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