Buying a system takes patience: understanding that will save you a lot of grief and maybe a lot of money. Your system is one of the most expensive and long-lasting items you will ever put in your home, so the time spent shopping is well worth it. The beauty of the hi-fi show is that it enables those in the market for an audio system to "shop" from a wider selection of producís than is generally available in any one store, and all under one roof. Comparing the various systems at the show will arm you with more information than most people generally have upon entering a hi-fi store. Hi-fi equipment is largely a matter of taste. Beyond some basic technical knowledge, the trick is to be a smart customer. If you aren't careful, you can walk out of a hi-fi store with your components in one hand and bloody chunks of your ego in the other. Buying a system takes patience: understanding that will save you a lot of grief and maybe a lot of money. Your system is one of the most expensive and long-lasting items you will ever put in your home, so the time spent shopping is well worth it. Because taste changes with experience, practically nóbody is satisfied with his or her first hi-fi system and most people go on later to improve it. But if you try and cultívate your taste in audio before buying anything but records, you probably won't become dissatisfied as early; yau'll also stand a better chance of getting a good system the first time around. Your first purchase should be records. Buy several new ones of the sort you enjoy and are most familiar with. These will 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 surprised 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. 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 manufacturers. 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 selection process. Why all this fuss about brands? It's simple. Retailers stock and sell (hard) what are called "house brands" (especially speakers). With some exceptions, housebrand speakers are built so cheaply that they can appear to be discounted tremendously. Putting house brands on your equipment list enables retailers to quote what seems to be a very low price. They, in fact, are 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 will help you evalúate the stores, which ones you feel the most comfortable in, which ones have the most helpful salespeople. This does vary from store to store. Needless to say, as with any other business, there are some ers who rely on abusive sales techniques. I watched one poor guy get called everything from "asshole" on when he attempted to buy an AR speaker system in Boston. (AR's, which are discounted considerably, don't bring stores the highest profits.) The salesman hounded him until he bought a unit with lots more profit for the salesman and lots less performance for the user. Once you've found the stores you're most comfortable in, and which stock the equipment that appears to be the best buy, you can set a price on the system you want. You do this using "Mitchell's Law", after the "Shop Talk" Mitchell. Fix a sum- say $500- as your spending limit. Now allocate 20 per cent of this for the turntable and cartridge, 50 per cent for the electronics, and 30 per cent for the speakers. You can't go far wrong if you follow these figures within five per cent or so. Note that these refer to list prices and that discounts run from 1 2 per cent to more than 25 per cent at many stores, so your S500 is really the equivalent of about $600. Use the higher figure when drawing up your 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 carne out of the box, there'd be less need for the local hi-fi salons, since the mass-sales hi-fï salon exists not only as a place to audition and select equipment, but as a place to which one returns inoperative hardware. This stuff can break down a lot, often apparently in the box on the way to the retailer or to your home, 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 by American manufacturers. If you zap a tweeter on a local make of speakers, you are far better off getting it fixed here than if the unit carne from the West Coast, Japan or Europe. This isn't regional chauvinism, 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're comfortable with. Second, buy only if that store will let you audition each purchase at home with no strings attached. Third, buy on Friday niglit or Saturday. Buying on Friday or Saturday gives you a weekend in which to try out your purchase. If you find your purchase unsatisfactory, you have time to get back Monday morning and get your money back. If your salesperson won't give it up- and they usually will- you still have time to stop payment on your check. Many stores will put your check in an envelope and let you take the stuff home for a week. Get cash -credit memos are only good at the store that has dropped it on you. Credit cards are also a good way to buy. If all this sounds like a lot of effort, then perhaps you are ready to get into trouble. 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 carefully, and happy listening. This article was adapted from the Boston Phoenix.