Dealing With Dealers
David Topliss has worked as a consultant for a number of Hi-Fi dealers.
His anecdotes and experiences provide a unique perspective.
Article By David Topliss
enjoyment of music in our homes seems a simple enough aim. But having
personally enjoyed music and hi-ﬁ for the last 45 years, I've seen
too many people going hither and thither for equipment demonstrations to hear
umpteen different things, yet ending up both dissatisfied and wasting money.
To make buying hi-ﬁ a practical proposition and to help one choose effectively
from the many possible combinations needs the sort of framework that a good
hi-ﬁ dealer can provide.
I have come to the conclusion that the unique approach
of each dealer and the brands they stock are more the result of the musical
taste and personality of the owner than commercial expediency. So, for
example, a dealer I know who loves classical music does particularly well with
Sonus Faber loudspeakers and Audio Research valve electronics. Another dealer
who prefers rock music excels with Naim electronics alongside Neat and Kudos
speakers. Individual personality tends to be more evident in the approach to a
demonstration: some take a meticulous 'scientiﬁc' step-by-step
set-up approach; others seem more random, fiddling about to get a good sound
based on 'hearing'. Every approach has its pros and cons.
For example a dealer with a 'scientiﬁc' approach to demonstrations will need a lot of
set-up time. Reducing the range of equipment used for dems to say one type of
rack, one or two types of speaker cable and interconnect, and a few sources
and/or amplifiers, will make this more practical. Alternatively, the
subjective 'good ear' approach enables a bigger range of components to be
put together, including never heard before (and maybe surprisingly good)
combinations. There might be half a dozen brands of rack, mains cables,
interconnects and speaker cables, in addition to the equipment. The dealer
then tries a variety of combinations until all sounds good. Being aware of
these differences is more likely to result in a productive relationship for
the purchaser with the dealer, and hence a better choice of hi-ﬁ.
The experienced dealer will also know his/her
product range and what sounds particularly good with what. At one dealership,
a couple had been listening to a system based around a Naim NAP200
power amp, and both were well impressed. However, on the way out
the wife fell for the appearance of a new pair of gloss black Sonus Faber Liuto
floorstanders, so a second appointment was booked to hear them.
That said, when the dealer set up the system on the day before the dem, these
speakers sounded horrible. No matter how the Liutos
were moved about, they sounded bright, messy and unmusical, and he knew he
couldn't dem the system as it stood. However, changing to a NAP250
amp literally transformed the sound quality, and the speakers were
now rich, fast and coherent. Everyone was happy, even though the final system
exceeded the budget.
Quality Hi-Fi Experience
Starting with the very enjoyable and very expensive,
Magico Q1 stand-mount speakers
with DartZeel pre/power amplifiers amount to £70,000 of audio bliss. I'm
still haunted by the first time I heard the Magicos. Boy is there something
very special about the sound. It's not immediately impressive, and doesn't
hit you with masses of bass or detail, but there's a stillness, a
naturalness. The sound just drew me in, and afterwards I realised I had been
in my own world, oblivious to anything else. Weeks later, after listening on a
number of occasions I was still struck by them. Music comes from an inky
blackness, starts and stops with precision: the bass is deep and tuneful with
a lightness of touch, the treble is airy, delicate and unfatiguing, and the
midrange sounds natural.
For my second choice of dealer system I
surprised myself with a valve amplifier I love the sound of Naim amplifiers
and have used a NAC252/NAP300
at home for some years, but one day I walked past the open door of
a dem room where a system was warming up and thought: “now that's sounding
good”. Investigation revealed the new Audio Research 75
power amplifier playing into Wilson SashaW/P
speakers. The sound was smooth yet dynamic, detailed yet musical,
with the great control of serious bass that the Wilsons are capable of, plus
good timing and imaging. This is definitely a symbiotic relationship,
especially since I've heard the Wilsons many times in different rooms with a
range of amps and thought: “I wouldn't bother with those at the money. Too
fatiguing with a lack of coherence; trying too hard.”
My third choice, KEF Blade
speakers with Devialet amplifiers, seem to divide opinion, ranging
from ecstatic to bored. My view of the Devialet D-Premiere
is that while it seems to do everything right, it doesn't engage
with me emotionally – I could still read a book while listening. But I
recently heard a lovely sound waft down the corridor at a dealer, and it
turned out to be the new Devialet 170 with
the Blades. The ﬁrst thing to strike me was the bass -
extraordinarily deep, clean and tuneful - underpinning the rest of the sound
and allowing it to completely escape from the speakers – possibly the best
I've heard at a dealer. The imaging was quite spectacular too, and it's
rare for the equipment to get out of the way and leave me enjoying the music.
I can't wait to hear them with a Devialet 500.
At a more real-world budget, I've
particularly enjoyed both the Kudos C20 & Martin Logan Electromotion
speakers with a Naim SUPERNAIT 2
combinations sound way too good for a c£5,000 outlay. The Kudos combo sounds
powerful, detailed and dynamic with exquisite timing; it can verge on the
bright side so it works particularly well with vinyl. The Martin Logan's
smooth, rich sound is almost the opposite, but listen longer and they are
quick, detailed with great imaging, and yet can rock too. Positioning and
angling of the speakers (particularly vertically) is critical if they are not
to sound dull and disjointed.
The KEF LS50
(£800) and Pro-Ject Speaker Box
5 (£179) partnered with the Naim UnitiQute
2 (£1150) all-in-one network player are almost true budget price.
The KEF combination gives a really full and satisfying sound, way bigger than
you might expect. The Pro-Ject speakers are little wonders: once acclimatised
to the light balance (helped by a small room) they sound funky, quick, clean
and time well enough to cut it with rock material.
At a specialist dealer the demonstration is the critical
part of deciding what to buy, yet the dealer can only take what space is
available and then make the effort to create a 'good' listening room. For
example, one dealer always struggled to sell large speakers because the main
dem room was on the small side. Developing a second larger room has now
Another dealer with a medium sized room that
had been professionally treated to give a neutral acoustic has been very
successful with large loudspeakers. This room is also big enough to use
alternate wall settings for speakers: the acoustically treated wall for larger
speakers and those that sound better well away from walls; and the solid 18 in
bare brick wall for smaller speakers or those designed to be near a rear wall.
Most of the dem rooms I've seen have no specialist acoustic treatment, and
it can be argued that since most customer listening rooms also have no
treatment then that is the best approach. However, a medium size, neutral
(though not dead) room is a great foundation for achieving a good sound from a
wide range of equipment. Take the dem room I mentioned above – speakers as
big and power hungry as Wilson Audio SashaW/P
sound best in front of the treated wall, whereas a stand-mount like
KEF LS50 improves in bass depth,
speed and tonal balance when against the brick wall.
Whatever the dem room, it will not have the
same characteristics as a customer's, so a home dem may well be important as
the final check. So we're back to where we started — the simple aim of
enjoying music in our home. And just like a good dealer will want to know what
music you play and what your listening room is like, I believe a better
understanding of the dealer will help the music lover achieve audio nirvana.
Thanks to all the dealers I've worked with,
in particular Jon Harker of Oxford Audio Consultants and Peter Swain of
Cymbiosis in Leicester.
The Performance Consultancy
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