That Audio Tingle

May 19, 2014

When audio business veterans wax nostalgic about the glory years of hi-fi, I really can’t relate. Having grown up at the tail end of LPs, my most formative years were spent with tapes and CDs and relatively cheap all-in-one playback units. I’ll probably never live this down now, but my friends and I judged the quality of a cassette tape deck back then by how slow it opened when you pushed the eject button.

This doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t relate, at least a little, to the passion many people still have for high-quality audio. I was born with very sensitive hearing, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to protect this valuable asset.

As a result, I can still identify bad audio very easily. If there’s tiny hum or buzz in the room, it’ll drive me crazy. It’s when it comes to the finer points of high-end audio systems that I’m at a bit of a loss. Ask me to “A-B” one high-end system from the other and I have to fib a little bit because they usually sound the same to me.

Once in a blue moon, however, I have a transcendent auditory experience related to high-quality music. The first time it happened, I was meeting with a very small, high-end speaker brand in one of the CES high-performance audio suites, back before they moved to the Venetian hotel. As I sat on a smelly sofa in a little bungalow next to the 1970s-era hotel pool, the two tower speakers in front of me reproduced an orchestral music score that literally made every hair on my body tingle. I can’t remember the brand or the specific ingredients of the speakers, but I can’t forget that visceral feeling. The second time it happened, I was attending a New York Pops concert at Carnegie Hall. The notes from the orchestra drew me into the performance so much that I wanted to lean in as close as I could get to allow the music to bathe over me.

That brings me to the subject of this month’s cover story, “Big ‘A’ Audio,” by associate editor Lindsey Adler. The article’s premise is that selling high-end audio systems isn’t as straightforward as it used to be, “with many homeowners distracted by the popular buzz around soundbars and wireless speakers.” Yet, as Lindsey writes, custom integrators still have “plenty of opportunities to install high-margin, high-performance audio products through proper demos, flawless execution, referrals, and by working with interior designers and acoustical design consultants.”

Selling a great audio experience always has been about creating a proper demo experience. If I only ever experienced MP3 music through my Apple ear buds, and didn’t have those memories from Carnegie Hall and CES to draw from, then I’d have been none the wiser. It’s just a matter of convincing your clients to sit down and actually feel a musical or movie performance in that unique way. Once they sense that tingle on their skin, they’ll likely want to avoid feeling that tinge of regret from saying “no” to owning high-quality audio gear.

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