The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LXXVII: Peter Selesnick of Venice Audio
Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in! I'm talking, of course, about high-end audio. Over the last year or so, I've put my hi-fi interests on the back burner while I concentrate on building a new business here in Texas. I even downgraded to a more modest stereo system that's built around a Rega P3-24 turntable rather than my old and somewhat opulent J.A. Michell Orbe SE. I've tried my best not to think about re-building my system back to its former glory. As I learned the first time, that's one hell of a rabbit hole, and I crawled through it for close to 30 years.
When I talk about "they," I'm referring to the high-end dealers I've been interviewing over the last couple of months. Boy, they have some killer gear. First, Brian DiFrank of Whetstone Audio reminded me of the greatness of such gear as Rega, Naim and DeVore Fidelity. I've owned products from them in the past (in the case of Rega, obviously, I still do) and whenever I visit him, I'm tempted to pull out the credit card and go for it.
Now I've been talking with Peter Selesnick of Venice Audio in Venice, California. Peter's new to the hi-fi dealer game; by trade, he is a director of photography in the film industry. He started Venice Audio as a way to enjoy his love for audio while making some money on the side. He carries many of the same brands as Brian DiFrank such as Naim, Leben and Well-Tempered Lab. But while Brian concentrates on getting people into the hobby through entry-level and mid-priced gear, Peter focuses on well-heeled audiophiles and adds such products lines as Harbeth (their Monitor 40.1 is my favorite speaker of all time), Auditorium 23, J.A. Michell and LFD (my favorite integrated amps of all time). Like Brian, however, he champions the new line of Well-Tempered Lab turntables that use a golf ball suspended in silicon fluid for the tonearm assembly and squash balls underneath the plinth as a suspension. Who says high-end audio can't be fun?
In fact, Peter first contacted me after reading my interview with Brian to tell me how much he enjoyed the article. After speaking with him for a few minutes, I realized he had a lot to say about old-fashioned, two-channel hi-fi in the 21st century. It takes a lot of nerve to become a dealer in this day and age, with most people shopping for hi-fi on the Internet, and I had to find out how he intended to deal with that. I spoke with him just a couple of days after he returned from visiting relatives in Europe.
PSF: You told me that you've been thinking about opening a hi-fi store for some time. What finally prompted you to take the plunge and start Venice Audio?
I had thought about this for a while; I had the time and the desire to start the business but only wanted to do so if I could have access to particular brands. For me it was important to be able to offer equipment that I most enjoyed--Naim and Harbeth. Once I got the go ahead for these two, I was committed!
PSF: What type of client are you generally seeing in your store? Do you find that audiophiles have changed their priorities over the last few years due to home theater, music servers and home computers?
It's hard to describe the type of client! Each seems to have different expectations. I'd say at the beginning there were more "audiophile" types coming in, probably to see what the new place was about and in particular to hear the Harbeth 40.1s which were new and getting a fair amount of attention. Since then, probably fewer "typical" audiophiles and more music listeners; not to say that audiophiles don't listen to music (though apparently a few really don't!) but many appear to listen with particular criteria in mind rather than how well they can enjoy the music through the system.
As you suggest, there may be some confusion in what some listeners are looking for in a music system. My experience so far has been with customers mostly sticking to traditional set-ups, mostly CD-based 2-channel (I'm not doing multi-channel or home theater) but plenty of analog too.
Not that many have committed to computer based systems/music servers. Certainly there's more awareness of that option and some have gone that way but not as many as one might expect (at least of those I'm hearing from). For some with large music collections, the task of ripping is a daunting one! I think also the many ways of approaching computer audio can be confusing and the set-up frustrating, however with newer products like Naim's Uniti range and HDX hard disc players, for instance, excellent sound and convenience are now easier to demonstrate.
PSF: When someone contacts you and arranges for an audition, what can they expect from you? Do you let the equipment do the selling, or are you finding that many modern audiophiles are still undecided about what they want in a home entertainment system and need you to help them discover their options?
I think I tend to let the equipment do the talking and selling, though one has to find out what the customer wants in the way of input. It's necessary sometimes to try to pry a little. It's often the case that a potential customer just wants to hear a system and you go from there as to what they are trying to achieve at home. Most come in with specific components or speakers they've read/heard about and want to hear. I'm happy to go through various combinations of gear to demonstrate different levels of performance. Because auditions (of necessity) are by appointment clients receive generally uninterrupted demos with my full attention, if that's what they want.
PSF: So much for the cliché of the "pushy" stereo salesman.
Mostly I get out of the way and let them listen. Hopefully they go away with a clear impression of the equipment they are interested in and not confusion from seeing or hearing too many set ups!
PSF: What is your criteria for choosing the brands you represent? What in a specific product really excites you so that you immediately to want to share it with your clients? What holes are you still looking to fill with your current product lines?
