High-End Audio And Coronavirus
Masks are (mostly) still on, mountains are on fire, millions are unemployed, and there is a multitude of "m" words that could make one mad. But there's one "m" word that makes people happy. And that word is MUSIC. Music has brought a myriad of marvelous emotions — magnificent memories of a better time, even motivating us to keep vigil for better days ahead. Speaking for myself, I've seen a definite increase in music consumption via social media networks, talking to friends, or just hearing the murmurs when running errands. "Thank goodness I have music to keep me sane!" Or "It's all I can do to listen to my favorite songs and take the dog for a walk." Or "It's the only way my kids will go to sleep at night."
But I started wondering — as music consumption is on the rise (hurrah for music creators!) what about hi-fi and high-end system purchases? How have dealers been faring in this current landscape?
Where I am in California, all businesses deemed non-essential were ordered to shutter back in March. Audio societies moved their meetings onto Zoom. Audio shows were forced to close here and across the country. Travel, needless to say, was brought to a grinding halt and airports became ghost towns. This avid traveler was quite happy to be home (as a Platinum Sky Miles member who was rarely home for more than 10 days at a time, I was admittedly somewhat and eerily relieved to be able to stay at home, if that's appropriate to say) because it meant I could finally build my next turntable system but gasp — suddenly I was faced with the fact that I couldn't just head over to my audio dealer's showroom and spend whole afternoons there auditioning system after system, component after component anymore. And this affected me in more ways than I anticipated.
Certainly, there was an understandable amount of being bummed out by the realization I couldn't go audition pieces I had on my list, but what was more overwhelming was the realization that the dealers I frequented were all independently owned "mom and pop" style showrooms. Yes, super high end and tremendously well versed, but they were all technically considered small businesses. And that meant they were facing the very real challenges of uncharted waters here. Here, this article was born.
I decided to reach out to dealers across the USA specifically to get their perspectives on what's been going on and hear how they've been dealing with force closures and now, in some areas, partial re-openings.
I started within my own backyard with Sunil Merchant of Sunny Components, in Covina, CA. Sunny Components, run by Sunil and his wife Theresa, is a beautiful showroom that features Brinkmann, CH Precision, Jeff Rowland, Bryston, Technics, Vandersteen, EgglestonWorks, Vivid Audio, Martin Logan, HRS, and SO much more. (Seriously, Sunil's showroom has some of the most exciting components anywhere and is a very extensive space). Before the pandemic, one could count on Sunny Components holding regular events including premieres, exclusives appearances with champagne lunches, live tutorials, and fun music parties. It was always a place for interactivity and connection — where music truly came to life.
Being part of LA County meant that Sunny Components was forced to shutter and in his own words, Sunil said this, "No, we were not prepared for this pandemic. We had to close down was the fear was real. For the first two months it was silent, shocking, and numbing. Our savings got depleted quickly. We refunded money for several systems as installing in homes was not going to happen. We are still trying to get some of the inventory sold. After the first wave, we came back into the store, started cleaning the store, components, improving electrical systems got rid of excess inventory and focused on new business. We are now only open via appointments. Everyone has been very concerned, have gladly worn masks, been very courteous and 100% civilized during their visit to our store."
Despite tremendous hardship, a loss of a family member during the pandemic, and daily uncertainties, Sunny Components has found ways to acknowledge positives that have been making themselves known to the team. "America is becoming smaller. We are learning of all the amazing customers all over the country that have started dialogues with us and have purchased some fantastic products from us." Sunil also made clear to me that losing his father-in-law during this time has brought home yet one more reason to be conscious of being kinder, gentler, and more giving to the right customers. And, with this influx of new customer inquiries, Sunny Components has started adding services such as trade-ins toward new retail purchases (which help customers get closer to their dream systems!), taking even more time for in-store system setups and working extra closely with manufacturers for extra training. Quick pivots to new methods are ensuring a brighter tomorrow where it IS, apparently, always sunny in Covina, at least at Sunny's!
I decided to head a bit further east to the great state of Texas to chronicle a day in the life of Blaine Drake of Define AV in Houston, TX. Having been in business for over 20 years, the showroom is a staple in a community that loves higher end consumer electronics. Define AV sold, basically, exclusively in-store from what Blaine explained, with consistent foot traffic and regular in-store events. While Define AV was one of the few showrooms I profiled that was not forced to shutter, they were also one of the only ones that had a pre-existing emergency plan!
Of any sales dips or uphill battles, Blaine said they experience a "large dip in retail business by custom business was only slightly down." He also found that phone calls have increased significantly — so much so it inspired his team to start an eBay store and expanding in the way of doing more service calls.
