A lot has been said about the rise and fall of the traditional stereo store in the past 25 to 30 years. So many of the best Mom & Pop shops are long-gone from across these fine United States. That makes it harder and harder to hear the best in audiophile gear without being willing to gas up the jalopy for a long trip or jump on a plane.
A generation ago, in bigger cities like Los Angeles, there were A-, B-, and even C-list dealers for audiophile products. Within an hour's drive you could hear and see pretty much any audiophile product one could reasonably hope to own. Well-qualified and curious audiophiles flew in from all over the world to take part in the hobby, California style. In the 1990s at Cello, we only had Mark Levinson's store in New York and our store in West Hollywood, so if you didn't live in one of those places, you had to travel to experience the next-level stuff we were doing. And many did. In more recent times, there were damn close to no audiophile shops on the Westside of Los Angeles for periods of time, leaving brands like Krell, Wilson Audio, Mark Levinson and so many others left unrepresented to millions of potential music-loving clients. Things are a little better today with locations like Maier's Audio Salon doing ultra-high-end audiophile systems in Santa Monica, but it isn't like the old days, when we had upwards of a dozen stores just on the Westside. With profit margins high and the economy on a nearly 12-year boom, I still am a little baffled as to why more people don't open a specialty AV store in the area, but I digress.
Manhattan is the unquestioned capital of the audiophile hobby, but even the Big Apple has lost some of its luster in this domain. Simply put - it costs too much money to "floor" top-level audiophile systems when per-square-foot prices for retail real estate are through the roof all over New York City. That isn't to say that there isn't a lot of audio to hear in NYC, and it is very well worth the trip for those that wouldn't otherwise have access to so many different listening experiences. One reader of ours from Arkansas often travels to Manhattan for weekend getaways that might include a spa-afternoon for his surgeon wife and a few hours to go out and hear the latest Pass Labs amps or Sonus faber speakers at McIntosh's ultra-cool So-Ho emporium of audio. No matter how much Wal-Mart money is in Arkansas, they can't support even a reasonable Magnolia inside of a Best Buy (so says our reader) and his tastes have evolved to some even more exotic audio gear now.
When I was a teenager packing a new driver's license, access to my mom's 1984 Honda Accord, and my own AMEX card (yes, I had to pay for it, which was a good life lesson for me), my buddy Chris and I would drive all over the Philadelphia area to hear different audio gear. Downtown Philadelphia had some solid dealers. There were legendary stores such as SoundEx, Hi-Fi House, and Bryn Mawr Stereo in one suburb. There were other worthy dealers like Sassafras on the Mainline. Delaware wasn't far away and had no sales tax, which could be tempting sometimes. Princeton, New Jersey, was good college inspiration (neither of us could hope to get in but it is pretty perfect on campus) with other audiophile options, as well as the now-departed Princeton Record Exchange. In our idyllic neighborhood, we could hear the best of audio from the U.K. such as Naim, Linn, and more. SoundEx had the stuff that the magazines wrote about and nearly all of it, much like Christopher Hansen Ltd. did in the years before I got there. We didn't often make it all the way to NYC, but we had a pretty good taste of what we could spend our money on, and when we had any, we spent it like maniacs. We were well-educated audio junkies and not old enough to come close to buying a beer. This was a long time ago.
Today, there are cities worthy of traveling to for audio, but the best bang for the buck comes from the growing group of audiophile shows. While these shows often fail to evolve past what CES was doing 25 years ago (meaning no video, messy rooms, catering to the same middle-aged men) the opportunity to hear so much audio in one place is hard to miss. CES is dead to me now in terms of audio, and it was never for consumers anyway, although it did have a lot of audio in years gone by. Now shows like AXPONA in Chicago, Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (run by the Illuminati at the Denver Airport), or any number of other shows in cities like NYC, Washington D.C., Orlando/Tampa, Toronto, San Francisco, and beyond are becoming relevant.
One thing that really makes one of these shows helpful is hearing systems in different environments. Yes, hotel rooms mostly suck for audio, but sometimes you walk into a room loaded with gear whose sound you thought you knew, and it is a whole other experience. The room is your most important component of any sound system. Getting a chance to hear gear that you might one day buy in multiple different environments adds to an audiophile's memory bank of knowledge.
An alternative to travel is to have the gear sent to you. Back when my buddy and I were jamming cassette tapes into my mom's Honda's head unit, it was pretty rare that audio stores would let you audition big-ticket gear at home. I guess SoundEx would do it if you were a major player, but you really had to have a good track record with these stores in terms of historically buying a lot of gear. They didn't like taking their displays apart, and who could blame them? You would have to be pretty serious about making a purchase to bring that new, bad-ass preamp home if you were that into it. Today, there are so many companies that sell direct that have no reservations about letting you audition gear right in your own home. The rise of online retail changed all of the rules and likely for the better for most audiophiles.
Tell us where you travel to for audio. Do you try to stop by an audio store or two if you are on a work trip and have a moment? Do you team up with other audiophiles (perhaps in a society or group) to hear each other's systems? What audio shows do you go to now? Which ones would you like to go to? Tell us about your experiences below in the comments section.