The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part 7: Who's Yer Dealer? (August 1998)
I received the following e-mail from reader Terry Clapacs a few weeks ago:
"After reading your piece I called a couple of local stereo shops (good ones) and found that the only decent turntables they carried were a Rega 2 ($495), a Rega 3 ($700), and a Denon something or other for around $400. All of the clerk guys said that all of the above were direct drive. I see you referred to your belt drive Rega, so do you have a different model than what I am hearing about, or do the stereo clerks not know what they are talking about?"
I replied, somewhat irritated, thusly:
"Run, don't walk, from that stereo shop. The Regas are indeed belt-driven, and anyone with an ounce of knowledge (especially when they're supposed to be helping you make an informed buying decision) should know that AT THE VERY MINIMUM. Go back to that store, ask them to remove the platter, and ask them what that rubber belt-like thing is that's wrapped around the pulley thingie. It's a belt!"
I've had quite a few people e-mail me over the last few months (at firstname.lastname@example.org) to let me know that they have either just purchased a turntable, or have decided to do so sometime in the near future. To say this is gratifying is an understatement. By talking you into returning to the vinyl fold, unfortunately, I have introduced you to a somewhat wily, unpredictable creature called the High End Audio Salesman. If you want to buy a new turntable in this day and age, this is the person you must talk to. Sometimes you encounter the more knowledgeable variety of this species...some guy who's been an audiophile his entire life and just wants to turn you on to all of the wonderful-sounding stuff out there. But sometimes you get trapped by a less pleasant varmint...some slick tie 'n' slacks dude that reeks of Scope and Hai! Karate and doesn't know a vacuum tube from a vacuum cleaner. The worth of his life, in other words, is measured by his commission. I think Mr. Clapacs encountered some of these bushy-tailed critters.
And there is a third, equally undesirable type of animal out there...and unfortunately he makes up the majority of his species. He is the audio snob. If you aren't as knowledgeable as he is, beware. He will show a contempt for you that is only matched by Ferrari salesmen and maitre D's at fancy posh French eateries. If you don't drive up to his store in a Lexus or a Benz or a Bimmer, he might not even see you at all. And if you ask to hear the entry- level model of a specific brand, instead of the flagship, he'll think you're insane...how can you settle for something else when you've heard, and he has, the very best?
I once made the mistake of wandering into Optimal Enchantments, a very upscale Santa Monica high-end "salon" that is fortunately no longer in business. I wandered into one listening room from where I heard the distinctive voice of Willie Nelson singing "Stardust." It sounding like Willie had really set up a chair and a mic in that room, and was entertaining the customers. The turntable must've been nearly six feet off the floor, however, so when I stood up on my tiptoes to see what it was (it was the very fine and expensive Versa Dynamics 1.0, no longer in production), I was told to step away from the equipment rack. "Don't breath on the turntable," I was told bluntly. I couldn't believe my ears. Needless to say, I didn't write out any personal checks to them that day.
Another high-end store in Pasadena also earned low marks from me for customer service when they ignored me one Saturday afternoon. Evidently I made the mistake of showing up in a t-shirt and jeans. Earlier that week they had fallen all over each other to help me...I had stopped off on the way home from work and was still wearing a dress shirt and tie. Again, they missed out on what could have been a long and profitable relationship. I loved the store, but hated the people.
So how do you get past all this? Diligence and luck have been my keys to success. But here I've been telling you for the past few months that you need to buy a turntable again, and now I'm saying that it's going to be an uphill climb, and that you're going to have to meet a lot of assholes to boot! Geez, I'm not asking for too much, am I?
But cheer up. I've painted this rather drab portrait as a mere caveat emptor. The high-end industry has taken great pains to shed the snobbish image they've cultivated over the years. They know that in order for their relatively small industry to remain healthy, they must attract both women (an unfortunately rare client), and young people. The average audiophile is much like Dr. Cameron, whom I introduced you to last month... a retired professional with a lot of expendable dough. If the high-end community, especially the purveyors of turntables, want to survive DVD and Home Theatre and yes, even the CD, they need to start catering to those of us who wear Airwalks and South Park T- shirts. So it's gotten much easier over the last five years or so to walk into a place unannounced and listen to a $100,000 rig, fronted, hopefully, by a first-class turntable.
