A common – and invariably depressing – topic amongst audiophiles is the slow but steady closing of high-end audio salons. The causes of this phenomenon are many and include the popularity of home theater; the ubiquity of music via the iPad; the relegation of music to background entertainment, which often seems to serve no purpose other than to stave off boredom; the internet, which allows for direct transactions from manufacturers/importers/distributors to consumers; and of course, the dismal economy. But when one door shuts another one opens: With the shuttering of many main stream audio dealers has come the appearance of home-based dealers. In point of fact, home-based dealerships have been around for years, though their existence has typically not been well known. The obvious benefit – to the owners – of home-based dealers is minimizing rent, which can be a significant fixed cost; tolerable in good times, but potentially devastating in downturns. From the perspective of the consumer, home-based dealers have a number of negatives associated with them. For one thing, home-based dealers are usually appointment-only, thus limiting the ability of consumers to drop in unannounced. More significant however, is that due to space, and perhaps financial limitations, most home-based dealers tend to carry fewer product lines than do traditional stores, and fewer models within those product lines. As such, they may be considered “specialty salons”. For this reason, home-based dealers tend to attract customers who come to hear a particular brand. The downside of this business model is that customers have less opportunity to hear products with which they may not have had familiarity, nor to test synergy between products. I recently visited Dave Lalin, who conducts business from his home in New Jersey under the name “Audio Doctor.” (http://www.audiodoctor.com) As I’ll explain, Dave’s business blurs the distinction between home-based and traditional audio dealers.
Dave got into high-end audio as a hobbyist at a very young age. Fascinated with the look of his father’s Dynaco tube system, as a three-year-old budding audiophile he pulled the knobs off his Dad’s prized equipment. Dave had a reel-to-reel tape deck at age five, and in his teens started exploring better levels of mass market audio gear. Dave quickly got on the upgrade path, realizing that though each successive upgrade improved the sound quality of his mass market system, it still never sounded real, i.e., like live music. This changed when Dave heard his first high end audio system at age 17 at which time he got hooked; he then started putting together a real audio system one piece at a time, until his new system finally brought him closer to the real thing. But of course, as is true for many of us his search was far from over, and many additional components came to be part of his system.
Dave ultimately began working in high-end audio retail, and is known to many in the NYC area for the many years he spent at two of NYC’s best high end audio boutiques, Sound by Singer and Innovative Audio. Dave left Sound By Singer in 2005, and immediately began the process of transforming his 4,000 square foot Victorian home into an audio emporium. Dave lives with his wife, three children, and two German Shepard dogs in a charming, three-story home on a tree-lined street in Jersey City, just a short trip from NYC and my own abode in northernmost NJ. The entire first floor, with the exception of the eat-in kitchen, is dedicated to audio, and there is a dedicated home theater showroom in the basement stocked with five distinct home theater systems.
The first floor has three dedicated listening rooms, with the gear divided between them essentially by price and usage. Upon entering the front door, one finds oneself in what was originally a small sunroom/parlor, but which is now devoted to entry-level systems and house-wide distributed audio. The systems here are mostly geared toward lifestyle home theater, by which I mean on-wall, small floor standing and bookshelf and micro speakers. Three of the room’s four walls contain systems, the fourth wall is spared only because it is mostly windows, and at least two of the walls contains multiple systems, all of which are ready for auditioning by perspective customers. Speaker manufacturers include Artcoustic, Cabasse, Gallo, Tannoy, Dali, and Kef, and electronic manufacturers include Anthem, Cambridge Audio, Rega, Naim, amongst others.
The dining room – or more accurately, what was once the dining room – will probably hold the greatest appeal to the majority or potential customers, as it houses the “middle-priced” gear. As in the entry-level room, Dave has maximally utilized every square inch of space. On one wall is an enormous equipment rack with more electronics than I could easily count. The manufacturers represented here include AMR, Cary, Chord, Conrad Johnson, Naim, Hegel, Electrocompaniet, Unison Research, Bryson, Luxman, Exposure, Esoteric, Isotek, Micromega, M2 Tech, Meitner, Primare, Parasound, Rega, Nottingham, Anthem, Arcam, Pioneer Elite, Running Springs, Nordost, Kubala, and Vincent, amongst others. Wisely, the gear and wiring are arranged such that virtually any source, amp or preamp can be hooked up quickly, with no need to physically move the gear. This of course makes it much easier to compare different products, something of considerable importance to many audiophiles. Speakers also abound in this room, with 12 pairs of floor standing models from Gallo, Dali, Gershman, Gradient, Kef, Usher, PSB, Paradigm and Vivid, six pairs of bookshelf speakers, and three subwoofers. All told, this one Audio Doctor sound room has more equipment on display then the entire contents of many large high end audio stores; the selection in this one room is mind boggling!
