The Trenches: "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly!"

Anthony Kershaw reports on his experiences with a trio of high-end audio shops

Audiophiles, by and large, are a genial lot. It gives us great pleasure to discuss audio, listen to audio equipment, "kick the tires" in the high-end salons, and most importantly, buy audio equipment. In Southern Ontario we are particularly fortunate to have a plethora of superb high-end shops. In comparison to some other large cities, we do suffer from an embarrassment of riches. With no embarrassment in mind, I took a few days to explore some local high-end establishments and one not so local. Remember, the following are my experiences - yours may vary.

Day 1

Bugleboy Audio Classics
1860 Queen St. East
Toronto, ON

Walking down trendy Queen St. East in Toronto, I came across a little slice of 50's heaven. Bugleboy Audio Classics specializes in quality hi-fi gear from the earliest days of stereo. The store, just one large room, is treated lovingly with art deco pieces and highlighted by a beautifully-molded ceiling. The ceiling is offset with pastel walls that give a feeling of quiet solitude.

Owner Stephen Berthelot is an excellent advocate for his products. If you drool over the names Fisher, Macintosh, JBL, Quad and Lowther, then Bugleboy is the place for you. Stephen knows his products. He explained his philosophy to me clearly and the philosophy behind horns, tubes and single-ended paraphernalia. Stephen's knowledge was vast and his delivery intriguing. I was hooked and ready for the Cooks tour.

A simple walkabout unearthed the delightful-sounding Lowther TP1 speakers (flush in the corners), magnificently-finished JBL Paragon speaker system, his striking gold Quad ESL's, tuners from Macintosh, receivers from Fisher, and the eerily realistic JBL Hartsfields. I am still fantasizing about the mint Quad IIs!

All this retro beauty does come at a price, but in some cases, far less than you would think. Stephen is realistic and fair about his pricing. He understands these products are highly specialized and will only sell for what the market will bear.

If you are within driving distance of Toronto and love audio, give yourself a treat. Stephen Berthelot enjoys visitors, even those of us just kickin' the tires!

Day 2

High End Audio
2216A Queen St. East
Toronto, ON

At the other end of Queen St. East is High End Audio. Philosophically, the store is miles away from Bugleboy. Located in a murky basement, High End Audio represents Merlin, NAD, Coincident Speaker Technology, among others. While fine equipment, what caught my eye was the sign in the window; "Records for sale - many mint". Down I went.

To quote Bette Davis, "What a dump"! The place is in need of a good scrub. Walking into the basement unleashed just about every allergy I suffer from! A salesman (the owner?) was busily talking a potential customers' ear off regarding the qualities of the Townshend turntable (an opinion I agree with), while demonstrating a flavor-of-the-month CD player. Sadly, all the turntables were sans cartridge!

The store had recently acquired 2500 mint (many sealed) LPs to be placed on consignment. It saddened me to think about credit card limits - mine especially! Looking through the booty was a joyous, yet frustrating experience. There were some wonderful records, but where were my beloved shaded dogs, bluebacks, reissues and EMIs? Well, they were waiting for me upstairs...in another room...in another world...in another universe! Sadly, I heard the salesman declaim that "he wasn't sure he was going to place them in the collection". Could this be contrary to the owner's wishes? I mentioned the for-sale sign at several locations within the store. He still didn't bite. But anyway, he hadn't priced them yet! With gold card at the hip, he still didn't budge. Unfortunately, the salesman had to get going (the store had been open this particular Friday for five whole hours!) The call of Baywatch on the telly must have been too much for him. (Boy, do we audiophiles get cynical when treasure escapes us!).

After he made his hasty exit, I wiped a tear from my reddening cheek and thought of an old capitalist friend. Her motto, at least within the confines of her store (art, not audio), is: EVERYTHING is for sale!

Maybe a platinum card would have made the difference? I wonder if Pamela Anderson likes vinyl?

Day 3

The Analog Shop
2 West Main St.
Victor, NY

The call of the black platter is strong. Very strong. So strong in fact that the Editor and myself jumped at the chance to hear the beautiful Basis Series 2000 turntables at The Analog Shop in Victor, NY (a stone's throw from Rochester). After reading about the seminar/demo in a highly-regarded print magazine, I suggested to our Editor that we attend. After all, it was only six hours round trip! He agreed eagerly.

I have read, both in print and electronic media, umpteen whining testimonials about snotty "high-end attitude". Therefore, I feel fortunate that my experiences in audio stores around the world have been excellent - courteous and friendly staff with nary a hard sell in sight. It speaks volumes about the generally kind nature of audio professionals. It is then with some regret that I report on our experience in The Analog Shop.

I formalized our arrangements by telephone. There is nothing worse than driving a lengthy distance only to find an event canceled, or worse, the store closed. As such, I specifically asked for the starting time and directions to the store. While on the phone, I did mention we were from Audiophilia Online Magazine, but did not suggest a review-type visit - just some plain audio fun.

