Gets High End Hi-Fi Dealing Right

I spotted a full page ad for Listen Carefully in the back of the 2006 Hi-Fi Choice's "The Collection" issue. Listen Carefully is a high end hi-fi dealer that is taking a synergistic, limited and whole system approach to a two channel digital and vinyl playback (I think more dealers should attempt this, though it does have fundamental problems I detail below). He only offers three different systems featuring components from only a half dozen manufacturers. His most affordable system:

System 1: Ayre CX-7e & AX-7e integrated. Thiel CS1.6 loudspeakers. LAT power distribution, XLR connections & speaker leads. Cassiel CAS4 power cords. This is by far the most musically satisfying system I've heard up to £10k—yet it costs far less. Add the Brinkmann Oasis and you have a magnificent vinyl replay facility too.

The sole proprietor of Listen Carefully, Howard Popeck, will personally demo, sell and install the system, guaranteeing its performance. In his view, he's tackled all the difficult to research and expensive to try hi-fi system synergies for you. Buying a whole system up front saves you from wasting time and money chasing your tail with blind alley upgrades—hoping that new DAC or cryo treated interconnect will reveal that last bit of sonic resolution and truth.

Listen Carefully has scaled his business intelligently, offering a select set of systems that should appeal to anyone who's ever listened to music but will only be bought by a few aspiring audiophiles. Veteran audiophiles will already have a system built after years of upgrade-itis. Unfortunately, for some, constantly changing your system is half the fun. Maybe Listen Carefully could give us a fresh start and cure us of the constant need for the new (and often inferior).

I fully agree with this approach—an experienced consultant forcing high quality components on his clients and guaranteeing their performance. The big problem with this method is the client. By the time you recognize the manufactures Listen Carefully is selling, you are not simply upgrading from a Sony HTIB. You're like me—got into massive debt upgrading TVs, DVD Players, Surround Receivers at the big box stores and finally educated myself enough to invest in an affordable two channel digital and vinyl system made up of mostly used and demo equipment. I can't imagine giving up that lineage for the uncertainty of a new system built by someone else no matter how convincing their pitch and demo.

So how could Listen Carefully hit its prime target, the aspiring audiophile? By the time someone would start to care about and be able to afford such a fine system I'd have to imagine they'd be in their thirties either with a slowly built and upgraded mid-fi system or clueless wasting all their money on a plasma TV and settling for a HTIB.

One answer could be early exposure and education. Catch your future customers young. High end dealers could encourage all their current customers to start listening groups in their communities. Kids could bring their own music and discuss how it sounds different and better than their iPods and car stereos. With a new appreciation for fine audio the kids would go home and demand their parents upgrade their stereo. These kids would skip past the advice of a blue shirted 18 year old in a big box stores and buy high value to performance equipment off Audiogon after college.

Could Listen Carefully's idea of full system sales and consulting be adopted by other dealers and succeed? What else do you think dealers could do to foster early adoption and satisfaction with high end hi-fi?

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