Criteria for selecting equipment: sound quality, value for money, design/styling, build quality, reliability and product longevity, manufacturer/distributor support and company stability, originality and uniqueness in design and execution (golf and squash balls come to mind!). I only carry equipment I enjoy listening to and have researched to the best of my abilities for reliability, quality of build and soundness of design. I tend to prefer minimal, timeless product design to the over-built and engineered variety. There may not be as much bling factor but you can usually live with these types of products longer and hence, they become better values too.
I can get excited about sound quality first and foremost, if the other criteria are good too. PRaT [pace rhythm and timing, a term used often in British audio] is necessary from all hi-fi as far as I can tell for music not to tend towards being dull and lifeless. Products that offer better quality and involvement than you might expect at the price. Novel but well thought out products excite me--Naim Uniti all-in-one players, WTL Amadeus TT. Products that play pretty much all types of music well such as Harbeth loudspeakers. I'm still looking for higher efficiency speakers that work well with lower powered amps and still get the fundamentals right. The Naim electronics range is so extensive, I'm not seeing many holes in that area. Any that you see?
PSF: Not any more. Naim products are a lot less idiosyncratic than they were 15 or 20 years ago, so the Naim detractors--those who claimed they couldn't stand the "Naim sound"--are becoming fewer. Naim has become such a strong company in recent years, offering really unique products that appeal to both consumers and audiophiles. They're definitely on a roll. Plus, it helps that their equipment practically never breaks. The only other hole you would want to fill is tubed amplification, and you have that covered with the superb Leben line from Japan. So what are the biggest challenges you currently face as high-end audio dealer? What type of challenges do you see for the future of two-channel audio?
As a recent business, without a shopfront, being found/discovered by customers and then building relationships. The Internet and the culture of shopping online for lowest price are making this process more difficult. Hopefully, potential customers are not using dealer facilities and time in order to decide what they want before going online to negotiate lowest possible price elsewhere!
PSF: Of course that still happens all the time. I often meet these people on audio discussion forums and they usually get a piece of my mind.
What they lose if they do so includes dealer support, set-up, advice and potentially better deals over time by building a relationship that spans upgrades and system improvements. This seems like it will only increase as dealers find it harder to stay in business and, as in many other areas, service becomes a thing of the past.
PSF: What type of music do you like to play during an audition? Do you rely on the clients to bring their own favorites, or do you "wow" them with specific recordings?
Generally, clients bring their own music. I rarely try to push music on people unless they've arrived with an iPod or computer stocked with low resolution, compressed files. Then I'll play (something) similar, if not the same music from CD, LP or higher resolution files. Usually I can find music to please most if they haven't brought their own but there are always some gaps in the collection! I'm happy to recommend music when it's requested; I'm equally happy to discover new music via clients too! If there's any wow-ing with specific recordings, it's usually because the music is worth sharing and the recording at least decent; I think it can also be useful for a listener to hear unfamiliar music when evaluating equipment as well as tracks they've heard a lot. Sometimes, it's just fun to play really well recorded stuff to allow the equipment to show at its best.
PSF: What are your strategies for introducing the younger generation of music lovers to the idea of sitting down and just listening to music?
I'm not sure I have strategies. Most listeners finding their way here, younger or older, are pretty intent on sitting and concentrating quite seriously! Generally however, if younger listeners are introduced to the level of involvement high fidelity playback can bring, I think it can be a revelation. Newer digital products that can, for example, take a digital signal from iPod or iPhone and play these as well as or better than a high quality CD player, should be helpful in persuading newer converts to good quality sound. Record players do the trick too!
PSF: Yes, they do. And for those who think that high-end audio is for stuffy older men who have no sense of fun, let's talk about the new turntables from Well-Tempered Labs and how they use a golf ball as part of the tone arm assembly. How do your clients react to that?
The WTL Amadeus hasn't been here long but reactions have ranged from bemused to a little dismissive to mildly amazed! Bill Firebaugh, the Well Tempered designer, was here with Mike Pranka (the distributor for Well Tempered Labs and Dynavector) setting up the table a few months ago and he's an extremely engaging and amusing gentleman, 79 years young. He's refined his designs for many years and the golf ball (in silicon fluid) as bearing seems to be a stroke of genius (Robert E Greene, in his Absolute Sound review, described the turntable design as "the result of brains over money"). Not only does it do away with the need for a low tolerance bearing but it also allows tuning of the sound by adjustment of the level of damping.
There's no arguing with the sound quality though and it's likely to be an LP12 beater for many (unless one is perhaps moving into the uppermost levels of LP12 upgrades). It's simple, does not require the levels of maintenance to keep it sounding good that an LP12 does and it's relatively foolproof.
PSF: Finally, what specific products do you think offer extraordinary value for the price? Which pieces aren't quite well-known but really deserve to be heard?
Value to price: WTL Amadeus; Harbeth Compact 7ES-3; Naim DAC, Naim UnitiQute. Lesser known: Crimson Audio cables, Leben products.
To find out more about Venice Audio, visit Peter's website at veniceaudio.com
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also see Marc Philip's blog
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