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Demo or die – Harman’s flagship store, Madison Avenue, NYC

  • I owe Stephen Mejias (formerly of Stereophile, now of Audioquest) a beer or two. It was he who I suggested I drop by Harman’s flagship store in Manhattan. On the back of a tepid five minutes at the upper east side’s Lyric Hi-Fi, my expectations for retail store consumer experiences had been revised downwards.

    The upper level of 527 Madison Avenue is a large, airy hall. At first blush, similarities to Apple’s retail design cannot be ignored. However, Harman takes things a little deeper. For starters, Apple don’t greet its customers with a huge, nine-legged spider from which hangs nine pairs of headphones. At each listening station, a Samsung table gives you access to a playlist of songs that have carefully curated by Harman’s marketing department to meet a broad range of tastes. Even if your taste isn’t catered to, these eighteen songs anchor the listening experience as you progress through the store.


    Harman have nailed the importance of comparative listening to the wall. You’ll find those same songs to hand when heading to the rear of the main space to audition computer speakers or Bluetooth boomboxes. And those songs also present in the JBL speaker lounge downstairs. Here, the user is invited to fire up a tune and then click through each JBL loudspeaker model using the touchscreen tablet as a virtual a switch box. My host, Sigora Thompson, is enthusiastic without spilling overboard with information or a desire to impress. She says that all Harman staff are instructed to lend a “wow” factor to the consumer experience and that they are specifically trained in the art of getting the consumer to open up about their wants and needs (or just let them browse if that be their will).


    Alone one wall there are two doors marked ‘private’ that host audition spaces for two-channel and home theatre configurations. However, the mother lode is sealed behind two, super-weighty doors: a high-end home theatre room where a surround sound complement of JBL K2 are powered by a glowing stack of JBL Synthesis electronics. Total system cost = $150K. A scene from Superman: Man Of Steel had me reaching for the button marked “holy shit!”. I’d strongly urge casual visitors the Harman store to check this room out if only to get a handle on what’s possible from more serious coin.

    And that’s the point: the staff at the Harman store will demo anything for anybody that asks. (And even some that don’t!).


    I ask Thompson how staff deal with the inevitable comparison to Beats products. Harman have a clever answer: the Sound Cube. Along one wall a headphone showdown: B&W P5 and JBL S700 Synchros can be played off against Beats studio 2. The JBLs were my pick by a country mile. The other wall sees a three-way with Bluetooth speakers: a JBL Flip can be compared to a Beats Pill and Jawbone Jambox (which I found quite dreadful).


    Back on the main floor, there’s room for BYO music. My Astell&Kern AK120 gets a long run at AKG’s statement IEM, the K3003 (US$1299) that connote a similar vibe to that of Sennheiser’s HD800; they x-ray music down the bone. Ideal for a listener who demands hyperreal reveal. The AKG K551 (US$379) remain a smidge too keen at the top end for Neil Young’s On The Beach but going with Kangding Ray’s Solens Arc sees that trait U-turn for clean incision of keys and spacious ambience.


    Harman’s product line might not satisfy the most obsessive compulsive of audiophiles. In the context of these pages, where an emphasis on affordability remains a running theme, most of the JBL and AKG product lines could still be described as entry level. Those looking for higher end pieces should know that Harman also demo Mark Levinson products here.

    Ultimately, one must look past the technology to see my point: the consumer is engaged both by innovative product display or agreeable, well-informed sales staff. It’s a store where visitors are afforded respect whether they intend to spend or not. To wit, your average high street retailer could learn a lot from how Harman run their flagship retail space.

    Further information: Harman

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. Hey John,
      I’m going to be in NY sometime in July – will definitely check out that 150K JBL stack.
      JBL often forgotten, overlooked or simply snobbed by WAF conscious audiofiles.
      I recently stumbled upon a pair of rather utilitarian looking(fugly) Studio 530s (about 600 CAD), they were driven by a humble 326BEE and later by a McIntosh 5200 integrated. Those JBLs are definitely candidates for the K.I.H. category.

    2. It’s great to see a demo facility full of gear, easy for the user to make comparisons on their own, or with the help of a trained “demo facilitator”. This is what I hope we can start seeing more of from local retailers in the near future. In my opinion, creating a positive, unforgettable experience that can transform a casual listener to an enthusiast is the single most important responsibility of this industry right now.

      The space, gear, and associated technology to facilitate such a demo costs a great deal of money. Customers who have the good fortune to know a local audio retailer who can provide a good demo experience really need to appreciate this by being loyal to that dealer. Hopefully they in turn treat their potential customers with respect and don’t pre-judge them.

    3. Mike, I think you hit the nail most perfectly on the head.

      ” In my opinion, creating a positive, unforgettable experience that can transform a casual listener to an enthusiast is the single most important responsibility of this industry right now. ”

      That’s *it*.

      Given that recent show commentary here, on my site and elsewhere rightly criticized many rooms for quite bad sound using bad music to boot… that part ain’t it. One can’t blame punters for assuming that if one goes to a show where the manufacturers themselves set up their gear, that they ought to know how to get the best results. And if what many by implication then call ‘best’ is quite mediocre, that becomes an instant perception hurdle in a potential audiophile who merely feels reconfirmed that what he or she has is plenty good enough – and that the whole audiophile ‘thing’ is a bunch of fluff and BS.

      Same goes for shop demos. So it’s great to hear what a nice job these folks seem to be doing. Kudos to John for telling that tale!

      • That’s right. A misalignment of tastes with music can cause a disconnect between listener and manufacturer/retailer but that’s not the whole story. Norah Jones presented with passion will still solicit listener engagement. This is where the ‘canned’ show demo can still have some impact. It’s (apparent) laziness – whether it be via playlist curation or wanting to show off one’s wares – that’s the real turn off.

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