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Demo or die – New York, Tokyo & Munich

  • munich_2014Being an audiophile: it’s not all about the music. If it were, we’d all be content listening on Crosleys and smartphones. Being an oenophile isn’t all about the wine. If it were, we’d all be content drinking from plastic cups. The delivery vessel matters. What pushes audiophiles forward is a desire to bring better sound quality into their lives through better hardware. What percentage of interest is split between gear and music (or: wine and glass) will come down to personal preference.

    In upholding the “it’s all about the music” point of view, shouldn’t your local hi-fi emporium not be playing music more or less constantly?  Some do. Many don’t. Tunes spun at an agreeable volume that don’t crowd out sales talk and deal closure. A recent couple of visits to Hi-Fi Trader in Sydney’s Newtown had me thinking about a lack of the fuel in the engine and fire in the belly. The welcome and service is of a high standard but why so quiet in there? Could high street retailers could do way more to emphasise their raison d’etre? After all, they’re selling the equipment that makes music sound glorious, without which there’d be no hi-fi industry.

    Lyric Hifi, New York

    Without music in the air, stores run the risk of presenting as tributes to the hardware of a bygone age. And yet that’s exactly how I saw it at Lyric Hifi in Manhattan’s upper east side: 70s-influenced decor bearing down gloomily on some serious hi-end pieces from the likes of Focal and VPI. The welcome was agreeable but apparently time wasn’t long enough for even the shortest of demonstration. Perhaps my accent rang too loud with ‘no sale’, thus rendering any time spent with this fellow as DOA? Nonetheless, the store was eerily quiet. Odd.

    In Living Stereo, New York

    A similar tale played out downtown at In Living Stereo where the store’s new location is split between vinyl and hi-fi spaces. The former’s welcome could not have been more welcoming. However, on the other side of the floor to ceiling glass wall that separates east from west, the reception was agreeable but cool. I was free to wander – look but don’t touch was a vine that easily drowned out the sound of a needle endlessly clicking in a records run out groove. In their main room, John De Vore’s presence loomed large. The aesthetics were warm and inviting with loudspeakers from France’s Davone taking centre stage whilst a Leben amplifer sat glowing off to one side. You couldn’t fault the appearance but the sound was again one of a pin dropping.

    Dynamic Audio (Ground floor), Tokyo

    I’ve visited one of Japan’s best headphone stores before. The range of products on offer at e-earphone in Akihabara is simply staggering. Just around the corner is the equally astonishing two-channel equivalent: Dynamic Audio. Six floors of the best hi-end audio gear you’ve ever seen in one location. I was flabbergasted by all that sat on display on the ground floor, let alone that which followed as I took the stairs successively higher.

    Dynamic Audio (3rd floor), Tokyo

    And yet, even with this selection of wondrous equipment, mild-mannered music squeaked politely and quietly on each floor. If it weren’t for the sharp eyes (spotting an Airplayable Apple TV connected to a Linn DAC) and pushier nature of my travelling pal, we wouldn’t have been treated to a thorough twenty minute blasting all manner of Sleepers Awake, Black Dahlia Murder, Lorde and Churches through JBL Everests powered by McIntosh electronics. In an unexpected turn, our host Sato-san wanted to turn it up to 11 – the exact opposite of silence!

    Quiet hifi stores invoke thoughts of a lesson without a teacher, a ship with no captain or – worst of all – a pub with no beer. Often the music sells the gear without the need for a pushy pitch. Without it there is a lack of listener engagement.

    Fortunately, for every strike of in-store indifference there were several staffers at this year’s Munich Hi-end show who could teach their store-managing cohorts how to better sing a sales tune. Store owners could attend shows not simply to ogle new models or ink retailer deals but to find inspiration from the best of the best in ‘demonstration delivery’ and its more oblique cousin ‘listener engagement’.

    Art Dudley and Roy Hall

    One must work hard to make a static display stand come to life. Roy, he who put the Hall in Music Hall, worked splendid resuscitation with his own line of electronics and turntables. Whenever you encounter Hall, he’s nothing if not engaging, infusing his brand with some personality that the products themselves often lack. I’m confident Hall won’t hear me say that as he has already loudly and proudly proclaimed that he never reads this site.

    Roy Hall and whisky

    Ever present to hold court with jokes and jibes, a lack of personality is not something you could ever accuse Hall of. “You’re that pretender from Australia, aren’t you?”, scoffs Hall with a knowing wink. “Now here’s a REAL writer!” – Hall gesticulates in the direction of an approaching Art Dudley. Of course, those that visit the Music Hall exhibits will know that the main attraction isn’t just the man himself but his whisky, with which his generosity runs contrary to stereotype. The point? Roy Hall engages his audience with wisecracks and liquor.

