Twisted Systems

High-End Audio Retales

I want to start this one by thanking Copper for being brave enough to publish tales about some of my real life experiences which sometimes take an acidic and cynical turn as it applies to my audio history. There is probably no other outlet for this stuff anywhere else so for that I am very grateful!

This column is the first part of a series of stories of experiences I had while working as a salesman at Lyric Hifi in NYC, 1995-1998. It is important, before I go any further, to state that these tales and observations are not a critique of Lyric Hifi or any other hifi salon in particular.

Lyric Hifi in New York City is probably the oldest and most famous name in ultra-hifi retail in the US if not the world, and I remain very close with its co-owner Lenny Bellezza as well as the entire staff. What these stories are, however,  are my perceptions and observations of the general environment that existed in the rarefied air of High-end hifi retail during the times that I was either a customer or a salesman.

To those who read The Absolute Sound during the HP era, there was, it seemed, a  boys club of manufacturers & journalists which was apparent with every issue and was also the cause of letters to the editor regarding a certain arrogance that “they knew better”. This specific mentality also permeated the retail level in Hi end audio no matter what Hi end store I walked into. My experiences as a customer reflected that kind of arrogance and as a salesman, were fascinating, mostly funny & to a degree, a verification of what I thought it may be like to play in that ballpark but with some startling revelations.

Now…back to the story: Twisted Sister had stopped playing in 1986. I re-married in 1990 and had a daughter in 1993. I was content as a house husband-father for the first couple of years.

One day, while I was hanging out at Lyric Hifi (I had been a client since 1986) while waiting to pick my daughter from preschool, Lenny, then the GM of Lyric, asked me if I was going back on the road with the band. I told him that we were done as far as I was concerned.

He asked me if I was interested working at Lyric. He said “you know this stuff better than most people’ and then dangled the carrot of being able to buy gear at cost. Well…I mean, given my audio gear addiction at that time, who wouldn’t take the offer…

And so, I became a Hi End audio salesman.

One thing I told everyone at Lyric was “Don’t mention to anyone (unless I tell you to) that I was a member of Twisted Sister”. I didn’t want the drama of explaining why I was now working as an audio salesman.

I picked up the routine pretty quickly and found myself, surprisingly, after demonstrating audio gear all day, realizing that the last thing I wanted was to listen to my system at home. Besides, I was playing some of the world’s most expensive equipment all the time and what could be better than that?

Pretty soon I also discovered some real audio retail truths:

I had mistakenly thought that people who came into a store like Lyric read all the magazines and knew all the cliche audio phrases like: “leading edge transients”, Macro & micro dynamics”, “blackness” & “Low noise floor”.

Nope. Hardly anyone who came in to buy knew that stuff. It actually became a useless audio tool, much to my surprise.

One of the most successful salesman didn’t seem to really know anything about the equipment (or if he did, he sure did a great job of never showing it) except to say to a customer “This one is good, This one is better and This one is the best”. He didn’t complicate the customer with numbers and tech info. He sold tons of stuff….

I had to unlearn pretty quickly If I was going to be successful.

Wow…what a revelation: Talk less, sell more.

To be clear, I’m not saying that the legendary owner Mike Kay never sold the really high end items by explaining why it  sounds better, I’m just saying that it was a general rule of thumb to let the music do the talking.

Not bad advice.

Mike Kay, in a showroom at Lyric.

Also I was stunned to learn that:

>No one who read and quoted either Stereophile or the Absolute Sound was ever going to buy anything. They pretty much just pumped me for info and “kicked the tires”.

>The most expensive gear was generally sold to very wealthy people who bought the gear because a friend told them to or the salesman convinced them that nothing but owning the best (read: expensive) audio jewelry will make them happy.

It was at that point that I realized that High end audio acquisition  became a ‘lifestyle choice and not necessarily an audio for audios sake decision. I should add, in all fairness, that while many good and satisfying systems were assembled for a reasonable budget, the very expensive equipment did sound truly amazing!

I was also struck by the constant habit of an older couple walking in and the guy (always) asking to hear a very expensive piece in the main listening room. The wife would then ask for a chair and sit outside the room. I found this perplexing. I would ask the wife, “why not listen as well?” She would say things like, “It’s his thing”, or “ I wouldn’t know the difference”. I would then ask the woman, “How loud is the volume when he listens to a baseball or football game?”

She would complain, “loud. Very loud”.

I then would say. “Listen, your hearing is 10 times better than his, so go inside and make this choice together—you should enjoy this stuff even more than him”. She would go in and when the listening session ended, always thank me for that suggestion.

As  I said,  over the next few issues I’ll be writing about some of the most memorable and entertaining situations that I experienced while working at Lyric. When I started my audio addiction in 1968 the most expensive speakers, turntable, amps (receivers) and cartridges would probably cost, in total,  around $2,500.00 list price.

When I left Lyric in 1998, the most expensive turntable was $25,000; now there are at least 6 companies with tables that retail for over 100K.

The most expensive speakers ran $60,000 per pair, now Wilson makes a speaker for nearly  700k!

The same can be said about amps ($250,000) , preamps ($60,000) , phono stages ($70,000),  tonearms ($17,000)  and cartridges ($15,000)

Who ever would have thought that this was where this ‘hobby’ was going?

Until then…

That brings me to my final (and cynical) lesson in selling really expensive high end audio products that I learned and repeated to myself (and seems more relevant than ever given the stratospheric financial investment in owning the “best”) but never said out loud:

“Sometimes, by the time you’re rich enough to buy it, your ears aren’t good enough to hear it!”