In 1994 I left my job at Christopher Hansen Ltd. (a former Cello dealer in the 1980s) to work for Mark Levinson and Joseph Cali at the Cello Music and Film showroom in West Hollywood. With Hansen’s retail operation shut down, Cello LA was far and away the highest end audio salon in town. But this audio salon, packed into a Sunset Strip condo, was more than a stereo shop – it was the headquarters for a sort of audio cult. Cello wasn’t like any traditional high end audio gear or brands – it was the work of one of the industry’s most famous, insightful and polarizing figures. Cello equipment was more often sold as a system than as components. Cello enthusiastically promoted the use of equalizers, which gave Stereophile and TAS writers fits at the time despite the fact that nearly every record they used as demo tracks were made with both per-track EQ as well as room EQ in the studio. Cello systems often came with high-end room treatments from brands like RPG. Cello didn’t really advertise much. There were only two Cello dealers in the entire country – in New York and Los Angeles, as traditional retailers weren’t encouraged to sell the products. Cello also rarely got domestic audiophile reviews.
Where Cello really differentiated itself from the pack was the “Cello demo,” as we called it. This way of auditioning a high-end audio video system was done by one of four people: Mark Levinson and Nick Lucci in New York and Joe Cali and myself in Los Angeles. The Cello showrooms were by appointment only and these demos were confirmed and reconfirmed. People could bring their own music or movies if they liked but they were asked to let one of the four of us show them what the Cello Music and Film system could do first. The Cello system had fantastic electronics designed by the late Tom Colangelo, including Class-A 400 watt Cello Performance amps, the legendary Cello Audio Palette EQ, the Cello Audio Suite preamp, a Cello version of a pro Apogee DAC and other goodies. Cello speakers were big and loaded with drivers. They packed VERY high efficiency and could play very loudly.
The Cello demo at the time, in the mid-1990s, often started with music from a source like a DAT tape and used close mic’ed recordings that Mark made himself. Blues was always a good place to start and Mark had all sorts of goodies for us to play, including music recorded by The Music Maker Foundation using actual Cello recording gear. He had one-off master tapes of Eric Clapton playing a 1940’s Martin guitar recorded by Mark at the Cello New York Showroom. These close mic-ed boutique recordings were fantastic for demo material and when pieced together into the Cello demo, they made for a musical progression that high end audio enthusiasts couldn’t or didn’t get at the local high end store that sold “the preamp of the month.”
Cello showrooms were acoustically treated. They were outfitted with kitchens so that we could offer drinks and even a little something to nibble on to our customers. One of the most important elements of the Cello showrooms was the lighting control. Long before Lutron and Crestron were staples of high-end salons – Cello was using system controls which allowed the four of us to be able to create an ambiance where you could only see the gear we wanted you to. We were able to add to the musical experience by decreasing the emphasis on what a customer was looking at and highlighting what they were hearing.
Seating was carefully designed so that if a couple came into the showroom, the husband would sit in the front with his wife sitting directly behind him. This was done in the LA showroom because the room itself was pretty narrow; however we were also able to allow the wife to use the Crestron controller to make the system jump through its hoops, which drastically increased the “wife acceptance factor” of a large audiophile sale. If you asked the wife to “help you” with the demo, they almost always said yes and by the end of the demo they were convinced that they could completely operate the system – thus a Cello system wasn’t just some rich guy’s toy for a room in their huge home – it was more of a modern day music playback or home theater system.
For clients interested in home theater there were pre-scripted demo tracks that were a little off the beaten track and played back from Laserdisc at the time via 9 inch CRT projectors like Vidikron’s Vision One display. Whether it was audio or video – the Cello demo always came with a pre-sell for the next track. Things weren’t just played with the customer left to figure out why. You told the story of why you were playing what you were playing or you specifically gave the customer something to look for. While we played the “Where’s the Goat?” scene from Jurassic Park in DTS like every other store at the time, we also played video demos like Fried Green Tomatoes to specifically show the viewer how finely detailed the ants looked crawling on a strawberry container. Without a Faroudja VP400 a $25,000 component at the time) and a 9 inch CRT, this level of video resolution wasn’t possible thus justifying the heavy cost of the system.
