Are brick-and-mortar hi-fi stores still relevant?

They certainly are, because in an actual store you can touch, see and compare the sound of products you might buy!

Way back in the late 1970s, long before the Internet, iPods, and home theater changed the way we listened to music, I worked at Sound by Singer, a high-end audio store in NYC. I didn't know it at the time, but it was the golden age of high-end. It had a good, long run that made it to the early 1990s, but the high-end audio market didn't shrivel up and die. Here in NYC there are more high-end stores than there were in the golden age. Rents are sky-high, so you might wonder how the stores prosper, and the answer is that they offer service the Internet can't.

The Brinkmann Balance turntable with Breuer Type 8 tonearm. Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Sound by Singer is still around, and I wanted to catch up with the owner, Andrew Singer, to talk about brick-and-mortar stores. Sure, it's easy to learn about what's hot and read reviews online, but the best systems aren't merely collections of great gear; it's not that simple. Your system is a system, after all; it's how all the parts -- the turntable or digital source, amplifier, and speakers -- sound together in your room. So smart buyers aren't just looking for a collection of "the best" gear, they're seeking out systems that sound best to them. When Singer demonstrates gear for customers he sees how they react, and that frequently leads to a better option. Tastes differ, and he knows how to get the sound his customers want. Internet stores can't offer that level of expertise. Singer regularly visits his customers' homes to fine-tune his recommendations.

Sadly, most potential hi-fi buyers no longer live near brick-and-mortar stores where they can see, hear, and touch the gear they're interested in buying. Singer noted that his younger customers aren't looking for status in the gear, they want something that sounds good. Brand names don't impress them, but they're excited to hear amplifiers that can make a big difference in the sound of a system. Most of his new customers are under 35 years old.

Great dealers are, in effect, curators, and they use their experience and knowledge to select the product lines they sell. Singer is totally smitten with Harbeth speakers, and its new 30.1, a midsize bookshelf speaker is a real honey. Listening to it for the very first time was, as Singer put it, "One of those eureka moments; it's one of the best speakers I've heard at any price." Singer has been in the business for 35 years, but he still gets genuinely excited about hi-fis that can get close to the sound of live music.

The Harbeth 30.1 speaker Harbeth

Harbeth is a British company that still makes all of its speakers in England, something Bowers & Wilkins, KEF, Linn, Monitor Audio, Quad, or Wharfedale can't claim. Harbeth is exactly the sort of company Singer loves to work with; the smaller, performance-driven brands that aren't trying to sell boatloads of boxes or appeal to the widest possible market.

Singer sells a lot of really expensive gear, but he takes real pleasure in finding exceptional products over a fairly wide price range. He's not the guy to see for a great deal on a $300 or even a $1,000 system; those buyers are already well served by the Internet. Andrew Singer's complete hi-fi systems, with a turntable, amp, and speakers start around $3,000, less for digitally sourced systems. That's still a lot of money, but carefully selected hi-fis can easily provide 10, 20, or even 30 years of great sound .

Sound by Singer in-store auditions are by appointment only, so you'll receive truly personalized, one-on-one service. Check the Web site to see the brands the store stocks. If you have a favorite local brick-and-mortar dealer in your town, tell us all about it in the comments.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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