The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CV: The Two Biggest Obstacles to Enjoying Your Hi-Fi
Audiophiles do not drive the high-end audio industry.
Audiophiles hate it when I say that, accusing me of biting the hand that feeds me. But as I've mentioned many times before, it's a simple and somewhat troubling fact--especially from a marketing standpoint. As a high-end audio distributor, I know how the game is played. A new product is introduced by one of my manufacturers, and my first step is to talk to my dealers about the product, demonstrate it whenever and wherever I can, get reviews from the hi-fi press and then wait by the phone so I can start taking orders.
There's a rather obstinate problem with this sort of marketing strategy. By showing said product at trade shows and hi-fi gatherings such as dealer events, and by procuring reviews from the usual suspects, I'm targeting audiophiles. They are the ones who come to the audio shows and dealer events and, of course, they are the ones who read all the reviews. But more often than not, audiophiles like to listen more than they like to write checks. So who buys what I'm selling?
To be frank, the person who buys luxury goods such as high-end audio is someone who sees something that is desirable, something that adds value to his or her life, and that person then makes an immediate buying decision. These people don't consult with a dozen audio magazines and websites before making a decision. They don't think about their audiophile buddies coming over and dissing one of their buying decisions, saying “Why did you buy this? Why didn't you buy that, which has been getting great reviews?"
No wonder the high-end audio industry is in trouble these days. Our targeted consumers are afraid to buy what we're selling. And we, the high-end audio industry, are at fault for training the consumers to be this hopelessly discerning.
High-end audio journalism is also partly to blame, although no decent audio reviewer wants his readers to accept his recommendations blindly. It's just that the audio press has, over the last few decades, been very effective at teaching audiophiles what to look for when it comes to buying a high-quality hi-fi system. All these magazines and books and websites and blogs have been meticulous in telling us how to listen, what to look for, how to compare components to determine which one is best and how an audiophile can get the most performance for his dollar without falling prey to the Law of Diminishing Returns.
As a result, the press has groomed at least a couple of generations of audiophiles who want to hear absolutely everything before making a buying decision--something that's almost impossible to do. That brings up the first obstacle to enjoying your hi-fi:
I'm afraid that if I buy something I like, I will immediately hear something else I like better.
There's nothing irrational about this idea. People have buyer's remorse all of the time, especially when they're dropping big cash on a luxury item. Did I really make the best buying decision? Is there something I'd rather have? Is there something that would sound better in my system, and in my home, for the same amount of money.... or less?
But here's the problem--we are so afraid to pull the trigger that we aren't buying anything. I know, I'm employed in the high-end audio industry and I would like nothing more than for everyone to go out and by a new hi-fi today, preferably from one of the manufacturers I represent. That's not what I'm talking about. The high-end audio industry is suffering from the same problems as the real estate market and perhaps the auto industry--too many lookie-loos. Everyone wants to kick tires, everyone wants a test drive, everyone wants a guided tour or a free education. But no one wants to write a check. As I've mentioned before, this places an enormous financial burden on the actual retailers--they're the ones who are sending out equipment to prospective buyers' homes, they're the ones processing returns from clients who never had any intention of buying in the first place, they're the ones who have to absorb the depreciation of their inventory. That unfortunately creates animosity and tension between dealers and audiophiles, something you'll see quite frequently on some of those audio discussion forums on the Internet.
The other obstacle to enjoying your hi-fi is, as I've already mentioned, is your audiophile buddies:
I'm afraid that if I buy something I like, my peers will come over and criticize me for my buying decision.
Just a few weeks ago I delivered a pair of fairly expensive, very heavy speakers to a customer of mine in Florida. It's an interesting story--he bought them sight unseen and sound unheard because he owned a smaller speaker in the line and loved it. He just wanted a little more of what he loved. So he placed his order with one of my dealers, and we had them specially made with a unique new veneer according to his wishes. Unfortunately, it took a few months to get them delivered from Europe, which is why I went out and intercepted the shipment in Houston and drove them all the way to the Florida Panhandle myself.
During the wait, our customer had to deal with his audiophile buddies who were constantly haranguing him about buying a pair of speakers without auditioning them first. Then they harangued him for waiting so long to have the speakers delivered. When I showed up at his doorstep with the speakers in the back of my SUV, his buddies were there. To my surprise however, they weren't just any audiophile buddies--one was a cable manufacturer and one was a very well-known audio reviewer for one of the major print publications. Talk about pressure.
Yes, they were critical. Yes, they asked me a lot of questions to see if I knew what I was talking about. And yes, they nit-picked the sound of these speakers even though they were fresh off the boat from Italy and had not been broken in yet. But I after I left, the customer sent me an email to tell me that he didn't care what his buddies thought--he loved his new speakers and knew they were the right choice for him. Not his buddies, not the reviewers, but for him.
Every audiophile should be this committed to finding happiness through this hobby. But they're not. I have accepted returns from customers who told me they liked the product they purchased, but those buddies heard something they didn't like. This kind of thinking is nuts--we all hear differently, we all have different preferences, we all have different ideas on how music should sound in our homes, and our lives. We're the only ones who need to be pleased. Besides, it's such bad manners to criticize people on their recent purchasing decisions. I once did it to an old friend of mine who bought a certain Korean car--he had just finished signing his life away to buy this vehicle, and here I am telling him he should have bought a Toyota or a Honda instead. We didn't talk a lot after that--because I was a tremendous asshole to him. And if your audiophile buddies are telling you your new stereo sucks and you should've purchased something else, something they approve, they're tremendous assholes, too.
I know I'm repeating myself. I've explored this subject here before, in my column "Listen for Yourself." I've also written an article on Part-Time Audiophile discussing the dangers of blindly trusting audio reviews that touches on some of these same points (http://parttimeaudiophile.com/2015/01/30/good-reviews-and-bad-decisions/). Perhaps the Internet is the problem--we've all gotten so used to shopping online and having all our options at our fingertips that we've forgotten that we need to go out and trust our own ears and buy the things that make us happy and stop worrying about looking cool in front of our friends. Because no matter what you buy, someone on the Internet--or in your life--will tell you that you made a mistake.
News flash: the only reason people do this is because they're envious. They wish they could have made the same decision you made. Or maybe they want you to buy the same stuff they did to validate their personal preferences.
It still kills me when consumers tell me that they don't trust dealers because “they're just trying to sell me something," and yet they trust reviewers they don't even know in person. I just had a manufacturer tell me that for $5000 he could get a great review at a certain well-known audio website. These are the people who are more trustworthy than dealers? A high-end audio dealer does want to sell you something, but in order to be successful that dealer needs you as a customer for life. That means he has to steer you right, every single time. He has to know your tastes and your objectives when building and upgrading a system. He knows that if he doesn't make you happy, you're gone. Man, I've been talking about this since 1998, when I wrote "Who's Yer Dealer?":
If you're in this hobby, just be happy. It's a hobby, after all, about feeling happy through the magic of recorded music. If you want to buy something because it's pretty, buy it. If you buy something because it matches your carpet, then buy something. If you buy something because it adds something to your life and has a specific value to you, and nobody but you, then that's the best reason of all to buy.
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at firstname.lastname@example.org and see his Blog site
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