Qualification was demanded of Cello customers. There was no sense in doing a 2-hour demo of a $400,000 system for a guy who wanted to spend $40,000. Before the first track was played, we made notes about the person’s current system. What did they like about it? What could be better? Do they want to trade in some of their gear if they bought a Cello system? Did they know that if they invested in Cello, they could upgrade to reference level gear from Cello with 100 percent of their investment going back into the upgrade for one year? This nicely set the tone for the sale that we hoped to make. Mark and Joe were best at getting people to buy more. They were both expert at picking up on the context clues of somebody who could really spend some money if you showed them something fantastic. A typical Hollywood customer would show up wearing a white t-shirt, jeans and some nice loafers. In the West Hollywood showroom, we had to put a parking pass in the window of their car or they would assuredly get a parking ticket, which was not a good way to woo someone in 1995 to spend $200,000 on an AV system. Cars are a good way to qualify a client but in LA they can also be a bit of a misnomer. A guy with an S-class Mercedes or a Range Rover might be rolling down Sunset Boulevard in high style but there’s no guarantee that he could pop for $12,000 speaker s and a $9,000 power amp today. Better indicators were his shoes, belt and the best indicator was his watch. To the untrained eye, the guy with a white t-shirt and jeans might look like anybody else out shopping for toys on a Saturday afternoon in Hollywood but when the guy is driving an Aston Martin, wearing Tods and rocking a Patek Philipe perpetual calendar – you know you have a well qualified customer even before you start asking about his system.
In the New York showroom, Mark did a famous demo of the new, affordable AR1 bookshelf speakers for the audiophile press core. Mark is a master showman, an accomplished bassist and a person who loves an audience. The demo system was loaded with Cello gear including a Cello Duet 350 power amp, a Cello Audio Palette and other pricey Cello electronics, cables and goodies, considering the AR speakers were priced very affordably – perhaps $400 per pair. In comes the tight-mic’ed music. Then the tabla drum music. Then the big dynamics that a 350-Watt amp can deliver. The press core was impressed. Very impressed. And they didn’t always get the royal treatment, but at Cello everyone got to see the Cello show.
The most fun but also the most tiring part of the Cello demo was when Cello showed at a consumer trade show like the now defunct Stereophile Show. At the time, the Stereophile show ping-ponged from New York to LA to San Francisco and often Cello would rent the biggest room and show new possible clients what Cello was all about. Not everyone had the nerve to come into the Cello showroom although anybody saying “I just want to hear what you can do but I can’t afford your gear” was welcomed in the showroom with the same enthusiasm as, say, a director who made movies about a big boat that sank or about blue people in 3D. Welcoming these people was hard with only two showrooms in the country but these consumer shows were a great way to build the mystique. Mark and Joe took a page from Studio 54, as there was always a line outside of the Cello room. Show goers had to wait to get the full Cello treatment, which just built the anticipation and mystique. In the audiophile world, Mark Levinson was (and still is) a bit of a celebrity. People know him for his namesake company but his Cello mystique was also alluring. People lined up to hear what the man, the myth, the legend had to offer them as his demo was unlike anything else at the show. In the end, people bought the $10 Cello book (yes, we sold our literature) to have Mark sign it. They bought the CDs that he made and recorded. They wanted to be part of the cult, which was the beauty of Cello. In a way it reminds me a little of Apple Computer today.
Sadly when Rick dotcom billionaire, Rick Adams, bought the company from Mark and his investors, the company was never the same. I had left years earlier to start AudioRevolution.com but I even did a guest appearance at the San Francisco Stereophile show doing the mysterious Cello demo for a few hours in the late 1990s. Not everyone could do the performance but it was so key as to why Cello was such a cool audiophile company.
Today there are some people I know doing high art form demos out there. Transparent Audio’s demo in Saco, Maine is reportedly just something else. They have nearly every piece of high end audiophile electronics that one could dream of from Krell, Lamm, EMM Labs, Audio Research, Meridian, Mark Levinson (the brand) and beyond. They plug it all in with insane Transparent cable and power up some Wilson Alexandria speakers. Mark Goldman at Sound Components in Miami goes back to the old days of true high end demos and still offers such an event in his hybrid, custom AV showroom packed with Wisdom Audio speakers, Krell, Classe and Transparent cables. In Seattle, Mark Ormiston’s Definitive Audio has two full showrooms loaded with the best of the best in audiophile gear with salespeople who really know how to do a demo.
The art of the demo never goes out of style. People want to be treated like they are special and when you spend $40,000 on a pair of mono amps – I would argue you are pretty special as a client. Pre-selling what someone is supposed to listen to or what they are going to see is key to helping a client understand why expensive audio is worth the big investment. You have to earn these sales, yet the big box retailers and mid-level AV stores simply pop the Blu-ray du jour into the player without ever really teaching the client why they are playing what they are demoing.A return to the Cello demo, even long after Cello has disappeared from the audiophile landscape would do nothing but help sell more big ticket high end audio gear. Rest assured that if you were lucky enough to get an audition of Mark Levinson’s new Daniel Hertz speakers – you’d get the full treatment – and trust me you’d be impressed. It’s one hell of a show. ]]>