The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LXXV: The Best Little Hi-Fi Store in Texas
I know I've talked about this before, but I really miss good old-fashioned stereo stores. In fact, I miss them as much as I miss good old-fashioned record stores. As a teenager during the '70's, I used to hang out at the local Pacific Stereo and listen to gear all afternoon and chat with the salesmen. Dennis Wright, a long-haired and bearded sales manager who shared more than a passing resemblance with Jesus, took me under his wing and shared almost everything he knew about assembling a decent system. He was the first person to tell me about how wonderful Quad electrostatic speakers were, and how lousy Bose 901 loudspeakers were. By the time I was fifteen, I was the only teenager in town with a $2000 stereo--a testament to Dennis' sales skills as well as my own unbridled enthusiasm for the hobby.
These days, the large chains like Pacific Stereo, The Federated and Rogers Sound Labs have been gone for years. Magnolia Audio, the last gasp of corporate-sponsored high-end audio, was folded into Best Buy and eventually dismantled. Even Circuit City, never a hotbed of audiophile activity, eventually failed at selling mid-fi components to the masses and recently called it quits. The only so-called hi-fi shops that remain follow two basic business models: either you run an ultra-high-end salon in the nice part of downtown and cater to rich middle-aged professionals, or you sell gear out of your house on an "appointment only" basis. While I certainly have enjoyed visiting both types of establishments, I miss going into a hi-fi store on a Saturday afternoon and hanging out for a few hours and maybe learning a few things about music and gear.
That's why Whetstone Audio here in Austin was such a welcome surprise. I first ran into owner Brian Di Frank a few years ago on Steve Hoffman's Music Forum, and I even remember having a few heated arguments with him. But TONEAudio publisher Jeff Dorgay actually hung out with Brian on a recent trip to England to attend the Rega Tour, which also included stops at the Chord Cable and Quadraspire factories. He told me, "When you get to Austin, you have to check out Whetstone and say hello to Brian! He's a great guy!"
So one warm Saturday afternoon in April, I headed to 6th Street (yes, that 6th Street) and strolled through the front doors of Whetstone. I was immediately reminded of those great hi-fi stores from my youth. First of all, Brian is one of the few audio dealers who still insist on selling records along with equipment. Record bins lined one side of the store, and they contained everything from sealed and obviously valuable Blue Note Jazz LP's to an old worn copy of Cheech and Chong's Los Cochinos. Brian also had a pretty cool selection of T-shirts (my favorite had a picture of Fat Albert saying, "Hey hey hey! Kill whitey!"). Best of all, every system on the floor featured a turntable as its main source. I suddenly felt warm and fuzzy all over.
"I always wanted to have a place where people could come in on a Saturday, drink a few beers and listen to some great music," Brian told me as we settled in and listened to a Victoria Williams album (a signed copy of Swing the Statue, no less) on a system that consisted of a Well-Tempered Amadeus turntable, Dynavector 17D3 cartridge, Leben integrated amplifier and DeVore Fidelity Gibbon Super 8 speakers. The sound was huge, relaxed and detailed, just as I like it. "I just want to sell real gear to real people who like real music. That's why all of the brands I sell offer great sound for the money."
Leben, a Japanese company run by a former Luxman engineer, makes fairly expensive tubed amplification and can't quite be called a value leader. But I could tell that Brian had them in his store because their Wow Factor was off the charts (they have a great retro look about them) and because one of the perks of owning a stereo store is having access to such gems. When I asked Brian what was selling well, however, he didn't hesitate.
"Rega," he replied, pointing at the P1s, P2s, P3-24s, P-5s and P-9s scattered all over the sales floor. "Nobody makes gear that sounds this good for anywhere near the price." As the owner of no less than three Rega turntables over the years, I had to agree. "Rega is what keeps my doors open," he added. "I've often joked that I could just become a Rega store and still make a good living."
