Finding an Audio Dealer
In a perfect world, spending money
for entertainment would always be enjoyable. But buying audio equipment is quirky enough
that some people end up with horror stories about their shopping trips. It helps immensely
to understand the structure of the audio marketplace before you start shopping, because
doing so can steer you toward the right kind of dealer for what youre buying.
There are two basic types of audio shopper. The first is
usually newer to the field and is looking for a type of product, but not a specific one.
They might think, "I need a new set of speakers," or, "Now that I have some
money Id like to upgrade my CD player and amplifier." Someone in this category
could buy from any dealer or retail outlet they liked. This person should wander around
for a bit to see whats available before they settle on whom theyre going to
buy from. Grab your local Yellow Pages or check www.superpages.com and look at who sells audio equipment.
Around here, the big category to check is named
"Stereophonic and High-Fidelity Equipment Dealers." The important part is to get
a feel for whats out there, which might lead you to a dealer you like, or it might
lead you to a specific product you want to know more about. If you dont have any
firm notion of what you want, it can be particularly helpful to look for advice from a
dealer with salespeople whose tastes and sensibilities are in tune with your own.
The other type of shopper is much more specific; they might
say, "Id like to check out that Denon receiver I just read a review of last
week," or, "Those Paradigm speakers I heard at my friends house sounded
good. I should see if they have a model that fits in my listening room." This person
obviously has a much narrower set of places they can buy from. Those who want a specific
product should usually start by contacting the manufacturer (check their website or call
them on the phone) and finding out who the authorized dealers in their area are. This is
an important step because some stores operate in the so-called "gray market,"
where they deal in products theyre not officially sanctioned to sell. This usually
gets you a good price initially, but you could find that the manufacturer doesnt
warranty the product if theres a problem with it in the future.
In many cases, both types of buyer could find themselves
with a couple of ways to approach their purchase, and that can be confusing. It helps to
understand some industry lingo to sort out exactly whom you should be talking to.
Audio sales channels
Product lines are the various groupings of equipment
from a manufacturer, usually loosely organized by retail price. Its important to be
aware of these because not every dealer will carry all of the product lines even for the
manufacturers they represent. For example, someone selling Klipsch speakers might stock
and demo their inexpensive Synergy line and their moderately priced Reference line, while
not handling their larger and more expensive Heritage line because the speakers are much
larger physically and they dont have the room to do them justice. A number of
factors go into which product lines a dealer might stock. Each line they bring in usually
involves a commitment to holding a certain amount of inventory (which means higher
overhead expenses for the dealer) as well as setting aside demo space inside.
Mass-market equipment includes the items that are
sold just about everywhere. The main thing that distinguishes mass-market audio products
is that there arent any special requirements to become a dealer for the gear. This
is why you might see headphones from Sony for sale in a grocery store, while youll
never see Rotel electronics anywhere but a specialty audio dealer. Even among companies
usually associated with mass-market goods, some product lines do have higher requirements
for retailers to sell that equipment. Sony has its ES line of premium equipment, Pioneer
has its Elite products, et cetera. You could easily find places that only carry one
line or the other. General electronics stores tend not to carry the premium product line.
Audio dealers may not bother stocking the regular product line because they arent
interested in direct competition against lower-margin retail chain stores. Sometimes
youll even see dealers who specialize more in high-end products but bring some
mass-market goods into the stores (DVD players are a popular example). They do so just as
a convenience to their customers who want to buy everything in one place, knowing full
well that at the mall down the street the same products are on sale cheaper than the audio
dealers themselves pay.
Specialty audio dealers
The companies that only distribute through specialty
dealers usually require the dealer to sign a contract specifying things like how much
stock they will carry, how much they intend to sell over the course of a year, and similar
terms. In return, the manufacturer will often assign that dealer a territory,
guaranteeing that no other dealer within that area is selling the same product. If
youre looking for something from a product line sold in this fashion, you may
discover there is only one dealer that carries it in your area. Youre stuck with
that one unless youre willing to drive far enough away that you reach the next
dealers territory. Both the area and the size/reputation of the dealer determine the
size of the territory assignments. In less dense parts of the US, a single dealer might
handle one or three states worth of customers, while in areas like the East Coast
you could see an "exclusive dealer for the NY Metro Area," a mere 60 miles away
from a New Jersey dealer who also stocks that product.
Your typical high-end audio dealer offers a number of
services that help distinguish it from regular retail outlets and the chain-electronics
stores. The first thing youll notice is that the demo rooms have less equipment in
them and are set up for more sophisticated demonstrations. Rather than a wall of speakers
you select with a push button, youre more likely to find speakers that are wired
individually, with the speakers themselves moved into the right listening position for you
before theyre played. Youll always be encouraged to bring your own demo music,
and overall service will be much more personalized. Since these salespeople often
"live" audio, they can be a lot of help in planning your system or matching
components for your needs. Other services you might find available are loaner units,
available if your purchase needs to be repaired, as well as for in-home demos. For demo
units, you purchase the equipment (easiest to do this on a credit card), take it home, and
see how it works out for a couple of days. If its not what you were looking for, you
can return it for a refund or try something else.
All of these services come with one main downside: As
youd expect, this sort of operation is more expensive to run. Expect that high-end
dealers are going to price their equipment somewhere between full retail and 10% off that
amount, especially when youre talking about less expensive products where their
margins are lower. If you do like the equipment at one of these dealers but need to shave
some dollars off, check into whether they have any demo or used products for sale; those
usually run closer to 30-50% off retail.
If you think youre leaning toward a high-end audio
dealer, make sure to call ahead before you plan an extended trip there. Some operate on an
appointment-only basis. And for the full treatment, its always best to visit during
less popular hours like the middle of the working day rather than, say, Saturday afternoon
when the store is likely to be crowded and the sales staff wont have as much time to
work with you.
Buying mass-market electronics
GoodSound! audio budgets try to stretch every
dollar, and its hard to argue with the value per dollar many mass-produced products
can deliver. Since these products can be bought anywhere and still provide the same
warranty, many shoppers consider price the main thing that distinguishes the stores.
Popular approaches for getting the rock-bottom price on audio gear include looking for
store sales or promotions, checking mail-order dealers using online search engines,
checking out used equipment, and even searching eBay. This subject deserves its own full
discussion so well save that for a future article.
Most of the speakers available in a department
store, chain store, or similar retailer are not very good. There are the occasional
exceptions, like some of the models from Mission, JBL, or Polk Audio, and these are worth
seeking out. Even if youre shopping hard to save every dollar on your electronics,
its worth considering at least a quick trip to a specialty dealer to check out their
speakers. Entry-level products from companies like Paradigm or Athena Technologies start
around $150 per pair, and the differences between them and some of the awful $150 speakers
for sale out there are enormous.
Dont worry, be happy
The most important thing to remember: Dont get
stressed out, because shopping for audio should be fun! If its not, somethings
wrong; maybe youre at the wrong dealer and you should try someone else. Luckily
there are plenty of good choices available nowadays for every budget and taste, including
yours if you look in the right places.