What Makes a Specialty Retailer Special?

by Jeff Schrum
You’re finally ready to take your love of music to the next level by creating the sound system and listening space at home that you’ve always dreamed about. A specialty audio/video (A/V) retailer is the place you’ll want to go for knowledge, advice and product selection. Here’s why:
1.  They have the right products, and the right amount of them. Specialty retailers understand the “paradox of choice,” the theory that the more choices we have, the harder it is for us to choose. They don’t sell espresso makers or mobile phones; rather, they specialize in audio and video products and solutions. Walk into a specialty A/V showroom and you won’t find a bazillion different brands, shopping carts or ceiling-high stacks of boxes. Like a small bookstore owner who has curated his collection of children’s books to include only his favorites, specialty A/V dealers stock just the right amount and variety of products. And thanks to close working relationships with their manufacturer partners, specialty sales associates become absolute experts on every single product they sell.
2.  They provide the perfect setting to audition audio products. What you’ll immediately notice when entering a typical specialty A/V retail store is that it feels cozy. These showrooms are designed for music listening and conversation in a relaxed setting. Unlike the typical big-box warehouse setting, a specialty retailer goes to great lengths--using lighting, acoustic treatments and colors, for example--to create just the right environment for listening to music and comparing products. The result is a place that feels like home. The specialty dealers I have visited in my area have invited me to stay as long as I would like, spend time in their demonstration rooms, and bring my own discs to try out; one even offered refreshments. If you’re going to invest time to audition different products--which you absolutely should (see #5 below)--you will be quite comfortable doing so.
3.  They create a community. A specialty retailer is often a gathering place for audio (and video) enthusiasts. To foster this sense of community, store owners will typically organize special events, private sales and demonstrations of new products. Even if you don’t aspire be a full-fledged, card-carrying audiophile, spending a few minutes around the people--sales staff and customers--who live and breathe this stuff will teach you a lot about the hobby and be an invaluable resource as you build your system.
4.  They love music as much as you do. Audio retailers and sales associates often get into the business for the same reason you got into this hobby, because they love music. Most have a wide variety of music on hand, and they'll be eager to see what favorites you bring, too. Even the highest of high-end equipment is only as good as the source material you play on it, and having a music concierge to make recommendations on demo-worthy tracks is invaluable.
5.  They know how to give a proper demo. This is what truly makes the specialty retail experience special, and what you won’t get at the “big box” warehouse down the street. Listening to music is an emotional experience. It’s also highly subjective. You need time to hear your favorite music on different systems. You need a “trained ear” listening with you to point out the subtle differences you’ll encounter in high-performance equipment, like soundstage, depth and stereo imaging. You may even need to return to the store several times before you can decide which amplifier or pair of speakers sounds best to you. Lucky for you, specialty A/V dealers love giving demos.
Like an independent bookstore for an avid reader, or a specialty wine shop for a wine lover, a specialty A/V retailer is an expert you should turn to for advice, knowledge and personal service when it’s time to upgrade your audio experience. Pay a visit to a retailer in your area. (And don’t forget your CDs!)