    Johan Coorg of KEF

    Another champion of listener engagement is Johan Coorg, a man who doesn’t simply let a playslist run its course throughout KEF’s Munich launch of a new Reference range of loudspeakers, there powered by Arcam electronics. Coorg introduces each piece of music enthusiastically and then, after hitting play, grooves along to it side of stage. It’s a product demonstration done up good and proper; something that other exhibitors and high street store owners would do well to emulate. Better still, you won’t hear any of the usual audiophile guff at a Coorg-fronted KEF demo. A carefully curated playlist – into which he random dips – sees the man thoroughly engage his audience. And that’s probably why the KEF/Arcam space was packed solid each time I stopped by on my way to somewhere else.

    KEF at Munich Hi-end 2014

    During a long conversation about computer audio which featured nary a mention of the host company, Audioquest’s Steve Silberman described his ideal hi-fi store this: a barista serving (good) coffee would front the doors which would then lead you onto a bench dominated by products with which the man in the street is already familiar: a range of tablets, PCs and smartphones. Attached to these would be DACs, (headphone) amplifiers, headphones and the like.

    Steve Silberman of Audioquest

    Silberman is a master of getting his message across and he does so by letting the results speak for themselves instead of just talking tech turkey. Ten minutes in the Audioquest space was all it took to prove to this listener beyond all reasonable doubt that ethernet cables do make a difference to sound quality. A conclusion that must be heard for oneself to be believed.


    Female attendees and (especially) exhibitors are often a soft target for snickering Beavis and Butthead coverage. “Look, GIRLS, hehehhuhhuhhuh!” runs the underlying message; it’s a tell-tale sign of the amateur commentator, all too eager to prove that audiophile gatherings aren’t just about boys and their toys. Let’s face facts: 99% of show attendees are fellas and smothering show coverage with a disproportionate number of chick picks isn’t going to draw new female listeners any closer.

    Tasvee Uka of Audeze

    A prime target for such adolescent nonsense is Tasvee Uka who fronts the audioNEXT booth. They’re the Essen-based local distributor for Audeze. Uka is Audeze’s International Sales Manager and she works tirelessly to implore casual passers by to stop, put down their shyness and take a listen. Alex Rosson is on hand at times to fill in the gaps and field more technical questions whilst the audioNEXT team take dutiful care of non-English speakers. Many cogs make for an impressively thorough demonstration machine.

    The more eager Audeze auditioner gets amplifier-matching advice and comparative information on the differences between LCD-2, LCD-3, LCD-X and LCD-XC, all of which are up for mix and match with juiceboxes and DACs from the likes of AURALiC, m2Tech, Beyerdynamic, Meridian and (my personal favourite) the little known MalValve head amp three (€4500). It can drive all three models simultaneously and it’s a choice pick to discover for myself that the LCD-2 remain too rich a chocolate for my tastes. The LCD-X are more my bag, offering sharper midrange contrast and dynamic poise than the LCD-3. A delta that could probably be atrributed to the former’s greater efficiency? I still find Audeze ‘phones a little on the heavy side – a complaint that Uka says she hears a lot – but I’m coming around to them. Their sonic talents look set to eventually erode any lingering gripes I might have about adjusting the LCD-whatevers for a comfort fit that’s way more conducive to long-term listening sessions.

    More to follow as the road-trippin’ allows.

    Further information: Lyric Hifi | In Living Stereo | Dynamic Audio | KEF | Audioquest | audioNEXT | Audeze

    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John is the editor of Darko.Audio, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is an occasional contributor to 6moons but has previously written pieces for TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Twitter


    1. same thing happened to me in Singapore. The world renowned High End Research said “Sure take a cab and we’ll welcome you. So I did and then all they said was either everypiece was broken or unplayable or not available. They wanted to sell me a discounted Goldfinger V2 for $6000 USD list $10,000. All their records were 50% percent higher than un US.

      So I left disappointed and $40 poorer for the cab rides. Sad. Then this place goes on to win awards and be crowned Sales Leader of the year for Goldmund. Wow…..

    2. John,

      Unfortunately, many of the Uber High End Salons serve those who’s love is not the music, but the appearance of their equipment (insert Corvette/Ferrari cliché). Static displays of wealth and privilege, where sound is secondary, hence the excitement I feel towards the headphone revolution, audio evolution. An “everyman’s” hobby of purists striving for musical excellence, so much like stereo was when I “discovered” the writings of Harry Person/J. Gordon Holt in the 80’s, fueling a passion for musical truth, or at least truth in key elements of musical reproduction, the glorious midrange and musicality of Conrad Johnson tube gear, the open sound space created by Maggies, I feel a bit of that magic when I read Head-Fi postings, your prose, and engage select manufacturers in conversation (Schiit Audio comes to mind). Keep rattling the cages of the audio elitists, don’t let this passion of ours fade away, rust as it were, from boredom, neglect and dreadful boorishness.