I then asked Brian how things have changed in his store since he opened Whetstone's doors 15 years ago. "Younger people are getting into records mostly due to DJ culture, which has arguably kept vinyl alive. I see a lot of kids needing a new cartridge for their dad's old turntable they found in the garage. I also think people are sick of 'Fad-mats.' Every two years the industry treats us like guinea pigs and tries to make you buy Kind of Blue and Dark Side of the Moon on yet another doomed format. Those used $3 records sound better."
Almost on cue, a couple in their late twenties strolled in and arranged to audition an all-Rega system. The husband told me that they were both avid record collectors, and that they had been listening to their LP's on "Polk speakers that had one of the tweeters blown out for at least a year." It was time to make a major purchase.
By the time they left, Brian had rung them up for a new pair of Rega floorstanding speakers, a Rega Brio 3 integrated amplifier, a new Ortofon cartridge, a pair of Grado headphones, new loudspeaker cables and other assorted doodads. The total was well over $2000. The crazy thing was that they both spent less than an hour in the store. This was quite different from the stereotypical audiophile who makes the dealer jump through hoops before making a purchase.
About an hour later another guy came in, and he was every salesman's dream customer. "Quick," he said excitedly, "I need a record player! And I can't spend more than $800!" Brian shot me a look that said "I wish every sale was this easy." He set the guy up with a Rega Planar 2 and an Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge and had him out the door in less than 15 minutes. "All in all," Brian told me, "it's been a good day. Whetstone Audio can stay open for another month!"
Like most successful audio dealers in this day and age, Brian is successful because he carefully chooses the products he carries. It's not enough to choose the right brands. You also have to choose the right models within those product lines. That's why the only Ortofons I saw in Brian's shop are the $199 2M Blue and $99 2M Red--they both mate extremely well with Rega turntables and they both offer astounding sound quality for the money. (I reviewed the 2M Blue for TONE a couple of years ago and found it was the only really affordable cartridge that made the Technics SL-1200 listenable).
In other words, it's all about making it easy for the customer. If you buy a Rega P2, he'll tell you the Ortofon 2M Blue is the best match. If you buy a P3-24, he'll suggest the Dynavector 10X5. If you buy the Well-Tempered Amadeus, he'll slap on a Dynavector 17D3. If you splurge and go for the top-of-the-line Rega P9 (a truly great 'table), he'll tell you to go with the Dynavector Te Kaitora. He tried them all, hand-picked the best combos and has them all ready to audition.
Finally, I asked Brian for his thoughts on vinyl. "If there's one thing I have to say, it's that a lot of these 180 gram audiophile pressings are really overpriced for what they are. Most of them don't sound any better than the regular versions." I had to agree. I've reviewed many audiophile pressings over the last couple of years, many of them $40 or even $50 a pop, and they would have an inexcusable amount of surface noise. Indeed, some of these "remasters" sounded no better than the original pressings. During the course of the day he put on plenty of vinyl--the aforementioned Victoria Williams, Tangerine Dream and even the eponymous debut album from The Cars--and all of them were regular pressings. He didn't feel the need to put on some hyper-expensive 45 RPM 200 gram pressing just to sell a Rega P2. Every one of those records sounded just fine in his carefully matched systems.
In my opinion, Brain has the right idea. While those snooty high-end audio "saloons" (as a guy I know likes to call them) certainly have their place, the only way the audio industry can really engage the next generation of audiophiles is to make everything as simple and easy and cool as Brian does. Brian is also a drummer with a local band called The Invisible Inks, so he understands what appeals to the Austin crowd better than most. Best of all, Brian understands that listening to music should be a social activity, and that we should all share recordings and insights and opinions. Too many audiophiles these days have $100,000 systems in dedicated listening rooms, and there's only one chair in that room.
That may be one reason why downloads are so popular these days. The next generation of audiophiles want it to be easy, they want it to be fun and they want to share. They're also starting to learn that it can sound great as well. Spending a day at Whetstone confirmed something I've known for quite a while--young people really do like listening to vinyl, and they're more than willing to buy decent turntables as long as they're fun. Maybe that's why I got my Rega P3-24 in lime green.
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also see Marc Philip's blog
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