Casting the Audio Shopping Net on the ’Net

Posted on by Mike Quinn

I get several emails each month from readers seeking help with selecting just the right gear, some assembling a full system, and others simply wanting to replace an old component or two. (Please feel free to send in your questions via the comments section for this column.) Because much of the equipment we discuss each month is produced by smaller, often artisan manufacturers, it is not always easy to come by, even in well-stocked local brick and mortar audio/video dealers, so imagine the difficulties experienced by those not living in a major metropolitan area in locating this stuff.

For example, a reader recently asked for speaker recommendations, largely based on something I’d written some time ago. However, he happens to live in rural Virginia in a town with a paucity of audio salons. Even the closest large city, three long hours away, offers very little in the way of choice. Needless to say, his shopping experience has been extremely frustrating since he has almost no opportunities, convenient or otherwise, to audition 90% of the speakers I thought would fit his needs and budget. He eventually found a satisfactory pair of loudspeakers which are making some great music in his living room, but only after several months of research, road trips and consternation.

The Internet. Duh!!!

The Internet. Duh!!!

And though I’ve always preached that equipment should be auditioned before purchasing—particularly in regards to speakers—in this fellow’s case I suggested a route not discussed here before: buying used equipment off the Internet. Indeed, as with so many products today, the Internet can be a limitless source of fine audio components. He had no realistic way to hear many speakers in person anyway, so buying something based solely on reviews and recommendations was probably a gamble worth taking. Had he bought the $1700 pair of used speakers I’d suggested, and had he not found them to his liking, he could have resold them via the same website on which he’d bought them, and would have likely been out only his shipping costs since the bulk of the depreciation for those speakers occurred when the boxes were driven off the parking lot of the original dealer. And he would have had a meatier pair of loudspeakers than his original budget allowed because the used model I’d mentioned originally sold for well over $3500. Yeah, the process is a pain, but if you don’t have access to a wide variety of products, it can be well worth the effort, and might be your only option for better sound anyway.

Granted, to make an informed purchase, one must have some idea where to start—which products most closely match the parameters of the system in question, the room, the budget and so on—and this takes some dedicated research. But this is research that should be done wherever you end up shopping. By reading a few select resources, including this website, narrowing down the field of potential new or used gems can actually be fun.

For instance, AudioAsylum.com is a hotbed of audio-related forums including boards dedicated to vinyl, tube equipment, speakers, and even computer audio. Reviews are available, and regular posters to these boards will happily make recommendations to newbies, though it helps to have some information at hand before posing questions. But even queries such as, “What’s the best CD player under $800” will receive helpful, sometimes even insightful responses. These days there are countless other websites jammed full of reviews and opinions, but don’t include forums such as the Audio Asylum or other such avenues for peer-to-peer information exchange. However, some manufacturers’ websites also offer forums and can make interesting reading with no shortage of opinions about which component to buy—try Klipsch.com or OmegaLoudspeakers.com. AudioCircle.com is the home for Omega’s site and hosts a couple dozen other boards which contain not only manufacturer-specific topics, but general audio and video discussions as well.

After adequate research, where does one turn to make a purchase of used gear? Well, eBay is one obvious place, but the overwhelming generic nature of the place makes it a bit iffy to find the good stuff there. For the creme de la creme of used audio equipment, the best place is Audiogon.com where, for example, the price of a used speaker can range from $50 all the way to $50,000 and above, depending on what happens to be available on any particular day. If you are searching for a specific model of amp, turntable or whatever, one only need wait for a short period of time before one is likely to show up, usually at a very reasonable price. I’ve seen some amazing bargains on Audiogon largely because there exists a sizable population of wacky audiophiles who feel the need to continue trading up the component chain several times each year. The result is often nearly virgin gear at less than fifty percent of the original price.

Audiogon.com Home Page

Audiogon.com Home Page

Are there unreliable sellers and buyers on Audiogon? Certainly, but a feedback system on the site helps filter out the bad guys from the good. And one rule of thumb I’ve found helpful is to pay for purchases via the proven COD method in which the box is only surrendered to the recipient when the carrier is handed a check or money order…cashier’s checks, please!

Clearly, one of the other advantages to buying audio components on Audiogon or similar used gear sites is that it allows music lovers who otherwise have no access to such equipment because of geography the same entry into this strange world as New Yorkers and San Franciscans. But perhaps more importantly, it makes the entry into the arena of high performance gear much less painful financially speaking. And once you’ve had personal experience at home with Art Audio, Shindo, Arcam, Naim, Triangle, Nottingham, or most any other “audiophile” component, you will assuredly seek out more of the same. The improvement in the reproduction of your favorite sides will not be subtle, and you will become one of the true believers in the wisdom of making such an investment.

Plus, as stated above, used gear holds its value relatively well, so diving into unheard territory is not a horrible risk. Enjoy a pair of Vandersteen speakers for a month or two, if they don’t float your boat, sell ’em and try a pair of Paradigms. Eventually you will find the perfect piece to fit comfortably in your listening environment while educating yourself on the very real difference between one product and another.