We arrived about 15 minutes before show time and introduced ourselves. Our smiling introduction was greeted with nothing more than a quick shake and cursory glance. I looked around. We were the only guests in the store! His greeting suggested: "Hey buddy, we don't care if you drove three or three-hundred hours, you are now in the magical environment of The Analog Shop! You are lucky indeed"! The lack of warmth was immediate and made us both uncomfortable. Something inside us rumbled, or was it curdled. Not a good sign.

No place was offered for us to sit, observe, listen, take the weight off, or whatever. After three hours of driving we were quite happy to stand and peruse the joint. It did not take long. Without exaggeration, The Analog Shop is the smallest high-end store I have yet encountered, with the two smallest listening rooms in the history of audio (though one has a cathedral ceiling!) The rooms are connected by a tiny office with the stock room in the attic.

We have friends who own small audio stores, but a location has to, at the very least, display the products in a way that their strengths are highlighted. Audio is about sound. The setup did not seem to take that into account. However, our cynicism was tempered at the site of wonderful equipment from Dunlavy, Classé Audio, Audio Physic, Conrad-Johnson, Rega and VPI. But just for a moment.

Personally, I have a difficult time coming to terms with rudeness placed directly in the face of politeness. We were quiet, non-threatening and polite. At no time did we expect professional courtesy. A little of the common variety would have been nice, if only to alleviate the experience ahead.

The demonstration was being given by Musical Surroundings (distributor of Basis, Graham and Benz). Their rep was having trouble setting up the two tables (the third did not arrive). We introduced ourselves. Initially, he made a good impression. After a short time, one of the owners hurried us out of the room so the rep could set up the table properly. We figured that this should have been done well before the published start time of 4:00 p.m. Funnily, we were still the only two RSVP'ers in the store. The owner mentioned proudly that he expected twenty-five audiophiles - when we left, an hour before the expected close, there were still only six of us!

The show started after nearly a two hour delay and we were still the only two fellows in the store! Not once, while waiting, did the two owners/partners suggest a listening session in the other listening room, a good restaurant or (egad) offer an apology. Hey, we understood. Analog is finicky. Things can, and do go wrong. No problemo. But the aloof attitude of all concerned was really starting to stick in our guts. So much so, that we were actually getting giddy! As such, quiet asides were beginning to gob forth. We told each other a few jokes. Here's one:

Hey, two young guys bankroll a store. "We'll be a high-end store. Not only that, we'll pigeon hole ourselves further and specialize in analog products" (fine by us). "Now, lets see. What do we need? We need a good location. How about small town NY? Perfect. Now what? A building. How about the third floor of that quaint monolith? Terrific. The store will be on the same corridor as the town chiropractor! With lots of traffic in the hall and with the universe's springiest suspended floor, we can't lose! But wait, what about the rooms? Hey, we'll just give a new meaning to nearfield listening! We must be geniuses. Regular Einsteins".

Okay, that was mean. But you were not there to hear the Musical Surroundings rep drone on and on about his products at about 90dB, and allow us mere peasants to listen to ten minutes of music. This, after the two hour wait. Happily, he did leave our cell at various times allowing us a brief, but very pleasant, respite. And to be fair, he did accost the Editor verbally for playing his records at home without the benefit of cleaning. Now that's charm.

The sound? Nearly impossible to gauge through this demo. The tables did look wonderful, both the 2001/Basis RB300/Benz Glider combo and the 2800 vacuum jobby/Graham 2.0/Transfiguration Spirit. We were looking forward to some superlative sounds, but under these conditions...

By this time we were ready to split. As the rep talked and talked, my mind began to wander. My thoughts stopped abruptly at a scene from the comedy film classic "Airplane". You know the one. The hero is telling his life story to an elderly lady passenger. The camera pans away while he drones on and on. He suggests he may be boring her. After the camera pans back, she has hung herself! Really, it was that bad. The Editor and I were nearly catatonic!

In fairness, and with joviality aside, the two store owners did make an effort as we were leaving, offering us cheese, crackers and mineral water. They asked us our names again and we talked briefly about the Internet (they are not online).

The ride back to Toronto was, in turn, hilarious and quite sad. We surmised: "these guys just don't get it." It certainly was an experience. The store, by virtue of their inviting advertisements, must do a brisk mail-order business. The equipment they represent is outstanding but displayed poorly. If the store was on a concrete floor and had larger listening rooms, and we had caught the owners on a better day, the experience might have been different.

The competition for the audio buck is fierce. These fellows have been around for four years. If our visit was representative of the norm, they need to rethink a few things. They have great product lines and the requisite audio knowledge. Socially, they just seemed out of their depth. A little kindness and humility will take them further.

Copyright©Anthony Kershaw, 1997