[SoundStage!]The Candy Store
Back-Issue Article

November 2003

No Identity Crisis Here!

200311_heathkit.jpg (29080 bytes)Audio stores are not what they used to be. Let me rephrase that. Audio stores are not what they once were. The former statement may have led you to the conclusion that audio stores have declined in the way of quality, selection, and service. What I meant was that the function of the audio store has changed.

The audio hobbyist

Once audio stores were small bastions for serious hobbyists. Customers came in with bandaged-covered hands scorched by soldering irons and poked by sharp wire. Names like Heathkit, Dynaco, and Eico were the rage, sold mostly in kit form. Your audio store was part retail establishment, part parts warehouse, and part Electronics 101 class. These were the "hands-on" days of audio long before the time when "-phile" had been suffused to the title. If you had a problem with a piece of gear, you took it in to your dealer and sat it on his test bench. The words "I’ll be glad to send it in to the manufacturer" had yet to be uttered. The main source component was...the turntable.

Soon companies like Fisher, Scott, and Marantz were producing factory-finished components for early audiophiles. Dealers still stocked a selection of parts for the kit builders as well as provided service for the new stuff. Shelves full of tubes and replacement needles for turntables of the day filled back rooms. As turntables, tonearms, and phono cartridges became more sophisticated, the dealer was relied upon to perform critical setup to squeeze the most sound from the black pancakes. Such was the role of the high-end-audio store for the next couple of decades. The names changed, the shelves, once crammed full of various tube types, began to collect dust (not for long), but overall business remained the same. The main source component was...still the turntable.

Perfect sound and video?

Then in October of 1982, the audio world was turned upside down when Sony released the CDP-101 CD player. With the phrase "perfect sound forever," the fate of the turntable was etched in stone. As the digital format soon took hold, dealers could put away their setup tools and tonearm templates, concentrating instead on selling new equipment. Some of the hobby aspect faded away as the dealer traded his soldering iron and tools for a pen and a bunch of ones and zeros. The main source component was…the CD player.

In that same year, Dolby Surround was introduced as the first consumer theater surround technology. A decade or so later, Dolby Digital entered the arena, and home theater was here to stay. Home theater changed the clientele from a audiophile niche market to audio/video for the masses. People who would have never considered setting foot in a high-end-audio store came in numbers. For many dealers, sales went up dramatically.

However, for those dealers who were in the business because of their passion for music, the change had another edge. Instead of spending time with customers, sharing the passion for music, and learning how to best re-create the experience, dealers had to discuss televisions, home automation, and lighting. For most of the customers, audio was subordinate to video. This was hard for the dedicated two-channel guys (like myself) to understand. The main source component was…the DVD player.

No retreat

Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Well, almost. That’s kind of been our approach to the whole home-theater stampede. Have we ignored this trend, turning away all non-audiophile, video-watching suburbanites at the door? Of course not. We would like to stay in business. We carry front-projection and rear-projection TVs, plasma monitors, surround processors, DVD players, and scalers. We have centers, rears, and subs for almost every line of speakers we carry. We do the home-theater thing, and we do it well.

What we haven’t done is give up any two-channel space for home theater. We added room dedicated for home theater, and have acquired lines and products that we feel best represent the market. We do our best to make sure that audio is never sacrificed. Musical reproduction is still the standard, even for our multichannel A/V systems. If it can do music well, it will do theater well (not necessarily the other way around).

JMlab, a French speaker company that is well known for its musical products, has become one of our most successful theater speaker lines as well. The compact Sib and Cub system (right) is a great example of this. We were first impressed with these little guys as CES 2003. Set up in a rather large room, the system was doing justice to music as well as the bang-and-boom home-theater fare. While there are quite a few sub/sat "home theater in a box" systems out there, most of them are tinny and thin in the mids, and boomy at the bottom. Not so with the Sib-Cub system, which maintains the classic JMlab sound in a smaller package. At $1195 for a system including five matched speakers and a very good subwoofer, who wouldn’t be impressed? Apparently customers agree because it’s been a great seller.

