The Death of High-End Audio?

Written by Jim Smith

We’ve all seen and heard the discussions concerning the so-called death of high-end audio.  There are many reasons why that topic keeps resurfacing, but here is the one that I think may be most responsible and it is rarely mentioned as a suspect.  If addressed, it could significantly contribute to the betterment of the audio industry as a whole.  A big IMO, goes here, of course…

Will it get done?  Based on my experience, I’m not too encouraged.  Still, it’s something that could be addressed and end up being a win/win situation for the industry (manufacturers, distributors, sales reps, and retailers) and perhaps most importantly – the retail clients.

Why are the retail clients most important?  If they are not supporting the industry, who will do it?

Prices not justified?

These days, there is little doubt that the majority of high-end audio dealers in retail shops, sometimes referred to as BM – Brick & Mortar – don’t do nearly enough to support the prices they ask. Why would a potential client pay the retailers’ prices if he or she gets only marginally better service than if the item was purchased online?

The first area where I take issue with many dealers is that they do not have a sufficiently effective, professional demo.  By effective, I mean that the demo is so good, that you become involved in the music.  By professional, the salesperson is capable of setting up and providing the demo, and offering info, even education, when it is appropriate.

If possible, the demo room should be cleared of extra speakers. The speakers to be played are always in the predetermined best spot for that model.  The listening seat is always placed in the location in the room where the dynamics will be best presented – and the smoothest bass can be heard.  In my stores, everyone knew where the best position was for the listening seat, and certainly for each loudspeaker (the floor was marked), and that was where it would be demo’d. The next time you came in, the performance was the same as before, because demos were not allowed to be casually conducted with the speaker somewhere other than in its optimum set-up.

When prospects would hear an effective demo, one far beyond what they had encountered elsewhere, it was reasonably simple to build a win/win relationship.   For the most part, they had never had a similar experience before. Not only did we show them what should be expected, we taught them about what the important aspects were.

These days, I rarely encounter store demos that make the effort to provide effective, professional demos and even more, to educate the client where appropriate.  But why not?

‘Tudes instead of tunes?

And while I’m on this particular soapbox, what is it with the attitudes that so many audio salespeople exhibit?  Do they really have so little time or respect for prospective clients?  Where does this come from?

Not sure whether it’s originating from management or what – but the ‘tudes have to go.  They shouldn’t have been allowed anyway, but now we are talking about creating an improved business model that can insure not only survival, but growth in a competitive arena.  Anyway, what’s wrong with a little bit of respect?

We didn’t carry a line just because it got a great review either.  We carried it because it performed at a high enough level that we believed it offered great value for our clients.  I remember meeting a prospective client on more than one occasion who would say, “Oh I see you have the XYZ speaker.  It just got a rave review by (pick the audio reviewer that comes to your mind).”

My response was (hopefully) delivered with a genuine smile – “Even though it got a rave review, we do take XYZ seriously.  We carried it before the review came out, and we’ll still carry it when the next ‘best thing’ is reviewed in an upcoming issue.  If you have time, please have a seat over here and let me show you why we are so excited about them.”

I first wrote about this topic back in 2009 – in Quarter Notes newsletter #2 (newsletters that Get Better Sound owners receive – 21 issues to date). Unfortunately, it’s even more applicable today.  What I said then:

Are there any standards of quality for high-end audio retail specialists?

What follows is an arbitrary classification of audio retailers that are within reasonable travel distance from you. This is not intended to be a comment on any particular retail audio dealers out there. However, it is a guideline that you can use to determine if your dealer is supplying the level of service that you deserve. If you should find any dealer that meets most of the listed attributes – or even better – all of the standards listed, hang on to him or her. Support them and don’t let go!

Before viewing/applying the numbered list, the above mentioned dealer standards should be met – at a minimum:

  • Effective, professional demos.
  • No attitudes, period.

(1) A standard retail shop will probably help you load your purchase in your vehicle.

(2) Of those dealers, an even better one will offer to deliver it.

(3) Of those dealers, an even better one would offer to hook it up.

(4) Of those dealers, he or she would take into account what you already own, discuss, your needs & expectations, etc.  If possible, an even better one would have come to your home and listened with you to your current system first, before recommending any costly new component.

(5) Of those dealers, an even better one – upon listening to your system – can easily hear where your systems’ issues are.

(6) Of those dealers, an even better one will actually know what to do to correct your system’s shortcomings.

(7) Of those dealers, an even better one will suggest a “game plan” or road map to successfully overcome any issues your system may have.  The game plan may include your purchase and his/her installation of a new component, and simultaneous voicing of your system; or it may simply be a room/system voicing of your existing system, in order to upgrade it ‘as is’, and to prepare it – and you – to be able to identify better components when evaluated in your system.