Let me start off by telling you about two places that definitely make me happy about being an audiophile. The first, Gifted Listener, in Centreville, Virginia (about 25 miles outside of D.C.), is owned by the extremely affable Tom Unger. I lived about 100 yards from his store for the better part of four years, and although I never made any major purchases from him (he sells LPs and CDs and accessories), I've always felt comfortable strolling into his shop, and plopping my butt down to listen to some the finest equipment on the East Coast. He never pressured me, and he seemed to listen to my opinion much more than I listened to his.
Tom puts out a quarterly newsletter, and in the most recent issue he talks about the store's tenth anniversary, and what it took to get there. When he decided to open his store in 1986, he and his wife toured high-end stores all over the country and decided what he did and didn't like. All of the things he liked... going the extra distance for the customer, making the customer feel more like a family friend, having the answer to every question, only carrying products he believed in... made it into Gifted Listener. If you're within striking distance of the D.C. Metro area, you owe it to yourself to develop a long-term relationship with the guy. He sells turntables by Linn, Rega and Goldmund. He likes CDs a lot, also, but don't hold that against him.
I'd be giving all my extra money to Tom if it weren't for Gene Rubin of Gene Rubin Audio in Ventura, California. This is the guy with whom I've developed a long-term relationship. I used to joke with Tom Unger that every time I went into Gifted Listener, I felt like I was being unfaithful. After all of the great deals Gene has given me over the years, there's some truth to that. Gene has definitely earned my loyalty.
Thanks to Gene, I own a system that I'd never be able to afford if I went out to buy it today. No, he didn't give me everything at 75% off. But he has given me great prices on demo units (he once took 40% of a Naim amplifier that was only out of its box for about six weeks), and he has been unusually generous with trade-in allowances. Now, before you all rush and demand that Gene gives you $500 toward a Rega Planet for your five-year-old Hitachi CDX-2308RT Mk.II, realize that I earned this special pricing by being a loyal customer to Gene for years. I estimate I've made about twenty purchases from Gene since we met in 1991. That's what is so special about Gene and his business. I've developed, like I said, a relationship with him, and so have most of his other clients.
What is it about Gene Rubin Audio that's so damned peachy? First, the man himself is a modest, unassuming soul who is extremely happy with what he does for a living. He loves music, and he loves the idea that he's bringing that same joy to ther people's homes. Secondly, he runs the business out of his home by appointment only. This sounds snobbish, but I find it to be the ideal situation to buy stereo equipment- you're in real home rather in a showroom, and you have the owner's undivided attention while you're there. He used to live in a house on a hill in Monterey Park. The living room had an enormous picture window which had a commanding view of most of the San Gabriel Valley- not a bad way to listen to music. Now he merely lives in a house a block away from the beach. It's a bit of a drive out of L.A., but you won't regret it.
Finally, he sells the best-sounding equipment I've heard. Naim, Rega, Roksan, Spendor, Pink Triangle, Quad, Epos, Creek, Rotel...the best of Great Britain at every price point. You can buy an entire system from Gene for a grand or two, or you can drop $30K. It's up to you, or the State Lottery Commission. And, most importantly, he loves turntables, from the $495 Rega Planar 2 to the $7000 Roksan TMS. And Gene will never look down his nose at you for choosing the Rega. In fact, you should hear him gush about the Planar 3!
I can't say enough good things about Tom or Gene, but what if you don't live in L.A. or D.C.? In a previous article I somewhat capriciously suggested that you should merely look in your Yellow Pages for the store that carries the brand names you don't recognize. This always worked for me back in the infancy of my audiophilia nervosa. Apparently this did not work for Terry Clapacs, who met up with idiots. So again I must stress that you listen with your ears, not the salesman's, and, most importantly, don't put up with any shit. If they make you feel anything but special, leave. You pay their salary, don't let them forget it.
Stereophile magazine recently asked its readers to sound off about audio dealers in general. They were surprised with the amount of positive correspondence- people who had developed long relationships with their dealers, people who were really impressed with particular salespeople, and people who were expecting audio snobs and got real people instead. What I found interesting was the fact that no single store received a lion's share of the positive comments. Each person, it seemed, had their favorite, which means to me that chemistry between the salesperson and the customer may be the most influential factor. In other words, someone might e-mail me to tell me that they think Gene Rubin and Tom Unger are the biggest assholes they ever met. (I doubt it, though.)
So take the plunge, head to a shop, listen for an afternoon, make them jump through hoops, and have a lot of fun. Just make sure at the end of it all you've purchased a turntable, okay?
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