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Enjoy the Music.com
Volume 7 No. 4

Dealing With Dealers
David Topliss has worked as a consultant for a number of Hi-Fi dealers.
His anecdotes and experiences provide a unique perspective.
Article By David Topliss


  The enjoyment of music in our homes seems a simple enough aim. But having personally enjoyed music and hi-fi for the last 45 years, I've seen too many people going hither and thither for equipment demonstrations to hear umpteen different things, yet ending up both dissatisfied and wasting money. To make buying hi-fi a practical proposition and to help one choose effectively from the many possible combinations needs the sort of framework that a good hi-fi dealer can provide.


Audiophile Dealers
I have come to the conclusion that the unique approach of each dealer and the brands they stock are more the result of the musical taste and personality of the owner than commercial expediency. So, for example, a dealer I know who loves classical music does particularly well with Sonus Faber loudspeakers and Audio Research valve electronics. Another dealer who prefers rock music excels with Naim electronics alongside Neat and Kudos speakers. Individual personality tends to be more evident in the approach to a demonstration: some take a meticulous 'scientific' step-by-step set-up approach; others seem more random, fiddling about to get a good sound based on 'hearing'. Every approach has its pros and cons.

For example a dealer with a 'scientific' approach to demonstrations will need a lot of set-up time. Reducing the range of equipment used for dems to say one type of rack, one or two types of speaker cable and interconnect, and a few sources and/or amplifiers, will make this more practical. Alternatively, the subjective 'good ear' approach enables a bigger range of components to be put together, including never heard before (and maybe surprisingly good) combinations. There might be half a dozen brands of rack, mains cables, interconnects and speaker cables, in addition to the equipment. The dealer then tries a variety of combinations until all sounds good. Being aware of these differences is more likely to result in a productive relationship for the purchaser with the dealer, and hence a better choice of hi-fi.

The experienced dealer will also know his/her product range and what sounds particularly good with what. At one dealership, a couple had been listening to a system based around a Naim NAP200 power amp, and both were well impressed. However, on the way out the wife fell for the appearance of a new pair of gloss black Sonus Faber Liuto floorstanders, so a second appointment was booked to hear them. That said, when the dealer set up the system on the day before the dem, these speakers sounded horrible. No matter how the Liutos were moved about, they sounded bright, messy and unmusical, and he knew he couldn't dem the system as it stood. However, changing to a NAP250 amp literally transformed the sound quality, and the speakers were now rich, fast and coherent. Everyone was happy, even though the final system exceeded the budget.


The Quality Hi-Fi Experience
Starting with the very enjoyable and very expensive, Magico Q1 stand-mount speakers with DartZeel pre/power amplifiers amount to £70,000 of audio bliss. I'm still haunted by the first time I heard the Magicos. Boy is there something very special about the sound. It's not immediately impressive, and doesn't hit you with masses of bass or detail, but there's a stillness, a naturalness. The sound just drew me in, and afterwards I realised I had been in my own world, oblivious to anything else. Weeks later, after listening on a number of occasions I was still struck by them. Music comes from an inky blackness, starts and stops with precision: the bass is deep and tuneful with a lightness of touch, the treble is airy, delicate and unfatiguing, and the midrange sounds natural.

For my second choice of dealer system I surprised myself with a valve amplifier I love the sound of Naim amplifiers and have used a NAC252/NAP300 at home for some years, but one day I walked past the open door of a dem room where a system was warming up and thought: “now that's sounding good”. Investigation revealed the new Audio Research 75 power amplifier playing into Wilson SashaW/P speakers. The sound was smooth yet dynamic, detailed yet musical, with the great control of serious bass that the Wilsons are capable of, plus good timing and imaging. This is definitely a symbiotic relationship, especially since I've heard the Wilsons many times in different rooms with a range of amps and thought: “I wouldn't bother with those at the money. Too fatiguing with a lack of coherence; trying too hard.”

My third choice, KEF Blade speakers with Devialet amplifiers, seem to divide opinion, ranging from ecstatic to bored. My view of the Devialet D-Premiere is that while it seems to do everything right, it doesn't engage with me emotionally – I could still read a book while listening. But I recently heard a lovely sound waft down the corridor at a dealer, and it turned out to be the new Devialet 170 with the Blades. The first thing to strike me was the bass - extraordinarily deep, clean and tuneful - underpinning the rest of the sound and allowing it to completely escape from the speakers – possibly the best I've heard at a dealer. The imaging was quite spectacular too, and it's rare for the equipment to get out of the way and leave me enjoying the music. I can't wait to hear them with a Devialet 500.

At a more real-world budget, I've particularly enjoyed both the Kudos C20 & Martin Logan Electromotion speakers with a Naim SUPERNAIT 2 , both combinations sound way too good for a c£5,000 outlay. The Kudos combo sounds powerful, detailed and dynamic with exquisite timing; it can verge on the bright side so it works particularly well with vinyl. The Martin Logan's smooth, rich sound is almost the opposite, but listen longer and they are quick, detailed with great imaging, and yet can rock too. Positioning and angling of the speakers (particularly vertically) is critical if they are not to sound dull and disjointed.

The KEF LS50 (£800) and Pro-Ject Speaker Box 5 (£179) partnered with the Naim UnitiQute 2 (£1150) all-in-one network player are almost true budget price. The KEF combination gives a really full and satisfying sound, way bigger than you might expect. The Pro-Ject speakers are little wonders: once acclimatised to the light balance (helped by a small room) they sound funky, quick, clean and time well enough to cut it with rock material.


Dem Rooms
At a specialist dealer the demonstration is the critical part of deciding what to buy, yet the dealer can only take what space is available and then make the effort to create a 'good' listening room. For example, one dealer always struggled to sell large speakers because the main dem room was on the small side. Developing a second larger room has now changed his.

Another dealer with a medium sized room that had been professionally treated to give a neutral acoustic has been very successful with large loudspeakers. This room is also big enough to use alternate wall settings for speakers: the acoustically treated wall for larger speakers and those that sound better well away from walls; and the solid 18 in bare brick wall for smaller speakers or those designed to be near a rear wall. Most of the dem rooms I've seen have no specialist acoustic treatment, and it can be argued that since most customer listening rooms also have no treatment then that is the best approach. However, a medium size, neutral (though not dead) room is a great foundation for achieving a good sound from a wide range of equipment. Take the dem room I mentioned above – speakers as big and power hungry as Wilson Audio SashaW/P sound best in front of the treated wall, whereas a stand-mount like KEF LS50 improves in bass depth, speed and tonal balance when against the brick wall.

Whatever the dem room, it will not have the same characteristics as a customer's, so a home dem may well be important as the final check. So we're back to where we started — the simple aim of enjoying music in our home. And just like a good dealer will want to know what music you play and what your listening room is like, I believe a better understanding of the dealer will help the music lover achieve audio nirvana.

Thanks to all the dealers I've worked with, in particular Jon Harker of Oxford Audio Consultants and Peter Swain of Cymbiosis in Leicester.


David Topliss
The Performance Consultancy




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