And to meet the need of the far-flung consumers interested in this level of gear, but who want it new, not used, many manufacturers have established online shops for potential customers who don’t have access to a local dealer. To eliminate the risk of getting stuck with a product that doesn’t meet one’s needs, most of these Web-based concerns will offer some sort of in-home trial period during which the buyer can return the product. Thirty days is the usual grace period, but one witty company, run by jazz bassist George Kaye, offers its Moscode amplifier for a 33 1/3 day audition.

For some state-of-the-art electronics employing the latest in digital amplification, investigate the Website of Bel Canto Design (www.belcantodesign.com), whose products we’ve discussed quite favorably in the pages over the years. At the other end of the techno-spectrum, try UpscaleAudio.com to investigate the value-laden PrimaLuna tube gear and discover the joys of this time-honored technology. Upscale’s Kevin Deal claims a nearly zero return rate on his equipment which not only speaks highly of its quality, but of this buying scenario as well.

Magnepan (www.magnepan.com), creators of the highly-lauded Magneplanar speakers, offer a 60-day trial period for their entry level MMG line of speakers; the idea is, once you get used to the Maggie sound, you will surely want to trade up the product line…and many satisfied customers do just that, in locales as remote as Montana as one loyal JazzTimes reader in that state can attest.

The Nottingham Space Ship turntable (www.nottinghamanaloguestudio.com/), review to come, was designed specifically for analog lovers who live outside the high-end audio grid. Their former American distributor wanted a table that would be more or less ready to plug and play without need of a degree in astrophysics; so the arm is pre-balanced with a proprietary cartridge already mounted. All one need do is unpack the thing, drop the arm and platter into place and it’s ready to go. The intent was to offer these to customers with no local dealer to facilitate what can often be a complicated setup procedure.

PS Audio (www.psaudio.com) has made a tremendous name in recent years for their very effective power line conditioning products and have lately introduced their own line of amplifiers and preamps. Like Bel Canto, they rely in large part on an effective dealer network, but for those outside the reach of those normal channels, they offer online shopping as well which seems to be a growing trend.

Tetra Speakers Web Site

Tetra Speakers Web Site

And as further example of this sort of direct selling, another Sounds Good! reader recently purchased a $10K pair of Tetra speakers (www.tetraspeakers.com), the same model mentioned by bassist Ron Carter a few months back. Since the reader had no local dealer, he purchased the speakers directly from Tetra which also put him in direct communication with the speaker’s designer, Adrian Butts—a nifty perk which gave him better insight into speaker placement, the design theory and so on.

For a wider variety of manufacturers, there are other online purveyors, more or less full line, many of whom started out specializing in audiophile recordings, particularly the LP format. In time, they’ve branched out into hardware, first offering turntables and cartridges, and eventually expanding into electronics of all colors. These firms include AcousticSounds.com, ElusiveDisc.com, and MusicDirect.com. Music Direct is probably the largest of these, having grown into a first rate importer of select products as well. Their equipment line is about as complete as an online store can be, but they  have not forgotten their software roots; they also own Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, producer of those amazing reissues of the ’70s and ’80s, and currently the proud papa of some of the best sounding vinyl reissues on the planet, particularly their 45 rpm LPs and their standard 180 gram 33 1/3 rpm LPs. Any of these online shops are a great resource for the jazz loving music fan with a dearth of well-stocked dealers in their local area.

Music Direct's Home Page

Music Direct’s Home Page

A few rules are in order for online buying, however. Number one is, don’t bypass your local dealer to get what might be a better price online. You may end up with a component sans warranty since many manufacturers void the warranty for such sales. This is to protect the territory and pricing integrity of these products. Local dealers have a small fortune invested in inventory, personnel and real estate so their overhead is higher, their ability to discount lower, but their level of customer support is difficult to achieve online. Further, some unscrupulous online dealers will tell you to audition a component at a local dealer, then return to them for a lowball price. You are cheating the local guys, and yourself since you just might end up with no warranty, and certainly no local support. And can you feel right about busting that local guy’s chops, only to stab him or her in the back by purchasing elsewhere?

If you buy used, don’t pester the seller with silly, uninformed questions. By all means pose questions, but don’t hammer meaningless points, and don’t insult the seller with lowball prices. If you treat sellers with respect, they will return the favor, and your site-specific feedback as a buyer will remain high, making it that much more fun to wheel and deal in the future. Who knows, you may be the next to post an ad to sell that classic McIntosh amp or Dynakit preamp, and you want potential buyers to respect your position on the site.

The world today is changing rapidly, and sadly, for many of us, the selection down the street, whether it’s for audio equipment or fine pinpoint oxford shirts, is growing smaller year by year. We can, however, buy just about anything on the Internet, even if we live in Pocatello or Shawnee. Will buying long distance replace the fun and satisfaction of walking into a neighborhood audio salon to audition speakers for a few hours? No, never. But thanks to the ’net, the potential for assembling a world-class audio system without driving for endless hours has become a reality for anyone with a modem and a computer. Drop the needle onto some old wax, fire up the laptop, and go shopping. The end result can be countless hours of seductive listening.

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