Audio Refinement, the sister company of YBA, has built a reputation around high-performance stereo components at very reasonable cost. They recently added the Multi series of products for the multichannel enthusiast who wants to go farther that the receiver-based systems without breaking the bank. The first piece we experimented with was the Pre-2DSP. We like to start out listening to all multichannel components in a stereo configuration, with music. The Pre-2DSP is an excellent performer when used strictly as a stereo preamplifier. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it in such an application for customers who hadn’t even considered multichannel. It is a highly resolving preamp with great bass control and an exceedingly sweet top end. The amp seems to complement the Pre-2DSP with a slightly more dynamic presentation. Sonically, the combination is hard to beat, especially at $3890 for the pair.

For a state-of-the-art minimalist (albeit extremely flexible) control center for the ultimate multichannel experience, I know of no better piece than the Orpheus Laboratories Two multichannel preamplifier (right). We recently had a customer bring in his Hovland HP-100 to compare to the Orpheus Two. Perhaps because of my affinity for tubes, I expected the Hovland to come out on top. Within a couple of songs the customer and I sat with our jaws dropping. While the Hovland sounded absolutely fantastic, the Orpheus was clearly superior when it came to resolving detail, dynamics (macro and micro), and transparency. Two-channel or five-channel, the Orpheus Laboratories Two is a standard setter.

Crossing over

Some dealers worried that the home-theater stampede would end in the death rattle of high-end two-channel audio. Customers' budgets would shift to larger, and more expensive, video, and they would cheap out on the audio. Huge mass-market retailers with 18-months interest-free financing would put the specialty audio store out of business. I admit, we had some concerns as well.

Fortunately for us, this hasn’t been the case. I can best illustrate this point with an actual audio case study, if you will.

A couple of years ago, Mr. and Mrs. T came into the store looking for a multichannel audio system to go with their recently acquired "big-screen television." Being audio rookies, they were looking for a simple receiver-based 5.1 system of good quality. After a couple of visits, they settled in on one of Yamaha’s better receivers and a complete array of Triangle speakers, including a pair of the Triangle Celius as the mains. For a source they decided to use the mass-market DVD player they already owned. A few follow-up calls revealed the Ts to be satisfied customers.


One day Mr. T decided to stop by on a Saturday for a visit. Set up in one of the rooms was a pair of the Celius speakers (right) hooked up in stereo to a system made up of a decent CD player and driven by modest separates. Mr. T was amazed at the sound coming from "his" speakers. He inquired as to what he could do to make his speakers sound like that. The bug had bitten -- deep.

Still interested in maintaining his 5.1 system, Mr. T’s first upgrade consisted of trading in his Yamaha receiver for a Cary P-7B processor and a Cary A-5 five-channel amp. He chose to keep the DVD player, thinking that the superior processor in the P-7 would take it to another level. Mr. T found the improvement nothing short of astounding. This should not be surprising, as Cary has always managed to maintain the musical nature found in their tube products in their solid-state equipment as well. At the same time Mr. T upgraded all of his cables to Harmonic Technology. By this time, Mr. T was definitely under the influence.

Many months went by without a peep. One could only imagine that Mr. and Mrs. T spent many an evening enjoying the sights and sounds of their A/V paradise.


One day I received a call from Mr. T. He sadly informed me that his father had passed away recently. Apparently his father had been quite a record collector and had left Mr. T with a few hundred LPs. He wondered if I would have any idea if they were worth anything. I told him to bring in a few and I’d take a look.

A few weeks later Mr. T came in with a stack of old Columbia six-eyes, RCA shaded dogs, and a few other goodies that would make the analog lover drool. "Forget selling these! You need to buy a turntable!" I countered.

To make a long story short….

Today Mr. and Mrs. T still have the Cary/Triangle 5.1 rig. However, if you look off to the side you will also see an Art Audio Diavolo single-ended-triode tube amp, a Conrad-Johnson PV14L preamplifier, a Conrad-Johnson EV1 phono preamplifier, and a Nottingham Spacedeck turntable complete with a Scheu-Benz moving-coil cartridge.

The Ts started out wanting something to add some life to the movies they watched on the "big screen." What they ended up with was something that vastly improved their quality of life, by bringing music into their world.

Is the home-theater stampede causing an identity crisis at our store? Nope. It is giving high-end audio an identity that many would have not otherwise known.

...Bill Brooks

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