September 1, 2006
The SoundStage! Network has always been an Internet-direct company. Weve had no bricks-and-mortar dealers, such as Barnes & Noble or Borders, to sell our product. The business model for the Network -- online and free for readers -- wouldnt support those retail businesses. And our way is the way we like it. The Internet has given us a forum for our voices and a way to generate revenue through advertisers, and for that Im thankful. The publishing world has room for all types of information outlets, and weve carved out a niche that were quite comfortable with.
Thats not to say that I recommend that all manner of businesses move to online models. With a few notable exceptions, high-end audio is best delivered through dealers with storefronts. The exceptions are interesting, though. The most successful ones Ive seen are when a new company decides from the beginning that it can offer something Internet-direct that it could simply not offer through a dealer network. SVS (formerly SV Subwoofers, now SV Sound) is a case in point. The company has grown exponentially over the past few years because it offers, straight to the consumer, product lines -- first of just subwoofers, and now speakers as well -- of uncommon value. Weve written about several SVS products on our Home Theater & Sound site, and each has been a tremendous value. Through it all, the company has maintained a stellar reputation for customer service -- another factor in the equation for success.
Axiom Audio is another such company. A few years back, a coworker asked me to recommend a set of speakers. This lady likes to rock: Disturbed, Zombie, Korn. I knew she needed a speaker that could handle loads of power and play at levels that would simply break most audiophile-approved loudspeakers. For what she could spend, the Axioms were the ticket. She still uses her M50s daily, and they havent blown a driver yet.
Two companies, two great values. I could name others.
Axiom and SVS have some things in common. From the start, their product lines were designed with Internet-direct in mind. Their businesses were formed to take advantage of online retailing, and their products offer some clear advantages in the budget-audio sector: namely, a lot of product and performance for the dollar.
Conversely, the crème de la crème of the high end -- those companies offering premium-priced products that, to be fully appreciated, must be demonstrated -- sell through the high-end dealers. Wilson Audio Specialties is a prime example: Folks just dont comprehend the quality and musical experience these speakers offer unless they hear them in the flesh. The Wilson dealer network reads like a Whos Who of the best audio retailers in the business, and each is set up with the space and ancillary components to properly to give the customer a full demonstration of Wilson Audios wares. More than that, though, Wilson trains these dealers to provide the customer, in the customers home, the same performance they experience in the store. When you buy a Wilson Audio speaker, part of what youre buying is home setup. This cant be done Internet-direct.
The storefront retailer is the classic model for high-end audio. While there may not be a dealer on every corner, those that are in business and provide the types of services Ive described are the industrys lifeblood.
So there you have it: the good Internet-direct firms that have built businesses on good products and real value. And the bricks-and-mortar-supported companies that produce high-end products that provide a unique experience that must be appreciated first-hand.
Whats left is not so pretty: Companies that try to appear as if they offer real high-end products but in reality offer questionable goods, usually available only online. Companies that maintain the appearance of selling through dealers but that sell through gray-market online retailers or out of their own back doors. One-man operations that sell product knockoffs made who knows where. The risk for the consumer is obvious: You could spend your money and not get what youve paid for.
How do you tell the good companies from the bad? Your best bet is to ask around. Customers who have had good experiences like to tell of their satisfaction; folks who have been burned generally like to warn others to stay away. A long track record of satisfied people is the best measure of a good outfit. The converse, too, is true.
Lastly, the old saying is as true in audiophiledom as anywhere else: If a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is. Whether online or at the corner store, shop carefully. The industry is counting on you to be a satisfied customer.
Ultra Audio is part of the SoundStage! Network.