote for the decisive, go-with-your-gut approach to hifi shopping. What do you emotionally connect with. What sounds natural to you. No regrets on the gear, keep it long term, and get on listening to the music.

    P.S. – Encino represent!

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