Lossy compression, piracy, and poorly compensated artists aside, it would be hard to make the case that, overall, the Internet has been bad for audio. Hearing new recorded music used to involve traveling to a store and buying a physical disc. Now, you can instantly access almost any music you want via streaming. In the case of Tidal HiFi -- and soon, possibly, other services -- you can also stream it in a compressed high-resolution format. Having such a vast library at your disposal has the side benefit of encouraging exploration: In the past three years, I’ve discovered more interesting new music by browsing streaming services than I had in the preceding 15 years, when my only choices were physical discs or downloads. (Legal downloads, that is; I never did the Napster thing, and I’m sure you didn’t either.)
The Internet has also enabled a new business model in which audio manufacturers can sell their products directly to consumers. Axiom Audio, Emotiva, Hsu Research, Oppo Digital, and SVS come to mind, and there are many others. Some of these companies offer a risk-free in-home trial so that you can decide if the gear is a good fit with your system, and if it isn’t, will even pay for return shipping. Also, websites that sell high-performance audio gear -- e.g., Audio Advisor, Music Direct, Needle Doctor -- give audiophiles living outside metropolitan areas the option of acquiring a wide array of gear they’d otherwise have to travel hours to shop for.
In another development, the Internet has made possible new forms of media that report on and review audio gear -- including the website you’re reading now.
Are you experienced?
One of my gigs as a writer is a column in which I answer questions about A/V technology. Of the questions I get, it seems that at least 50% involve someone asking if they should buy product A as opposed to product B or C. Which do I recommend? In some cases, I’m presented with a long shopping list of products that someone plans to buy for their system. They want me to confirm that they’re making the correct choices, right down to the cables and power conditioner.
I never answer such questions. Yes, I have opinions, but since there’s always the chance that the buyer who acts on them will end up unhappy, I’m unwilling to take direct responsibility for their purchases. Why ask me such questions at all? I imagine it’s so they can feel more confident about pulling the trigger on specific products when shopping online, where they’re likely to seek out the lowest price. I also imagine that these are the type of enthusiasts who have no interest in entering a specialty hi-fi shop, even if they live in a major urban area packed with them.
Now that I’ve mentioned bricks and mortar, it seems to me that hi-fi shops get a bad rap. Some of this is their own fault: If you’ve ever visited one, chances are that your experience ranged from great to off-putting. In the early 1990s, when I first got the high-end audio bug, I scouted out all the best-known shops in the New York City area. Of these, I best remember Harvey Electronics, on 19th Street, mainly because its staff was cool about letting you browse and ask questions. I vividly recall an easygoing salesman settling into a comfy leather chair and commenting on “the McIntosh Sound,” as classical music was played through a McIntosh-based system. His comment made me want to listen more -- and to learn more about McIntosh.
Other experiences, like one I had at Sound by Singer, near Union Square Park, weren’t as pleasant. I remember walking in the door and being approached by a severe-looking, apparently highly caffeinated salesman. Pointing at me, he asked, “Will you be buying today?” Before I had a chance to respond, he was off in search of another potential customer to offend. Out the door I went, never to return. But while Harvey’s is gone, Sound by Singer is still in business -- obviously, they’re doing something right.
Most people’s hi-fi shop experiences will lie somewhere between those poles, though I suspect that my pleasant time at Harvey’s is an example of what’s more likely to happen. But good or bad, hi-fi shops provide an invaluable service: the opportunity to audition components in person. The best shops are staffed by folks who have a personal interest in high-quality audio and can talk knowledgeably about technology and trends in the marketplace, all of which adds value to your visit.
Ultimately, the reason it’s crucial to hear components in person is so you can hear their sound quality for yourself and then decide how much you value it. Reviews on websites and discussions on audiophile forums can take you only halfway there; the other half involves experiencing the sound yourself, and for most folks that will mean a visit to a hi-fi shop.
Another benefit of shops is the opportunity to hear a selection of carefully curated gear that’s been proven to work well together. While it helps to do research online to get an idea of what you want and what fits your budget, walking into a store with an open mind and open ears might steer you down a different, possibly more rewarding path that you didn’t even know about. As with most other things, in audio there’s no substitute for the richness of direct, personal experience -- something the Internet can’t offer.
For the record
While hi-fi shops maintain an uncertain relationship with the Internet, the Web may be responsible for reviving a different type of bricks-and-mortar establishment: the record store. Ten years ago, record shops seemed to be dropping like flies. Now I see many new ones opening up -- not only where I live, but in the places I travel to. Downloads and streaming may have made all music instantly accessible, but consuming it via a computer or smartphone is no replacement for the joyful experience of walking out of a store with a bag of LPs that were on your Want list. With all the new music I regularly discover through Tidal and Apple Music my Want list just keeps getting longer.
. . . Al Griffin