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Buying High-End Audio Equipment

A High-End Retailer Offers His Top Tips on Buying Audio Equipment
Andrew Singer
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

What distinguishes high-end audio gear from the "rack systems" sold at your local appliance store? Contrary to popular belief, it is not a matter of volume or bass response or the number of knobs, buttons and lights. Simply stated, the ultimate goal of high-end audio is to come as close as possible to replicating the sound of live music. The extent to which the system creates this illusion, allowing you to suspend your disbelief and imagine yourself in the same room as the musicians, is the final determinant of its sound quality.

As with any investment, the purchase of fine audio components should be given careful consideration. To derive maximum satisfaction from your expenditure, you should begin by fully identifying your audio needs and desires. What do you expect the system to do? While "play music" might seem to be an obvious response, the subject begs further clarification. Do you want audio in a single room, or would you like to hear music throughout the house? Is stereophonic playback your goal, or would you like a multichannel "surround sound" audio/video system that incorporates Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Digital and THX? Try not to define your goals so rigidly that you are unable to accept expert advice: outline your needs, but try to keep an open mind. Consider your listening habits. If you enjoy heavy metal at rock concert volumes, your system requirements might differ from those of a chamber music fan. Pick a handful of CDs or records that you know well and take them shopping with you.

Whatever your budget is, be prepared to double it. In my experience, consumers almost always underestimate what they'll need to spend to achieve the desired results. Flexibility is your strongest ally: if your dealer can offer a logical or demonstrable reason why you should modify your plans, be receptive.

Will aesthetic or ergonomic considerations influence your choice? Although many customers insist on having the gear prominently displayed, people with space limitations may be forced to keep the equipment in cabinets or closets. Determine any space, size or functional requirements relating to the components. You should also understand that, as with any other cutting-edge technology, your system preferences may entail certain unavoidable trade-offs. Just as an auto enthusiast must choose between Mercedes opulence and Ferrari acceleration, your quest to obtain the very last bit of audio performance might force you to sacrifice convenience or particular features. Finally, if the system will be used by individuals other than yourself, will they be comfortable doing so? Remember, you don't need hard and fast answers, just a set of preliminary preferences to discuss with your dealer.

Most important, don't try to micromanage the selection process. Your principal goal is not to buy an amplifier, a CD player or a pair of speakers, because by themselves these things don't make music. Your main concern should be to purchase a complete audio system and as a result, your primary task is to determine the person or persons who are most qualified to design that system for you. In other words, choose your dealer, not your equipment.

How can you identify a good dealer? You should have some guidelines for what to expect from an upscale audio dealer, and know how to tell whether this person deserves the "high end" appellation. One of the simplest ways is to examine the store's merchandise mix. If a dealer carries one or more of the brands in each of the categories listed on page 315, he's probably pretty good. "Top tier" manufacturers expend considerable effort in selecting and training the retailers who will represent their designs to the public, to ensure that they are honest, knowledgeable, creditworthy and, to some extent, artistic. In addition to product lines, the high-end audio dealer always offers hookup, delivery and service of any product he sells. The better dealers are well versed in the intricacies of audio, video and multiroom remote systems, including in-wall wiring and the installation of sophisticated keypad controllers.

For many audio pilgrims, the journey to the high end starts with the recommendation of a friend. Everybody knows someone who has a fancy audio or home theater rig. But while you might be impressed with the sound he has achieved in his home, don't ask him what to buy, because he is not an expert. Do not ask him to come with you when you go shopping for a stereo or home theater, as this makes it difficult for the dealer to properly address your needs and wants. And though it might surprise you, a little rivalry between colleagues is not uncommon.

All things considered, it's best to go shopping by yourself and allow the salesman to transform your ideas into a satisfying system. Remember, you've already defined your needs and given some thought to your budget. Relate these issues candidly. Let him believe that you are placing the decisions in his hands, and then listen to his suggestions. If a salesman is good, he will ask you a series of questions designed to narrow the choices and help you focus on the items that best suit your circumstances.

Evaluate the store. When you first arrive, stop, look and listen. How are the facilities? A good store should have at least four or five showrooms. Make sure there's a wide selection of components and that the music available for demonstration is equally diverse. What brands are carried? If you don't see any of the brands listed on page 315, be concerned. Are the sound rooms set up comfortably so that you can audition the components in a relaxed fashion, or do you have to stand? If all of the rooms route the music signal through component switchers--rather than through direct hook-ups between components--that's a bad sign. This is not simply because switching systems degrade the quality of sound, but because it demonstrates a lack of concern on the dealer's part for maximizing the quality of sound he can obtain--both in his store and in your home--through careful setup. It further emphasizes that he has little understanding of the importance of high-end cables in enhancing the sound quality of all fine components, regardless of price. When listening, trust your own judgment, and share your opinions with the dealer. If you think a system sounds good, tell him so. Initiate a dialogue: the dealer's job is to fulfill your desires, and your job is to communicate your likes and dislikes so that your salesperson can design a system that precisely addresses your needs.

Although the allure of a bargain is difficult to resist, don't be a price shopper. A good high-end audio retailer will give you no more than a 5 percent discount on any item when you use a credit card. With cash or a check, you might save 7 to 10 percent, depending upon the item you are buying. If someone offers to sell you high-end equipment at a greater discount, be very cautious. When you hear about a store offering substantial discounts, they are either phony (i.e., "bait and switch") or the discounts are on products that the retailer is trying to unload. Sure, bargains do come along, as when a dealer decides to discontinue a particular manufacturer's brands and needs to sell the remaining inventory. But for the most part, the reasons merchandise is sold at discounts of more than 10 percent are usually more insidious, and it is probably in your best interest to forgo purchasing these items.


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