Sure, you can probably score a better price buying audio gear online, and it's certainly easier, but is it a smart way to go? I don't think so.
First, buying hi-fi without listening to it is a bad idea. Smart buyers compare one product to another, it's simply the best way to learn what your choices are. Granted, it's not the same as hearing speakers in your own room, but at least you're hearing them in comparison to each other under the same conditions.
Online reviews, including the ones I write for CNET and print magazines offer my opinions about sound. But reviews by me or anyone else can't predict about how, say a speaker, works with a receiver that's similar to yours. I have no idea about your specific needs, your room size, acoustics, taste in music, etc.
Use my reviews as a starting point and then try and listen for yourself.
User reviews? Hey, I make my living writing audio reviews and my opinions are drawn from my experiences with literally thousands of audio products. I can point you in the right direction, but at the end of the day, its your ears and your money. Buy what you like; just make sure you've heard it.
A good salesperson can offer sound advice based on your specific needs. That's a huge advantage online sales outlets can't duplicate. Yes, finding the right store or salesperson can take time, but that's true for doctors, lawyers, plumbers, and contractors, but once you've found a good one, their advice and council can be a huge asset. If you're spending $500 or more for speakers or a receiver try to make the effort to hear the thing. A successful salesperson has lots of happy customers, there's no other way to be successful. I sold audio for 16 years, I know from where I speak.
Then there's the service question: The better brick-and-mortar dealers provide service and hands-on help that online sites can't. When your amplifier conks out or your speaker's woofer buzzes, a local retailer might handle service on site, or ship it back to the manufacturer for service. They might even supply a loaner while yours is being serviced; my store did that all the time.
But those services cost money that online dealers don't have to spend. So sure, they can undercut a good brick-and-mortar dealer. Sadly, there are fewer and fewer shops to choose from. Big-box stores definitely count as brick-and-mortar, but if they sell computers, microwave ovens, printers, and audio they may not be the best sources for sound advice or service. For this blog I'm referring to specialty audio shops, and you may not live anywhere near one.
That's too bad. Too many hi-fi buyers wind up with something worse than they would have bought from a good brick-and-mortar shop. If you're planning on investing on a really nice system it might be worth your time to travel to a good store.
If you're lucky enough to still have a good one nearby, call up, and make an appointment to drop by and listen to some things. Bring a few of your favorite CDs or LPs and see how good they can sound. And if you find something you like, buy it from the store. Using a brick-and-mortar dealer to figure out what you want and then buying it online is downright unfair. When you use a service, pay for it.
If you have a local dealer you love, tell us about the store!
Dealer and online retailer horror stories? Share 'em here.