Dave has a keen ear, both for absolute performance as well as value. His approach is to constantly evaluate the market, and identify the most innovative and highest performing audio equipment available.
To digress for a moment: I admit to a bit of audio snobbery: I have always taken a dim view of Paradigm speakers, admittedly based more on preconceived notions than actual experience. In discussing speakers in the $8K range, Dave spoke highly of the Paradigm Signature line, while I expressed my skepticism. Dave suggested we listen to a pair (always a good idea!) and so he hooked up the Signature 6’s. To my surprise, these showed themselves to be very good speakers, acquitting themselves well with other similarly priced speakers. Kudos to Dave for challenging my pre-conceived notions.
While the dining room may house the most popular brands, the living room is where audio fantasies come to life. Dave has effectively divided the room into two, with a set of speakers on each of the two short walls, and back-to-back seating in the room’s middle. On one wall is a setup based around the fantabulous Scaena line array speakers, on the other the Kef Blades. The Scaenas were driven by the limited edition Reference Conrad-Johnson Art Amplifiers ($37,000/pair) and the matching Conrad Johnson GAT preamp ($20,000). Sources included the new Merrill REAL Turntable with a Tri Planer tone arm, and the new EMM Labs Reference DAC the 2X ($15,500). Most of our listening however was to the Kef Blades, which use a coaxial driver for highs and mids, and two woofers – one of each side – an arrangement that Kef claims provides a perfect time alignment with the coaxial driver. I have heard the Blades before but had not truly appreciated just how good they are. The Blades were powered by a Reference Chord CPA preamp 5000 ($20,000), and we tried two different amps, the more affordable (relatively speaking) Electrocompaniet AW 400 ($12,500) and the less affordable (okay, damn pricey!) Chord SPM 1400 Reference Mono Block amplifiers ($32,000/pair). The Electrocompaniet was very good, but the Chord amp took things up quite a few notches; sometimes one truly does get one pays for. The front end was a rare treat, as I got to compare the Esoteric DAC D-02 (approximately $23,000) and the EMM Labs DAC 2X (approximately $15,000), both driven by an Esoteric K03 CD player/transport ($13,000). Wowsers! These DACs are at the top of the field, though each had its own distinctive sound; my personal favorite was the EMM Labs – perhaps I can talk Dave into allowing me to review it. On the analogue side was the new Kronos turntable ($28,000 plus arm) which uses two counter-rotating platters. Dave also has more affordable tables on display, including the previously mentioned Merrill REAL, and the Nottingham Space Deck.
Last but not least, Dave also does custom install work, both for 2-channel and home theater setups.
Audio salons have traditionally played a significant role in high-end audio, allowing new audiophiles, as well as the more seasoned, to experience new products and technologies. The closing of such shops is a result both of the difficult times our hobby is facing, and the changes in the market place. It has been suggested that audio shows will fill the void and indeed, there has been a recent increase in such shows, for example, the California Audio Show (San Francisco), the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, the Capital Audio Fest, and the Lone Star Audio Fest. While these shows are a great deal of fun for hobbyists, it remains to be seen just how much they will translate into business for manufacturers, importers, and dealers. Even if the shows do in fact help business, the absence of high quality audio salons will most certainly represent a significant loss to the industry. Between high rents and the need for “daytime jobs,” it is increasingly difficult for proprietors to run “traditional” high-end shops. Home-based dealerships represent a happy medium, with clear benefits to both the owners and end consumers. But as noted above, the downside of home-based dealerships is their tendency to be highly specialized. Dave Lalin’s approach spans the divide between the old and new models, wherein he provides a staggering array of gear – from entry level to top shelf – that rivals or even surpasses that of traditional audio shops, all in a comfortable setting resembling the typical end-user environment. I applaud Dave for this undertaking, and hope that he inspires others.
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