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How do you buy your hi-fi? If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that the process of buying your latest piece of equipment can be a bit of an adventure. Say that you’ve decided to buy a pair of new loudspeakers at around about the £800-900 mark* – the big question is, where do you buy them? Department store? Online company? Hi-fi chain? Local independent store? I’m sure that, like me, you’ve tried them all. So, let’s look at each of the options in turn.
Department stores: I’ve spent many an hour waiting in line to speak to an assistant in the ‘electronics’ section of some of the UK’s most established shopping emporia. And, when it’s been my turn, I have consistently been greeted by an identikit floorwalker who would have greatly preferred it if I had asked questions about the iPhone 14 or the latest LG mega-screen television rather than about loudspeakers. I have decided that when it comes to hi-fi shopping department stores are best avoided.
Online: Buying online can be a bit of a risk. If you don’t know precisely which loudspeakers you want, you are in danger of ending up with owning a pair with a weird brand name and with the same tonal resonance as shaking shards of broken glass in a tin can. This type of loudspeaker will certainly terrify any interior designer with its styling quirks and the sound will have the cat diving through the flap. However, if you do know which brand you’d like to own, and you are familiar with the online retailer, then this can be a good option. I do strongly advise against having a demonstration of a pair of loudspeakers in one shop and then buying online from someone else (showrooming) – why? Well, it’s just a bit mean, isn’t it?
Hi-Fi chains: Some of these can be good and some can be dreadful. I’ve been met by enthusiastic staff who really know their stuff in one place, and in another I’ve been left alone for over thirty minutes with my credit card burning a hole in my pocket. If you’re looking to buy lower tier products at a reasonable price, then a good one of these shops could be just what you need.
Independents: A good independent store can be the pinnacle of any UK retail experience. However, there are often a few little barriers along the way.
Once you’ve located your local store, let’s hope it’s an enticing one. Too many stores appear very dark when looking in from the outside and I’m never quite sure whether there are hi-fi products or a convention of goths inside. I much prefer a bright and airy environment in which I can both see and hear what I am buying!
There can be a couple of hazards to negotiate before entering the store: is your chosen shop run by a heavy smoker which means that you have to step over a pile of butts and through a cloud before you push the door? And pushing the door to enter, this could be a second obstacle. Do you have to press a buzzer to gain entrance, or can you simply slip through the door to reach a warm and welcoming environment?
And now you are inside the shop, how are the staff? I’m not a fan of being looked up and down to see if my shoes are expensive enough to warrant the salesperson’s time. The cheap-shoes equals a small-wallet approach to checking a customer out doesn’t work for me. In my experience, most of the brilliantly badly dressed people I know have the deepest pockets!
What I love to be greeted by are the sales professionals who don’t leave me hanging and who do come over and gently chat to me and ask what I am looking for. This kind of approach is where the independent retail stores can really come into their own. Very often you can find a sales person who genuinely shows interest in what you are looking for, what kind of music you like to listen to and where. These are the people who have years of hi-fi retail experience and are true music lovers. These are the people I like to meet.
I like a hi-fi shop’s staff to be both familiar with a product and its direct competitors. I like the staff to not only know a product’s manual inside out, but to have read all the reviews that the professional hi-fi press has written about it. Give me the USPs – I love them.
I’m a big fan of a carefully designed listening room, where I am be able to select my own tracks and, if possible, be offered a cup of coffee. I also really like the option of home delivery (hi-fi can be big and heavy, and parking outside stores can be hard to find) and a home set up. I think that I know a little bit about how to configure and toe-in a pair of speakers, but the professionals always manage to use some of their audio magic to create an even better image and display that much more detail. I think it’s a bit like the Magic Circle – whenever I ask them how they do it, they just won’t tell.
If you can find a hi-fi shop that does most of these good things, then you are on to a winner. The staff will guide you through years of appropriate hi-fi purchases and may even become good friends.
Lastly, where is the perfect Hi-Fi store? George Orwell wrote an essay for the Evening Standard in 1946 in which he provided a detailed description of his ideal public house, the Moon Under the Water. The pub turned out to be entirely fictional and this is the exact point where Orwell’s perfect local differs with my ideal hi-fi store – by now, you’ll have guessed that my favourite hi-fi shop is very real and is, of course, Loud & Clear Edinburgh. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?
*I’ll look at how to set a budget for your hi-fi in my April article.
Matt Tasker (Ammonite Media), March 2023