(8) Of those dealers, an even better one will make every effort to offer/provide an in-home evaluation, when necessary.

(9) Of those dealers, an even better one would ask you to be present to observe and to listen to any differences as your system is being voiced to the room.

(10) Of those dealers, an even better one will stay there to get your system right, no matter how long it takes. Getting your system right is defined as when the audio shop’s representative is satisfied that the goal has been accomplished – and when you are delighted with the improvements. If set-up person is good and thorough, you’ll be happy long before he/she is.

Throughout the latter part of the ‘70s, all of the ‘80s, and into the ‘90s, that was what we (our retail shop – details at the end) did for our clients. For us, it was simply a logical business decision that any specialist retailer should pursue. Naturally our clients stayed with us (some still contact me, to this day, over three decades later).


Examined purely from a business standpoint, it should be self-evident that if I arrange for you to try out a new component in your home, and your system has been properly voiced to the room, that you will immediately hear the advantages that the new component will provide. From a retail audio standpoint, why not make sure the client has a set-up that will reveal differences easily?

Furthermore, the client’s system is akin to a billboard for the dealer’s services – all the more if it is performing at a much higher level than similar systems, casually set-up.  Such dealers get more referrals – after all, now the billboard (client’s system) is lit up. 

I should express the obvious here – that is to say that a dealer providing this level of service won’t be around if he has to price-match non-service oriented outlets. Pay him a fair price for his product and service, assuming that he successfully works hard to make your system come alive.

Honestly speaking, my personal clients almost never asked for discounts. In fact, they knew that they were getting the best deal possible – actually having their purchase deliver all of its potential. They knew that settling for anything less than maximum performance would be wasting their money.  No so-called ‘deal’ could offset a lack of performance.

Sadly, even back then, as a percentage of total audio retailers, there weren’t that many of us. Today, there are even fewer. There must be more, but I haven’t run across them yet.  If you find one, please support him or her every way that you possibly can.

Applicable today?

Even though the above was written a few years ago, in my opinion, as I said above, it’s even more applicable today.  Yes, I know clients are always looking for a deal these days.  It’s just that in my opinion, they have been left little choice.

The audio industry has created this particular situation, and it needs to fix it. It’s not so much that the customers that have lost interest in high-end audio.  IMO – it’s the dealers who’ve lost interest in helping the customers.  Therefore the customers – almost by default – have lost interest in supporting the high-end audio business model as it has become today.

Unfortunately, I constantly encounter a similar phenomenon on RoomPlay voicing trips.  The actual fact is, almost no one should need me to do these, IF the dealers were doing what they should.  Many times my RoomPlay clients start becoming angry as the voicing process is performed.  By the time that we are done, sometimes they are very angry.  Angry at me?  No, they get angry at their dealers for not making their system come alive the way it sounds when I am done.

These days, I rarely ever hear of a dealer delivering and setting up speakers beyond simply being sure they work.  A quick drop-by visit simply won’t get the job done – ever.

Special magic required?

Does this level of service involve some special magic?  Nope.  The phrase may be trite, but it’s true in this case – “it’s not rocket science.”  It does require some knowledge and a lot of work.  And it is the stuff that a larger number of dealers used to do.

In my retail experience, we always performed this service.  It wasn’t about us being good guys (even if we thought we were).  It was a simple business decision. 

It’s a decision the high-end audio industry needs to make if its customers are to be served properly, ESPECIALLY with the pricing of components these days. A win/win client/store relationship is good for all parties.  From my viewpoint, it’s a vital building block to insure the rebirth (or at least the survival) of the high-end.

(Although Jim Smith is known for his Get Better Sound series, his set-ups at audio shows, and for his RoomPlay clients, he was so successful at selling Audio Research at the retail level from a small shop in Norfolk, VA, that in 1976, Bill Johnson of ARC hired him to work for ARC in Minneapolis. 

A while later, Jim Winey convinced Jim to work for Magnepan as its National Sales Manager.  While there, Jim wrote the Magnepan & Tympani loudspeaker set-up manuals and developed a dealer-training program.  In the two years he was there – applying the principles listed above – sales rose dramatically while the dealer network was nearly halved (in order to find more customer-service oriented dealers).

In 1979, after subsequently opening Audition – Jim’s shop in Birmingham, AL, – in spite of being in a relatively small market – the shop went on to become a Top Ten Dealer for various leading high-end audio companies of the time, such as Quad, Linn, Goldmund, Apogee Acoustics, MLAS (before Harman acquired the company), and more.  All of this was due to the practice of effective/professional demos, as well as delivering and setting-up the products and systems that Audition sold.)

Back to Copper home page