The Rantings of an Old Audiophile
I guess it’s time for me to retire. Not because I am old, or because I am tired of being in Audio Sales, I’m not; but maybe it’s time because the industry is just falling apart. Let me explain.
There was a time, let’s call it the 60s and 70s during which time if you wanted to listen to music in your home, you would go to an Audio Specialty Store. Sure, you could go to a department store and find an RCA, Electrophonic, or some other piece of crap but musically they were just terrible, and what’s even worse is they were of poor quality from the transistors to the turntable to the speakers.
If you wanted a good system, you would go to your local HiFi Store. There, you would find a collection of High Fidelity equipment ranging from compact stereo systems from companies like Fisher, Harman/Kardon, KLH, Kenwood and Sony which actually qualified as good quality sound at the low end to very finest available at the time.
The first store I was introduced to back in the 60s was Emmons Audio in Studio City, California. It was located close to Burbank Studios, the heart of the film and TV industry. They sold lines like McIntosh, Bozak, JBL, Dual, Thorens, and more. At the time Emmons was considered one of the best dealers in the Los Angeles area.
The store was run by Jean Emmons in the front and her husband in the shop. It was Jean who sold me my first real stereo system. It was a used system, but it opened a door that has not shut to this day. The system included a Kenwood KT-10 (what I remember as Kenwood’s first transistor AM/FM stereo receiver), a Dual 1009SK record changer with Shure M55E cartridge and a pair of KLH 17 speakers. I actually kept the speakers for a long time and when I sold them some twelve years later, I actually made money on them. Come to think of it, I think I made money on all of the used gear. What the KLH ignited in me sparked my entrepreneurial nature and within a few months I was buying and selling used audio gear.
That was the week I discovered I could actually hear music and tell the difference between what sounded like music and what didn’t. It took me two weeks to realize I didn’t like the sound of the Shure cartridge and I quickly replaced it with a Stanton 681EE. What an amazing improvement in sound.
But I digress. The point is, if you went to just about any good HiFi store back then, you would meet and talk to a professional. I stress that title, because today, finding a professional in a place that sells audio equipment is getting to be damn near impossible. I would often visit stores like Stereo Mart, or Woodland Stereo, and just talk about the gear and what works best with what. They knew about cartridge interactions with tonearms. They could explain the differences in amplifier or speaker design. You could sit and listen to music and actually hear what they were describing to me.
Can you imagine being able to find a salesman, who actually understands and can explain the difference between IM and Harmonic Distortion? Or what is square wave rise time and slew rate? How about how an electrostatic speaker works compared to a ribbon or dynamic speaker? In short, one who understands and could explain the technology of electronics.
As it turns out, I spent so much time at Stereo Mart that the manager decided to put me to work. I was young and stupid at the time and was delighted just to be there, and oh yeah, I did it without being paid. Today they call that being an apprentice. It was worth it, because Glenn Yingling (the manager) became my mentor, and I got to meet people like Saul Marantz, Stu Hegeman, Joe Grado, Rudy Bozak, and Paul Klipsch to name but a few.
Back then it wasn’t unusual for the industry founders to actually go to a store for a visit. These industry greats where who I refer to as the First Genners. Meaning they where the very first generation of engineers and inventors that started the HiFi business. Over the years I had the pleasure and privilege of being on a first name basis with many of these industry pioneers. I am what I call one of the Second Genners, who consist of engineers like Mark Levinson, Richard Vandersteen, Carl Marchisotto, John Dahlquist and the Bedini Brothers, plus reviewers like the late great Harry Pearson. Also, most of the top executives for all the major Audio and Video companies are part of this group.
It was from this start that I learned the basics, and eventually over many, many years pretty much everything else audio related. The point is that what started as an interest grew into a hobby, and ultimately into a passion and a lifelong career.
Along the way I was able to share my knowledge with many employees and friends. I have trained a lot of professionals. At least by the time they moved on within the industry they became audio professionals. Some became HiFi store managers and owners, others went to work for factories as trainers and executives, and even one of my Padawans created and runs one of the world’s highly respected audio review sites.
I am also happy to say that over this last 48 years I have helped tens of thousands of HiFi enthusiasts to better understand what they are buying and listening to. So I can say I have been very lucky with my career. I have gone to work, spent my days talking about my hobby, listening to music and managing to make a living. But things are changing.
I guess what I am saying is I have become obsolete. Maybe people today don’t want to know the difference between a moving magnet and a moving coil cartridge or how to properly position their speakers in their room to achieve the best image and stage within the music.
Today, the vast majority of the buying public seems to be satisfied walking into a Big Box store and getting anything from vaguely accurate to downright misinformation. It’s not that the salesmen are trying to lie to you, it’s just ignorance about the technology.
As an example, a few years ago Best Buy shut down their local branch of Magnolia HiFi. Then about a year later re-opened it inside the Best Buy store. What I now call Best Buy Guys with Ties. When both McIntosh and Martin Logan sent their factory regional mangers to train the new hires for Magnolia, both men stopped to visit me after their ordeal. What I found interesting is both men said exactly the same comment about the training: That it was like they were training salespeople who looked like “deer in the head lights!” In short, 80% of what they were teaching went right over the heads of these salespeople.
I think it comes down to passion for the hobby. I am afraid that there aren’t enough people coming up in the industry who love the hobby and love listening to music and are willing to be underpaid doing it.
What happens next?
I’m not sure. With the development of new technologies that are directed at people that want music in their home, but are not necessarily interested in how good it sounds, high quality performance isn’t important. Additionally, this type of product doesn’t require any expertise to describe or install.
The first product like this was introduced in the 1980s when the phono cartridge industry developed the P mount cartridge. Up until then if you wanted to properly match a cartridge to a turntable, you needed to know the mass of the arm and the compliance of the cartridge and what goes with what. But as stores like Pacific Stereo and Circuit City were hiring salespeople without the required training, and turntables were still the major source of music, something had to be done. The answer is taking the guesswork out of the equation. All P mount cartridges are the same weight, have the same compliance and are the same size and geometry, plus since it’s plug-in you don’t need to know where the wires connect. So any turntable designed to use a P mount cartridge accepts any P mount regardless of the manufacture. Furthermore, turntable manufacturers can take the adjustments out of the hands of the buyer by presetting the weight, overhand and anti-skate. The result is there is no need for a professional.
My fear is this type of design has and will continue to proliferate throughout the industry. I see a continued expansion of the low end of the market at the expense of the High End. This in not to say that the Audiophile market will disappear, but like any endangered species the illusive audiophile is harder and harder to find, and even worst, the now nearly extinct Audio Professional Salesperson.
Copy editor: Laurence A. Borden
We would also like to thank readers Dan Rubin and Russel Dawkins for providing additional editorial insights. – Publisher, 12/20/2016.
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