'Confessions' of a hi-fi salesman

Good hi-fi sales people are hard to find. But if you still have a hi-fi shop in your town, you might get lucky...

Steve Guttenberg
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 Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

Hi-fi salesmen are some of my favorite people. The job is nonstop audio, and they turn their customers onto the best stuff. I know from where I speak; I sold high-end audio for 16 years in New York City. I played more combinations of speakers, amplifiers, turntables, and CD players than any audio reviewer ever has. I knew the gear inside out.

The best sales people are successful because they're all good listeners, and listening is important because you have to first understand what the customer is looking for before you can provide solutions. The best salesmen have lots of satisfied customers, and those customers turn their friends and relatives on to the salesman. The bulk of my sales worked that way.

I dropped by a Long Island, NY, hi-fi shop, Audio Breakthroughs, for the first time last Wednesday. I was immediately stopped in my tracks by the hi-fi store "smell." Nothing bad, just that old familiar slightly sweet scent of new electronics, mixed with a delicate blend of plastic vapors, furniture polish, and packing materials wafting through the air. It's an intoxicating aroma; I love the smell of new hi-fis in the morning!

I know some folks don't trust salesmen, but when I was on the floor I sometimes found it difficult to gauge the intent of a new customer. I'd greet them, exchange a few pleasantries, and try to be of help. Please understand, my store sold speakers priced from $200 a pair to over $100,000. I'd need some sort of ballpark number to get things going, but that wasn't always easy.

The worst part of the job was dealing with people who felt they had a right to hear any combination of gear, at their whim, at any time. Sorry, it doesn't work that way. Now sure, if they just wanted to hear some good stuff that was already set up, and the store wasn't busy I'd play a tune or two. For some that wasn't enough, and they'd become indignant when I tried, graciously, to change the subject. Sometimes they would claim they would have bought something from me, if I had only treated them better. I can't say I was right every time, but over the years I heard from other salesmen in other stores that they never really bought anything. I got out of the business 15 years ago, long before the Internet started chipping away at brick-and-mortar sales.

A Quad ESL 2905 flat-panel speaker. Quad

My favorite customers were the ones who came in with a clear agenda, and could tell me what they wanted, how much they wanted to spend, etc. The demonstration of gear might stretch out over days or weeks, which was fine with me, as long as I felt the customer wasn't wasting my time. Buying a serious hi-fi or home theater system involves a lot of decisions, and having a knowledgeable salesman can be a big help. If you think you're smarter than the sales guy, that's cool, just tell him what you want.

My one parting bit of advice for hi-fi shoppers: be respectful of the saleperson's time. He doesn't get paid for demonstrating hi-fis or giving free advice. He or she is a professional, trying to make a living.

Audio Breakthrough's Michael Pittoni loves his job and demoed some speakers for me, even though he knew I wasn't going to buy anything. As an ex-Quad electrostatic speaker owner (ESL-63) I was curious to hear the company's latest, top-of-the-line flat-panel speaker, the ESL 2905 ($11,999 per pair). Hooked up to an all-Krell electronics system the ESL 2905 combines high-resolution with an effortless quality. Never overly detailed or "etched" the ESL 2905 seemed to bring out the best in every recording I played. Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" SACD was a knockout; the recording's soundstage depth and space were outstanding. But for me the 2905's strongest suit was its midrange tonality--vocals, guitars, horns--were all beautifully rendered. Quad has been perfecting the art of electrostatic speaker design since 1956, and you can hear the benefits of more than a half century of refinement. Quad builds its speakers to last practically forever, and I know more than a few audiophiles still using Quad's original electrostatic design, the ESL-57.

Audio Breakthroughs also carries Aural Acoustics, Definitive Technology, Focal, JL Audio, Martin Logan, Paradigm, Spendor, TAD and Velodyne speakers; Onkyo, Denon, Yamaha, Rogue, Conrad-Johnson, Krell, Creek, Parasound, VAC, and B&K electronics; plus a complete range of home theater products.