The State of Two Channel Audio

June 13, 2011

I asked myself: “If I were interested in a new two-channel audio system, where would I go to buy one in my home town of Nashville, Tennessee (also known as Music City USA because of its deep roots in the country music business)?” You never know when a friend is going to ask your advice, and it’s good to have an answer at hand.

I guess I am old school because I immediately picked up the Yellow Pages. I looked under “Electronics” and found nothing. I looked under “Stereo, Audio and Video Equipment – Dealers” and found six listings, four of which were for custom installation companies with no showrooms, one was for Electronic Express (a local big box store), and one was for a Bose store in a local mall across town which had closed. I looked up “Home Theater” and found thirteen listings. Only one of them – Hi-Fi Buys – actually has a showroom. All of the others do custom install work. A few focus on home theater and the remainder on whole house audio-video, structured wiring and security systems. I even looked under “Televisions” and found only H.H. Gregg (another local big box store). Best Buy was not listed anywhere. I guess it relies on national advertising and inserts in the Sunday paper. Google lead me to the same results. It is clear that if you were interested in buying a two channel system in Nashville, your only choices would be to head to one of the big box stores – Best Buy, Electronic Express, H.H.Gregg. – or to Hi-Fi Buys.

I decided to try the big box stores first and see what, if any, two channel equipment they carried. They all had on display electronics from Onkyo, Pioneer, Sony and Yamaha. They also carried Bose. Virtually all of the offerings consisted of surround sound receivers, Blu-ray players, and home theaters-in-a-box. I did find two $149 stereo receivers and two $199 5-disc CD carousels. Must have been old stock. There were no preamps, power amps, integrated amps, transports or DACs. I was surprised to find a $99 Sony turntable and a $139 ION USB turntable on an out-ot-the-way shelf. They were dusty. Speaker choices were limited to Bose, Boston Acoustics, Klipsch, Polk and Sony. Cables and accessories included generic and Monster. In other words, I struck out.

Best Buy did have a small Magnolia Home Theater store-within-a-store. The situation was slightly brighter there. Again, the choices were limited to surround sound receivers and Blu-ray players by Denon, Onkyo and Yamaha. There were no two-channel components in sight. The speaker selection was better – lower-end B&W, Definitive Technology, Energy, Klipsch and Martin Logan. Cables and accessories were limited to Audioquest and Monster.

Nashville’s venerable Nicholson’s Hi-Fi, which had been in business for over 50 years, was bought out five or six years ago by a custom installation company which has since vanished. Audio Video Environments, where I bought my first Meridian system, closed its brick and mortar store at about the same time and went into the custom install business. Tweeter went bankrupt a few years ago. There were several other hi-fi shops that I frequented over the years whose names escape me and which are long gone.

It is clear that Nashville is down to one store where you can shop for a two-channel system. At the entry level, Hi-Fi Buys sells both two-channel and surround sound components from Denon, Marantz, Onkyo and Sony. They also sell high-end gear from Krell, Mark Levinson, McIntosh and Rotel. Although not yet in the store, they just picked up Dan D’Agostino’s Momentum amplifier. They carry the full line of speakers from B&W, Definitive Technology, Klipsch, JL Audio, Revel and Wilson. They had B&W 802Ds, Revel Salon2s, and Wilson Sophia 3s and Sashas on the floor. Thor’s Hammer sat in a custom alcove. Turntables from Denon and Clearaudio are featured. They carry Audioquest, Kimber and Transparent cables. They also have a selection of flat panel displays, projectors, in-wall speakers and whole house audio products, as well as an auto sound system installation area. In addition, they do custom home theaters.

If a friend were to ask me for advice on a surround sound system, I would send him to Hi-Fi Buys in a heartbeat. You might ask why not send him to Magnolia Home Theater? It’s simple. Hi-Fi Buys has the most stable and knowledgeable sales staff in town. To the extent they carry overlapping products, they are price competitive. And, perhaps most importantly, the top of the line components and speakers at Magnolia Home Theater are the entry level at Hi-Fi Buys. Establishing a relationship with a dealer to whom you can turn when it is time to upgrade is good advice.

If a friend were interested in a two-channel system, I would first of all be shocked, and when I recovered, I would tell him the only store in town where he could audition two-channel equipment was Hi-Fi Buys. I would also introduce him to what is, in effect, the audiophile sub-culture. Yes, sub-culture.

I suspect that my situation is not much different than yours. Unless you live in a major metropolitan area, there is likely only one store in town where you can audition two-channel equipment – and that’s if you’re lucky. Unfortunately, it cannot carry every brand you may be interested in.

Pundits and dealers alike often bemoan the lack of dealer loyalty on the part of audiophiles. The lack of dealer loyalty is a direct function of the lack of dealers, and the corresponding lack of selection. Let’s be honest: your local high-end dealers did not go out of business because of internet price shopping. High-end audio is struggling because of the change in the way we listen to music, which in turn is driven by a lack of leisure time and a plethora of other entertainment options. In fact, the internet, a few print publications like Stereophile and The Absolute Sound, and an increasing number of regional trade shows are the only things keeping high-end audio alive, at least in the United States. The high-end companies are pursuing a survival strategy of selling fewer products at ever increasing prices, primarily to an overseas market. You can’t blame them; they have to make a living. However, you can warn them that they are sowing the seeds of their own destruction.

Things are not well in the high-end. But we all know that. What to do? You can start by supporting your local dealer if he carries the products you are interested in. Otherwise, in short order, you are going to be limited to flitting around the country to audition equipment or taking a flyer with someone you don’t know based on a review you read somewhere.