    3. I suspect I’ll never come around to agreeing with Audeze’s bulkiness (if I can’t bob my head, it’s pointless) but other than that I completely agree with everything you’ve stated in this write-up. Chapeau bas, monsieur!!

      While some exhibitors do try to at least entertain us at shows, most of the high-end stores that sell the actual product the other 364 days of the year remain old-fashioned, insipid, and sometimes (like the ones in Manhattan you mentioned) even pompous. They reek of the whole “old country club” culture – partly the reason why golf is dying and no one cares – filled with old “aristocratic” douches sipping brandy and discussing how they can further exploit the poor.

      Some are trying to change, but the furthest they’ve gone is having their staff imitate Steve Jobs (who, for all his marketing talent, was still a douche) by wearing turtle necks. Then we have the other extreme side of audio – crass equivalents of the 80’s “boom-box” traders selling miseducating sh*t like Beats and Soul. There seems to be no middle ground – places that subscribes to the “good sound doesn’t require you to be a douche” mantra, if you allow me to call it that.

      Reminds me when I used to live in a suburb in London. There was a store that sold stuff by the usual suspects – Linn, Meridian, etc – but hardly ever played any music, and on the rare occasions they did have some sort of event, it was always filled with old gits in Oxford accents listening to Dullsville Jazz 101. I spent more time at the record store a few blocks away because they had music playing all the time and was always filled with people discussing the actual music. Even the sound quality – dollar per square foot – was better than that of the snob store.

      • That’s right, Audeze bulk ain’t for everyone. You have to decide on the compromise you’re most prepared to live with.

        The lack of music and in retail spaces is an under appreciated problem. However, there’ll be a second installment that celebrates a consumer experience that I believe shows how the fine line can be tread between old school methodology and Jobs’ turtle neck attitude.

        • Brian Berdan at Audio Element in Pasadena, CA has a nice and spacious set up in his very cool store. He has a fun attitude and wants customers to enjoy the experience.

          That’s a rare experience.

    4. Just to play devil’s advocate and having worked in a hifi store for numerous years… after a while all the poor sales guys want is some bloody silence! Seriously, how long can you intently listen to music before you need a break? And if you don’t listen intently, you’re down to moving in some sonic ambiance where music is more fill and noise. That dulls your senses and quickly kills off any interest in listening to music seriously.

      I’m completely with John’s observations by the way. Being a punter walking into a hifi shop as my dreamt-of nirvana of wonderful sound and exciting kit beyond my ken, deafening silence would be a massive turn-off.

      It’s simply important also to put yourself in the other guys’ shoes (the sales guy or store owner having rent to pay, kids to put through college and employees to keep) to appreciate why things are the way they are. If you’ve worked a hifi shop for 20+ years, chances that passion and enthusiasm have given way to all manner of other things are quite high. Which is true for pretty much any job, ain’t it?

      I for one couldn’t stick with the hifi salesman’s gig for more than the 3-some years I lasted. My hat is off to those who can and, unlike John’s examples, still manage to make a walk-in customer off the street feel welcome and then expose him or her to good sound with the music they enjoy, sans attitude. Doing that day in day out isn’t so easy especially if you must deal with the “waste my time then shop for a discount on the Internet” mentality.

      Again as in any other job, I think it comes down in the end to figuring out how to keep one’s passion alive (or to change professions if one cannot). Passion always communicates and, between like-minded folks, builds instant bridges without any how-to manuals -:)

      • Yes Srajan – I don’t doubt that silence is a way for staffers to stay sane. In which case, doesn’t this necessitate greater creativity with duty rosters? Salesman music burn out ain’t conducive to listener engagement and, ultimately, the store’s bottom line. If sales folk can’t cope with all-the-time noise, how about scheduling demo sessions and then publicising them in store and in the front window?

        • Then o guess auto salesmen must just want to sit at a desk versus having to take yet another person on test drive.

          Great stores like Audio consultants employ lots of people and value the customer. Perhaps that is why four stores and flourished since 1967 = success.

          It’s the mom and pop hobbyist boutique stores that are one man business that ruin the business. They advertise all sorts of products but when you request a demo unavailable. As one such person in Chicago emailed me and said. I m really a computer person and don’t have much time or equipment set up. Ok. See us.

        • My local always has music on. If you stop in on a slow day, you will find a group of employees sitting around playing tracks of their own with child-like glee…swapping gear in and out after the ultimate sound or what finds synergy with what. Like us, these guys like music. Hence, I don’t buy the music burn-out angle. If you can’t listen to 8 hours of your own music at work through glorious gear, perhaps you’ve found the wrong job.

