Enjoy the Music.com

The Absolute Sound

August 2006
By Robert Harley

Elitism & Exclusivity: 1
Sharing Our Passion: 0


  True story: A prominent New York City high-end audio retailer discovered a customer in his store with an iPod and promptly asked the customer to leave and not come back. The reason for barring him? The iPod, said he, has no place in an establishment dedicated to creating great sound.

Frankly, I was appalled by this story. Then my disgust over the retailer's behavior turned into an idea: High-end retailers should invite people with iPods into their stores. In fact, the retailer in question should have hung a large sign in his front window proclaiming:

‘Bring in your iPod for a mind-blowing experience!" Rather than rejecting customers with iPods, retailers would do well to consider providing a special system of affordable high-end products fed by a long cable terminated with a stereo mini-plug at the prime listening seat. Plug in the customer's iPod, sit him down, and let him have a blast.

The potential customer is now in control of the demo because he can select his favorite music and access it in a way that is familiar to him. The experience is neither esoteric nor weird. It doesn't involve disc cleaners or clamping mechanisms, static-eliminators or disc mats, top-loading CD transports suspended on points or oddly configured player controls. The customer is completely comfortable. He hears his choice of music at whatever volume he wants and determines how long to listen to each selection. The demo brings what the high end has to offer to his world, rather than expecting him to make the giant leap into ours.

Ideally, the customer will experience his music in an entirely new way. Some who experience the demo will undoubtedly have that thought we've all had upon hearing sound better than we're accustomed to: "I must have this in my home."

The customer-run demo would of course be followed by a presentation of what the system can do with uncompressed sources such as CD — but without denigrating the iPod or the customer. Depending on the customer's means and interest, the salesperson could then show him a more ambitious system, explain why the more expensive system is better, and let the customer hear for himself what is possible in reproduced music. The salesperson could never take the customer through these subsequent steps without that first crucial epiphany that opens the door to greater possibilities.

The telecommunications industry talks about "the last 100 feet" problem: It's relatively easy and inexpensive to bring miles and miles of cable or telephone lines to within 100 feet of a home; connecting each house with that last 100 feet is the big challenge. Similarly, the high end's big challenge is the first "100 feet — making contact with music lovers who would become customers if only we could only get their attention for a few minutes. The iPod is tailor-made for this job. In fact, the iPod is the perfect device through which to introduce people to high-end audio. Apple's ubiquitous music player — more than 30 million sold and counting — is essentially a two-channel stereo system that can store a vast music library and has a stunningly great user interface. All it needs is a good-quality amplifier and a pair of first-rate speakers to unlock its potential. How many of those 30 million iPod owners would choose better sound if they knew it existed~ What percentage of iPod owners could significantly improve the state of the high-end audio industry? I estimate that reaching just 1% of iPod owners would roughly double the market for high-end audio in North America.

But do we embrace this massive potential source of new enthusiasts? Of course not. We bar them from stores and alienate them for life. Chalk up another victory for the high end's elitism and exclusivity.





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