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A Consumer's Guide To Stereo Survival

A Consumer's Guide To Stereo Survival image A Consumer's Guide To Stereo Survival image
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Hi-fi equipment is mostly a m taste, and if that weren't enough, buyers have to run the gamut of I pressure salesmanship and, somet right fraud. Worse, most buyers of hi-fi gear can't defend themselves against any of these things and come to the cash register meekly. If yöu aren't careful, you can walk out of a hi-fi store with components in one hand and bloody chunks of your ego in the other.The trick is to be a smart customer. Buying a hi-fi system takes patience; understanding that will save you some grief and maybe a lot of money. Because taste changes with experience, practically nobody is satisfied with his or her first hi-fi system and goes on to improve it. However, if you try to cultívate your taste in audio - whatever it may be - before buying anything but records, you probably won't become dissatisfied so early ; you'll also stand a better chance of getting a good system the first time around. After some concert tickets, your first purchase should be records. Buy several of the sort of music you enjoy and are most familiar with. These records are going to be useful beyond their musical worth - they are the "test equipment" with which you'll piek a phonograph, amplifier and speakers. Don't buy "demonstration records" or "sonic spectaculars." These are usually worthless, so stick to decently recorded performances of works you enjoy. Next, listen to your records on your friends' systems to get a feel for the sort of sound you can get in the home. Don't be shocked if the same components sound different in a hi-fi store - everything does, and besides, that's not where you'll be making your final decisión, so don't sweat it. After you have narrowed down your friends' systems to the one or two you like best, note the brands of the components in each. While you won't limit your choice to these brands, such a list will give you some reference points in what can be a confusing array of available brands. Simultaneously, read up on components in the major hi-fi magazines. Again, this is mostly to familiarize yourself with the manufacturen. Make note of those that get good equipment reviews. While you can trust these reviews only as a general guide to what's decent, you will find that some brands consistently fare better than others. Take these brands seriously in your seleetion process. Why all this fuss about brands? It's simple. Retailers stock and sell (hard) what are called "house brands" (especially speakers). With rare exception, house-brand speakers are dogs in disguise, built so cheaply that they can appear to be discounted tremendously. Putting house brands on your equipment list enables a retailer to quote what seems to be a very löw price. He is, in fact, making a pile. After you have some feel for what a decent system sounds like in the home and after you have figured out which brands are least likely to disappoint you, put some records under your arm and start touring the hi-fi salons, listening to your records and their equipment. Your first trips around, however, are not so much to select equipment but evalúate " the stores. You can learn a lot just standing in a corner. On most audiophiles' lists, hi-fi salesmen rank somewhere below politicans and Mafiosi in terms of honesty. This is not to say honest ones do not exist, but you must look for them. As you are leaning in your corner, watch how the various salesmen treat customers. Some are so abusive that you wonder how they make a sale - they get away with bullying, baiting, brand switching and right cons only with customers too timid to stand up or too naive to know better. I watched one poor guy get called everything from "asshole" on when he attempted to buy an AR speaker system. (Not the highest profit for stores, since ARs are discounted considerably.) The salesman hounded him until he bought a unit with lots more profit for the salesman and lots less performance for the user. The moral is that if you are going to take shit, you will be for eed to pay for it, in terms of either cash up front or dissatisfaction later. And bullshit is the most expensive and most widely available on dealers' shelves. This is why you develop some taste and get yaur feet on the ground early - so you can't be bullied. This is why you do a "recon" of the localemporia - so you can see who is shoveling snow at here you can take your busiave picked out some records, J i feel for what hi-fi sounds f like at home, picked the brands you areí M most interested in and rejected some of f the stores in town. ' Now you can set a price on the system you want. You do Ihis using "Mitchell's Law," after the "Shop Talk" Mitchell. Fix a sum - say $500 - as your spending limit. Now allocate 20 percent of this for the record player and cartridge, 50 percent for the electronics and 30 percent for the speakers. You can't go far wrong if you follow these figures to within five percent or so. Note that these refer to list prices and that discounts run from 12 to more than 25 percent at many stores, so your $500 is really the equivalent of about $600. Use the higher figure when drawing up your equipment lists. You can save by buying used equipment or by buying from mail-order discount houses. As smiling audiophiles in Washington are wont to say, there is no fair trade policy in D.C. You can save by buying from the D.C. discounters. What you can't do is gripe effectively, if you get either a poor component or poor service. If every component worked beautifully when it came out of the box, there'd be little need for the local hi-fi salons, since the mass-sales hi-fi salon exists less as a place to audition and select equipment than as a place to which one returns inoperative hardware. This stuff breaks down a lot, often apparently in the box on the way home from the store, making it necessary for you to have somebody local who can redress grievances. For the same reason, it's often smart to select equipment made. one, by New land firms, and two, by American firms. If you zap a tweeter on a local make of "" speakers, you are far better off getting it fixed here than if the unit came from the West Coast, Japan or Equope. This isn't regional chauvinism or a pitch for the socalled "Cambridge sound," it's a survival ploy. With a few exceptions, local firms are honest in their advertising and customer relations. Happily, their products sound good too. When should you buy? First, buy only when you have found a store you can trust. Second, buy only if that store will let you audition each purchase at home with no strings attached. Third, buy only on Friday night or Saturday. The rule about trustworthy retailers is of obvious value and the reason for scout■ ing the stores in the first place. N 1 The auditioning rule is no less important. 1 To say that hi-fi equipment sounds differ ent in a home from in a store is like saying V death is fatal. If the store refuses this right, refuse to buy. continued on page 7 Consumer Guidc continued from page 3 Buying on Friday or Saturday gives you a weekend in which to try out your purchase and gives the store less time to casli your check. If you find out that your purchase is unsatisfactory, you have time to get back Monday morning and demand your money back. If your salesman won't give it up. you still have time to stop payment on your check. The honorable stores will put your check in an envelope and let you take the stuff home for a week. The less-than-honest stores will teil you that that's what they are doing, and as soon as you are over the horizon, do a quick fade . to the local bank. When you come back with a stiff in your hands, you get the "I'm helplessit was a mistakethe bookkeeper made me do it routine - at best a long wait for your dollars, and at worst a credit memo. Refuse credit memos! A credit memo is not legal tender; nobody will honor it except the store which has dropped it on you - and you really don't want to buy anything at a store that does. As a corollary, buy on credit when you can, with a check, if you must. Use cash as a last resort. Make it as hard for yourself to be ripped off as possible: If all this sounds like a lot of effort, then perhaps you are ready to be sheared anyway. Those who are paranoid enough to see the reason behind this advice are the survivor types, and for them, some last words to live by: remember that you aren't only buying music, you're parting with your bread. Part with it dearly. Reprinteü front the Boston Phoenix