GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "How To" Archives

Published December 15, 2002


Finding an Audio Dealer

In a perfect world, spending money for entertainment would always be enjoyable. But buying audio equipment is quirky enough that some people end up with horror stories about their shopping trips. It helps immensely to understand the structure of the audio marketplace before you start shopping, because doing so can steer you toward the right kind of dealer for what you’re buying.

There are two basic types of audio shopper. The first is usually newer to the field and is looking for a type of product, but not a specific one. They might think, "I need a new set of speakers," or, "Now that I have some money I’d like to upgrade my CD player and amplifier." Someone in this category could buy from any dealer or retail outlet they liked. This person should wander around for a bit to see what’s available before they settle on whom they’re going to buy from. Grab your local Yellow Pages or check and look at who sells audio equipment.

Around here, the big category to check is named "Stereophonic and High-Fidelity Equipment Dealers." The important part is to get a feel for what’s out there, which might lead you to a dealer you like, or it might lead you to a specific product you want to know more about. If you don’t have any firm notion of what you want, it can be particularly helpful to look for advice from a dealer with salespeople whose tastes and sensibilities are in tune with your own.

The other type of shopper is much more specific; they might say, "I’d like to check out that Denon receiver I just read a review of last week," or, "Those Paradigm speakers I heard at my friend’s house sounded good. I should see if they have a model that fits in my listening room." This person obviously has a much narrower set of places they can buy from. Those who want a specific product should usually start by contacting the manufacturer (check their website or call them on the phone) and finding out who the authorized dealers in their area are. This is an important step because some stores operate in the so-called "gray market," where they deal in products they’re not officially sanctioned to sell. This usually gets you a good price initially, but you could find that the manufacturer doesn’t warranty the product if there’s a problem with it in the future.

In many cases, both types of buyer could find themselves with a couple of ways to approach their purchase, and that can be confusing. It helps to understand some industry lingo to sort out exactly whom you should be talking to.

Audio sales channels

Product lines are the various groupings of equipment from a manufacturer, usually loosely organized by retail price. It’s important to be aware of these because not every dealer will carry all of the product lines even for the manufacturers they represent. For example, someone selling Klipsch speakers might stock and demo their inexpensive Synergy line and their moderately priced Reference line, while not handling their larger and more expensive Heritage line because the speakers are much larger physically and they don’t have the room to do them justice. A number of factors go into which product lines a dealer might stock. Each line they bring in usually involves a commitment to holding a certain amount of inventory (which means higher overhead expenses for the dealer) as well as setting aside demo space inside.

Mass-market equipment includes the items that are sold just about everywhere. The main thing that distinguishes mass-market audio products is that there aren’t any special requirements to become a dealer for the gear. This is why you might see headphones from Sony for sale in a grocery store, while you’ll never see Rotel electronics anywhere but a specialty audio dealer. Even among companies usually associated with mass-market goods, some product lines do have higher requirements for retailers to sell that equipment. Sony has its ES line of premium equipment, Pioneer has its Elite products, et cetera. You could easily find places that only carry one line or the other. General electronics stores tend not to carry the premium product line. Audio dealers may not bother stocking the regular product line because they aren’t interested in direct competition against lower-margin retail chain stores. Sometimes you’ll even see dealers who specialize more in high-end products but bring some mass-market goods into the stores (DVD players are a popular example). They do so just as a convenience to their customers who want to buy everything in one place, knowing full well that at the mall down the street the same products are on sale cheaper than the audio dealers themselves pay.

Specialty audio dealers

The companies that only distribute through specialty dealers usually require the dealer to sign a contract specifying things like how much stock they will carry, how much they intend to sell over the course of a year, and similar terms. In return, the manufacturer will often assign that dealer a territory, guaranteeing that no other dealer within that area is selling the same product. If you’re looking for something from a product line sold in this fashion, you may discover there is only one dealer that carries it in your area. You’re stuck with that one unless you’re willing to drive far enough away that you reach the next dealer’s territory. Both the area and the size/reputation of the dealer determine the size of the territory assignments. In less dense parts of the US, a single dealer might handle one or three states’ worth of customers, while in areas like the East Coast you could see an "exclusive dealer for the NY Metro Area," a mere 60 miles away from a New Jersey dealer who also stocks that product.

Your typical high-end audio dealer offers a number of services that help distinguish it from regular retail outlets and the chain-electronics stores. The first thing you’ll notice is that the demo rooms have less equipment in them and are set up for more sophisticated demonstrations. Rather than a wall of speakers you select with a push button, you’re more likely to find speakers that are wired individually, with the speakers themselves moved into the right listening position for you before they’re played. You’ll always be encouraged to bring your own demo music, and overall service will be much more personalized. Since these salespeople often "live" audio, they can be a lot of help in planning your system or matching components for your needs. Other services you might find available are loaner units, available if your purchase needs to be repaired, as well as for in-home demos. For demo units, you purchase the equipment (easiest to do this on a credit card), take it home, and see how it works out for a couple of days. If it’s not what you were looking for, you can return it for a refund or try something else.

All of these services come with one main downside: As you’d expect, this sort of operation is more expensive to run. Expect that high-end dealers are going to price their equipment somewhere between full retail and 10% off that amount, especially when you’re talking about less expensive products where their margins are lower. If you do like the equipment at one of these dealers but need to shave some dollars off, check into whether they have any demo or used products for sale; those usually run closer to 30-50% off retail.

If you think you’re leaning toward a high-end audio dealer, make sure to call ahead before you plan an extended trip there. Some operate on an appointment-only basis. And for the full treatment, it’s always best to visit during less popular hours like the middle of the working day rather than, say, Saturday afternoon when the store is likely to be crowded and the sales staff won’t have as much time to work with you.

Buying mass-market electronics

GoodSound! audio budgets try to stretch every dollar, and it’s hard to argue with the value per dollar many mass-produced products can deliver. Since these products can be bought anywhere and still provide the same warranty, many shoppers consider price the main thing that distinguishes the stores. Popular approaches for getting the rock-bottom price on audio gear include looking for store sales or promotions, checking mail-order dealers using online search engines, checking out used equipment, and even searching eBay. This subject deserves its own full discussion so we’ll save that for a future article.

Most of the speakers available in a department store, chain store, or similar retailer are not very good. There are the occasional exceptions, like some of the models from Mission, JBL, or Polk Audio, and these are worth seeking out. Even if you’re shopping hard to save every dollar on your electronics, it’s worth considering at least a quick trip to a specialty dealer to check out their speakers. Entry-level products from companies like Paradigm or Athena Technologies start around $150 per pair, and the differences between them and some of the awful $150 speakers for sale out there are enormous.

Don’t worry, be happy

The most important thing to remember: Don’t get stressed out, because shopping for audio should be fun! If it’s not, something’s wrong; maybe you’re at the wrong dealer and you should try someone else. Luckily there are plenty of good choices available nowadays for every budget and taste, including yours if you look in the right places.

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