My travels (virtually, of course!) took me next to Jacksonville, FL where I had an opportunity to spend a bit of time with Joe Parvey, proprietor of House of Stereo, which has been in business for over 50 years (Joe being the most recent owner of approximately two years). House of Stereo has been a lively, happening place, with a 4500 square foot, four stereo room showroom. Pre-pandemic, they hosted gallery nights for local artists, manufacturer events, audio club meetings, and vinyl nights. At any given time if you were to saunter in, you'd find yourself in the company of 15 to 20 customers, perusing and usually drooling over the some of the highest-end components and systems around, including Audience AV, KEF, VPI, Wolf Audio Systems, Rega, T+A, EgglestonWorks, and more.
Joe explained that based on their location, due to regular appearances by hurricanes and other serious inclement weather, House of Stereo had emergency plans in place that were easily adapted to face the pandemic. As the state forced them to shutter, foot traffic became non-existent, but in-home repair, services, and sales remained strong. Accepting the bitter realities of the global health crisis, but trying to maintain as much positivity in mind, Joe considered part of this shutter time to be a blessing. "[It allowed] us to focus on the 'nice to do things' that always were superseded by the 'need to do or must do' priorities. While foot traffic has slowed in general, we have more people coming in who have devoted time and energy to researching the products that interest them, and so the sales have been more straightforward and people seem to be investing a bit more time in their systems, afraid of being without should another shutdown come."
Northbound I was, up to connect with Shayne Tenace of Tenacious Sound in Augusta, GA (and soon to be expanding to Nashville, TN) and Now Listen Here, in Harrisburg, PA. With brands like Jeff Rowland, Wharfedale, MoFi, Quad, Paradigm, Isotek, and more calling both Tenacious Sound and Now Listen Here home, one was sure to have top quality experiences at both, especially since they tended to focus on higher quality immersive experiences with a focused group of clients, rather than high volumes of foot traffic. With no emergency plan in place to fight the pandemic, and live events no longer happening (Shayne explained he has been a big exhibitor at numerous audio shows), he was pleased to see online sales and phone sales increase steadily, even though they drew back for customer safety, despite not legally being forced to shutter.
He said, "In Georgia, we were a surprising uptick in internet sales for affordable performance products such as the Quad S2. We have had a surprising number of customers that initially phoned into our PA store, which ultimately came in for one-on-one demos and system purchases. I was pleasantly surprised to see how much interest people still had in their systems and continuing their audio journeys. There were customers calling us that had not purchased new gear in a long time that turned their attention to their systems with renewed vigor. The joy that music brings and that high-performance audio helps deliver was a real foundation for a lot of people dealing with this crisis."
My last stop was none other than the esteemed amp designer and high-end audio dealer, Tim Schroeder of Schroeder Amplification and Schroeder HiFi in Highland Park, IL. With 30 years under his belt, Tim is one of the few dealers that bridges high end and pro audio together harmoniously (no pun intended. Okay, pun intended!) While he generally worked by appointment only in his showroom space, he was also without a pandemic emergency plan and forced to shutter. Nail-biting day after day rolled into weeks, into months and Tim found, surprisingly, that there has been a bump and focus on higher-end products in general for him.
When I asked him if he had had any notable revelations during this time about the industry or his business in general, he delivered this sentiment in spades! "With my business focusing more on the higher end these days, I decided to 'go out on a limb' and put together a solid reference system with products drawn from some of my favorite vendors/manufacturers. Dr. Feickert, Koetsu, Rogue Audio, Audience, a pair of Bryston 28B Cubed mono amps driving a pair of EgglestonWorks Andra Viginti speakers. Superb!
With clients that I know fairly well being invited into my showroom, it's been a relaxed and enjoyable time. The most interesting thing is now that I have these Egglestonworks Viginti's dialed in, which are positively stunning BTW, the conversations have been more about the music and the emotional aspect instead of gear factoids.... A few folks have come in, had a seat, only to become transported the moment the needle hits the record. Beautiful snapshots in these otherwise challenging times. The reason why I've devoted my life to music and all of its tendrils."
As I prepped my notes to write this piece, I looked at all the differences and similarities these dealers experienced; some were forced to shutter, others not so much. Many with foot traffic on the decline but internet sales on the increase. What would that mean in our world where auditioning components and systems has been so paramount? Was this the beginning of the end? Admittedly, I was apprehensive as I saw some of their answers unfolding. But actually, it turned out my nervousness was unwarranted because my suspicions — and my lifelong motto — are proven true: music is life. And life is all about the human connection. No matter what uncertainty comes our way with this pandemic or goodness knows, anything else, as long as we have these two things, we can move forward. And in our favorite audio dealers, we can find comfort in knowing both the music and the human connection are very strong — and very much alive!
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