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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
May 2004

Supporting Expertise

A few miles from my house there is a small paint store that caters mostly to professional painters. The fellow who owns and runs it is earnest, friendly and knowledgeable to the extreme. There seems to be no painting or staining question he can't answer definitively, and he's also able to impart all manner of fine details that make any job easier to do well. He sells good paint and stain, and his hours are convenient.

A few miles in the other direction is a Home Depot, whose paint department dwarfs the store I mention above. Home Depot also sells good products, and the prices are much better than those of the small paint store. I've bought from Home Depot. The service was barely passable -- the people who helped me didn't know much about the use of the products they sell, but they did know how to find them among the many items Home Depot stocks. It's seemingly always crowded, and on Saturday afternoons, you can almost forget about finding someone to help you, including cashiers, who have lines so long that they disappear into the isles of the store like contrails into the clouds.

Since discovering the small paint store a few miles from where I live, I have patronized it instead of Home Depot, and for reasons that are probably now obvious: easier access, good products, much better service, and especially much greater knowledge. The fellow who owns the store has expertise that he's willing and able to share with anyone who cares to walk in his door. There are many audio dealers that operate in this same way, and yet dealers are taking it on the chin in these days of Internet marketing. Some have tried to adapt, but many lament lost foot traffic, and sales, and grumble about people who visit to see a product and then search the Internet for the lowest price and buy from someone else. Where is the respect for expertise?

It's something other than expertise that people seem to admire these days. The many online forums are brimming with "experts" on all manner of audio topics. Some of those who post do know what they're talking about, but a good many don't and never express doubt in the process. Still, the forum lets both coexist and thereby spout all manner of information and misinformation together. In such a climate, a quick opinion is as prized as being right, and making a quick deal for a sought-after piece of equipment at the lowest price possible is more important than supporting the expertise of someone who can make your musical life more meaningful and give you more time to enjoy it. The market sinks poor dealers; the Internet props up poor thinkers.

We in the press are not blameless. More than once I've read a review in which the writer proclaimed that a new and/or relatively unknown product was, for example, "a $12,000 speaker system for $3495." Of course, this product is sold direct, which is not a general indicator of a lack of quality, but also no guarantee that the product is great, or even passable. We at SoundStage! have reviewed factory-direct products, and we've found some of them, like the Odyssey Audio Khartago amp I wrote about earlier this year, to be exceptional. But the idea that factory-direct audio companies (some of which are companies in the loosest sense of the word) offer greater value by definition than those that sell via a dealer network is faulty. When someone touts the amazing value of a $3495 factory-direct speaker, I immediately wonder if that person has heard a Magnepan MG1.6/QR or Thiel CS1.6, both of which cost much less. When a new $1000 preamp from a online-only company is called the best sub-$1000 preamp on the planet, I wonder if the person making the claim has heard an Anthem TLP 1. When a $1500 integrated amp that's sold direct only stomps on a reviewer's $5000 separates, I want point out the Unison Research Unico and Audio Analogue Pucinni SE Remote. Dealers want to point out this equipment, too -- and they can because they have the expertise that comes from knowing about it.

The cynicism that manufacturers like Magnepan, Thiel, Anthem and many others have to endure because they maintain channels of distribution, warehouses, advertising, and the other trappings of being viable consumer entities is even more galling. Why pay for all this, so goes the line of reasoning, when you don't have to by buying factory-direct? Here's why: These things, as well as more than a staff of three people, are signs that you are dealing with a real company, and dealers, another sign of a real company, are in effect the local agents. If you've ever had to call your long distance carrier to complain about a charge, you know how hard it is to get any satisfaction when someone in Toledo is servicing your account in Walla Walla. When you have a problem, or need an infusion of expertise, the dealer is there, where you are. This never used to be a novel idea, but it has become one.

I realize that by writing this I'll sound like a mouthpiece for the establishment, but this is not something that bothers me. This establishment is worth supporting, for the same reason my small local paint store is. Don't let anyone, Internet personality or audio writer, whitewash the idea of buying from a dealer as bad, and be wary of anybody who paints with a broad brush by repeating the cliche that buying direct means you automatically get a better product for less money. Expertise is acquired, not innate, and viable audio companies, like great audio products, are not created overnight.

...Marc Mickelson
editor@soundstage.com


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