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We can work it out!

  • In legal trouble? Chances are we’d hire a lawyer. We’d pay him/her to focus on us and our unique situation. Our lawyer would take the time to read our case and, working pro bono or not, any legal advice would be tailored specifically to us. Getting legal advice takes time. It is not a two-minute job.

    Got a leak? We’d call a plumber to come to fix it (and quick smart). Our leak wouldn’t be like anyone else’s leak. The plumber would take time to assess the situation and provide a fix, unique to us, irrespective of how much he might charge. Fixing a leak takes time. It is rarely a two-minute job.

    Feeling under the weather? If it’s not a common cold, we’d probably visit a doctor. S/he would focus on us, taking time to assess our ailment and prescribe a course of treatment, one that is tailored to us. We’re usually sorted after a 30-minute consultation but not before we’ve spent just as long in the waiting room.

    These three scenarios describe one-to-one situations where specialists learn about us, our unique situation and our individual needs, and tailor their responses accordingly. All of this takes time.

    In the audio world, this kind of work might be undertaken by an audio consultant — someone we pay to tailor buying advice and technical assistance to our unique situation and needs: our room, our decor, our music tastes, our living situation and our budget.

    Much of this audio consultancy is provided by high street hi-fi dealers – it’s baked into their business model, the store’s profit margins paying for the time required to get to know us. The dealer would then tailor his/her buying advice to best suit our unique situation and needs. If we’re out to buy a new pair of loudspeakers or an amplifier, we’re likely to spend at least an hour in-store. Many of us pause our decision making and come back another day for the second hour of listening. A dealer’s work takes time.

    Hi-fi im Hinterhof, Berlin

    One man publishing teams (OMPT) like yours truly don’t work in the same way as audio consultants or high street dealers. Each article or video creates (tens of) thousands of instant one-to-one engagements; in other words, one-to-many. An OMPT’s advice, if it exists, is only general, broadcast to an audience as one-way transmission: It’s a “Hey, check this out” or a “This seems to be an above-average performer in its class”. And our OMPT must do this daily. Willing it otherwise won’t change the fact that a reviewer’s thoughts can never be tailored to each audience member.

    And an OMPT willing readers/viewers to better understand this that won’t stem the tide of requests for further comment arriving via comments sections and email. Where willpower fails, time becomes the final arbiter: with a sizeable audience in tow and with too few hours in the day for tackling them, it rapidly becomes impossible for the OMPT to dig deep enough into each reader/viewer question to surface reliable answers.

    Even if only 0.005% of, say, a 20,000 strong audience asks a question, that’s still one hundred questions! Most OMPTs barely have the time to write articles and get them out there. Think of your own job: are you cruising along with time to spare or are you over-stretched? Chances are you’ve more on your plate than you can handle. OMPTs are no different.

    Furthermore, an OMPT knows nothing about each audience member: their room, its decor, their music tastes, their living situation and their budget. Learning this eats time. Lots of time. Just ask that high-street store clerk and consider the two hours (minimum) we took to decide on our next amplifier and loudspeaker. The bespoke one-to-one advice that we might receive from an audio consultant, a hi-fi dealer, a lawyer, a plumber or a doctor just isn’t possible from an OMPT.

    That begs the question: to whom should we turn for one-to-one advice when faced with the increasing absence of high street dealers? Many will likely not like the answer: if we’ve watched the videos and read the reviews, it’s time for us to pick up the mantle and seek out a home demo via buy and try.

    Our first port of call might be a company like Schiit Audio who sell directly in the USA where pricing need not factor in distributor and dealer margins and saves consumers up to 50% on the asking price. The Californian company sharpens this edge with a 15-day return policy to make light work of a home demo. A restocking fee presumably keeps the tire kickers away.

    Colorado’s PS Audio ditched their dealer network in 2019 to sell directly to consumers with free FedEx returns inside 30 days – all we need for a home demo – but they have kept pricing ‘as was’ so as not to upset international sales where retail pricing must still cover distributor and dealer margins.

    Danish loudspeaker company Buchardt Audio charges a flat fee on all models, no matter where we live. One price covers shipping and import duties to anywhere in the world. Our time and Buchardt’s flat US$25 fee on worldwide returns are the only entry costs.

    If the manufacturer whose gear we’ve eyed doesn’t sell direct – or if we live outside of their direct-sell territory – our attention might turn to Amazon whose 30-day return policy often (but not always) extends to hi-fi gear.

    It isn’t just Amazon. Some specialist online retailers will accept returns within a specific time window. Crutchfield gives us 60 days. Headphones.com gives us a whopping 12 months!

    Max Schlundt Kultur Technik, Berlin

    The thornier end of this branch of thinking arrives when our attention turns to gear that will land directly at our door but without a time-windowed return policy. If we don’t like it, we’re on the hook for moving it on to a new owner. The sting? Used market sales almost always attract a % loss. Like a restocking fee or a return shipping fee, the loss is the price of the home demo.

    Our decision making here will be heavily influenced by a) the unit’s price and b) our personal means. The more we earn, or the lower the price of the product, the more likely we are to downward rate the financial risk of a blind purchase. If we can’t afford to lose X% on, say, US$2000, we should lower our sights to where that percentage hit isn’t financially fatal. We should always buy/try/sell within our means. We shouldn’t fret about spending less — good sounding hi-fi gear has never been so affordable!

    Besides, selling gear on the used market can be a challenge. Even assuming ‘as new’ condition, our sale price (and % loss) will vary according to territory (some markets enjoy greater used supply than others), make/model (a Chord Mojo will be an easier sell than a similarly-priced but lesser-known DAC brand), price point (the more expensive the gear, the harder it can be to move), time of year (after Christmas might be more of a challenge than before).

    We can turn this used market scenario on its head work in our favour. Instead of buying and trying (and selling) new gear, we might sample what’s being offered on Audiogon or eBay to reduce the size of that post-home-demo haircut.

    Whatever the scenario, in the absence of a dealer or audio consultant, it falls to us to buy from manufacturers directly, to make use of an online retailer’s 30-day return policy or to engage in a little used-market chicanery. And the fewer the number of dealers in our area, the more work we have to do ourselves. A reviewer can point us in the right direction but finding gear that meets our exact needs remains our responsibility. After all, only we can know ourselves. Only we can do the work necessary to reach a satisfactory buying decision.

    Hi-fi shows won’t save us from this new reality. Wishing it otherwise won’t change their standing as little more than a glorified show and tell. The more dealers close and the more manufacturers opt for a direct sales model, the more affordable hi-fi becomes but the more investigative work we have to do ourselves.

    Sennheiser, Berlin
    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.

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