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Finally, a high-end audio dealer who really knows what he's doing

The Audiophiliac visits the Audio Connection store, and gets bowled over by the sound!

I worked as a high-end audio salesman for 16 years in New York in the 1980s and 1990s, and I've visited a lot of audio stores, but Audio Connection is a standout in a number of ways. First, it looks and feels like you've entered a time warp and suddenly it's 1990. Audio Connection's mission is clear, it's a two-channel audio store, so if you need a 4K video projector, or a multiroom audio system to put sound in your bathroom, you're in the wrong place. The store offers an impressive range of gear; complete audio system prices start at less than $2,000.

The Vandersteen Model 7 speaker, at Audio Connection Steve Guttenberg/CNET

One of the main reasons to shop at Audio Connection is to spend time with the owner, John Rutan. The man knows how to get better sound from gear than most dealers I've met, and where possible he likes to drop by prospective customers' homes to scope out the room, so he can provide exactly the right gear for the space. If that's not possible he can work from pictures and room dimensions. Audio Connection opened its doors in 1980, and Rutan bought it in 1989.

Rutan's knowledge base is deep. His hands-on experience working with countless combinations of electronics, turntables, digital gear, and speakers in his store and customers' homes lets him cut to the chase faster than most salespeople. He knows how to place speakers in a room just so, and what amps work best with speakers. That's what brick-and-mortar dealers have over Internet outlets: real-world expertise with the gear. Merely buying the good stuff doesn't automatically lead to great sound in your home, you need to rely on someone who knows how to make all of the pieces work together.

Rutan steers clear of brands that just arrived and got a great review; they might be out of business next year. Most products sold at Audio Connection come from brands like Audio Research, Ayre, Bowers & Wilkins, Bryston, Magnepan, NAD, PSB Speakers, Rega, Rogue Audio, VPI and many more. Some have been at Audio Connection for decades.

There's a sign in the store's front window urging passersby to bring in their phones and let them check out their tunes on a decent set of Bowers & Wilkins speakers with a Rotel amplifier. That little demo might open the customers' ears to new sounds hidden in familiar music.

I've heard Vandersteen Model 2Ce Signature speakers countless times, but I've never heard them sound as good as they did at Audio Connection. Not because the speakers were hooked up to a crazy-expensive amp, no, it was a Rogue Audio Atlas Magnum. Rutan set the speakers a lot further apart than I normally would, but the soundstage was enormous, with incredible depth. A live Joe Bonamassa LP kicked butt!

Bring in your phone, hear great sound, at Audio Connection Steve Guttenberg/CNET

By high-end standards this was a pretty affordable system, but Rutan could build a sweet-sounding little system around Vanderseteen Model 1 speakers with a Rotel RA-12 integrated amplifier, and then use your computer or old CD player as a digital source. That system would run $2,000, and blow away a lot of far more expensive hi-fis.

Then we went to a different room and Rutan fired up the Vandersteen Model 7 speakers, and the three-dimensional quality of the sound was simply astonishing. Every instrument was clearly delineated within the soundstage. We played a lot of music that night, and then we put on Brazilian singer Ana Caram's "Rio After Dark" LP. I was present at the recording session, 25 years ago, and Rutan's system transported me back through time to the event.

Rutan must be doing something right:Audio Connection is thriving in a time when electronics giants like Sony and Pioneer are losing money. The store is located in Verona, N.J.