    5. Interesting points about music playing/not playing at high end audio stores. Whats also curious to me is that I have never even thought of the issue. Been an audio enthusiast for 30+ years. Sad really. It kind of indicates how small a role audio stores play in most of our lives. So few and far between. I guess I would have to weigh in on saying that ‘not playing’ is the way to go, or possibly at very low volume. Not just for the staff, but as a customer I dont like being ‘required’ to listen to anything. If I dont find the the type/style etc. palatable for me at that particular time I dont want to be ‘forced’ to listen to it I may be in for of a mood to be quiet, concentrating on looking, thinking etc. Thats just me, and how my brain works…

    6. I have never been able to get the sales people in any Manhattan audio shop to give me the time of day. They all stand around their empty stores chit chatting or staring at their shoes. I have rarely been able to get them to even give me a demo. I really don’t get it as I’m usually neatly dressed, work in finance (IT), and have around 40K of stereo equipment at home. I buy used and/or online as a result. The store can all go to ****.

      • I want to add that I used to live in San Francisco about a 15 years ago. At the time, the stores there were much friendlier to me than Manhattan stores are now. This was true even though I was a bearded long-haired Deadhead back then. I was able to demo lots of gear, get really good advice, and felt the sales person wanted to make sure I was going to be happy with my purchase. I purchased my first audiophile system in Bay Area stores. I don’t know if it is different now because times have changed the business or if it is a NYC vs SF thing.

    7. Record stores always have music playing, but hifi salesmen are too delicate for that?

    8. Time to come out of me mum’s basement to hear Diana Krall and Norah Jones… 😉

      Can’t wait for this weekend @ T.H.E. Show! <- Now I'm being serious.

    9. How dreadful! I’ve had significant interactions with three audio shops over the years from which I bought equipment. Great music was always playing when I walked in, and sales people were always extremely helpful and enthusiastic about both music and their gear. Demos were freely offered on any equipment I wanted to hear–even the $250,000 system on the top floor that the salesperson knew I wasn’t in the market for. Systems were put together on the spot for me to hear, and I was allowed to take equipment or even a whole Linn system home over a Sunday to hear at home. I wonder how the audio mausoleums about which you wrote stay in business. I suppose that lots of them don’t.

      Here’s some conjecture. It is a trait of narcissistic personality disorder to value equipment in and of itself (cameras, tools, audio, whatever) rather than for what it does. Could such disordered individuals be over-represented among the ranks of high enders?

      • Quite possibly, Bradley, yes. The risk of losing an appropriate gear/music balance must be continually guarded against and I suspect that some (but not all!) dealers have tipped the see-saw heavily towards gear, seeing it as deluxe jewellery that should be revered for its own aesthetic beauty. That’s not how I roll.

    10. Interesting point, me Mum’s basement/static displays or being forced to listen to unending demos of Diana Krall and Norah Jones, thinking the former would be less painful

    11. Nick: I hear you loud and clear. I’ve never understood that apathy either. I don’t blame anyone who experienced their local shops in that way to give up and shop outside the area. If dealers don’t add value in exchange for their substantial margin, they’re useless and worthless. Which I think was John’s entire starting point for this missive.

      Visitors to our digs who’ve not been to Switzerland before often comment unprompted that the Swiss are “so nice, and sales people in shops and waiters in restaurants really *serve* you and don’t seem angry and resentful about their chosen job”. I noticed the same thing when we first moved. I notice it each time we go to France by contrast. The whole concept of service in the sales profession has taken a real hit there by comparison. In France it’s nearly an unwritten rule: the better the restaurant, the lousier the service. It becomes all about attitude and how fortunate you are to be allowed to eat there.

      Why pay the long green only to be treated like an outcast? Across from our flat is a very expensive hotel. You can walk in there in jeans and T-shirt and they treat you no different than if you flaunted some designer suit. You’ve got bejeweled ladies and their high-finance suited mates sitting right next to down-dressed tourists and everyone is handled the same. And the staff is invariably courteous whether you spend small change on a coffee to sit out on their veranda and enjoy the stellar views; or dine out fancy with a small group.

      We had fun taking some friends there who live close but had never gone in because they assumed they’d be treated snootily as they’re no high-rollers but live in a farmhouse, drive a simple car, wear simply clothes and make blue-collar wages. They were shocked to experience the opposite.

      At the end of the day, if serving people makes you feel like a lowly ‘yes m’lord’ serf, underling and 3rd-class citizen, you’d be better off in another industry.

    12. My local store does often have something playing. They break the monotony with their ‘inappropriate music half hour’. Last visit I was greeted by Norwegian death metal.

      • That sounds like a great way to schedule a hi-fi store’s musical throughput. I think there’s a key word emerging here: structure.

    KIH #10 – Dead on arrival

    Hotel room vinyl & headphone listening with the VPI Nomad