May 2007

Casting a Net on the Net

I get several e-mails each month from readers seeking help with selecting just the right gear, some assembling a full system and others simply wanting to replace an old component or two. (Please feel free to send in your questions to the email address at the end of this column.) Because much of the equipment we discuss each month is produced by smaller, often artisan manufacturers, it is not always easy to come by, even in well-stocked local brick-and-mortar audio/video dealers, so how difficult it is for those not living in a major metropolitan area to locate this stuff.

200705_083_span9

For example, a JT reader recently asked for speaker recommendations, based largely on something I’d written several months ago. But he happens to live in rural Virginia, in a town with a paucity of audio salons. Even the closest large city, three long hours away, offered very little in the way of choice. Needless to say, his shopping experience was extremely frustrating since he had no opportunities, convenient or otherwise, to audition 90 percent of the speakers I thought would fit his needs and budget. He eventually found a satisfactory pair of loudspeakers that are making some great music in his living room, but only after several months of research, road trips and consternation.

And though I’ve always preached that equipment should be auditioned before purchasing—particularly with regards to speakers—in this fellow’s case I suggested a route not discussed here before: buying used equipment off the Internet. Indeed, as with so many products today, the Internet can be a limitless source of fine audio components. He had no realistic way to hear many speakers in person, so buying something based solely on reviews and recommendations was probably a gamble worth taking. Had he bought the $1,700 pair of used speakers I’d suggested and not found them to his liking, he could have resold them and would have likely been out only his shipping costs, since the bulk of the depreciation for those speakers occurred when the boxes were driven off the lot. And he would have had a meatier pair of loudspeakers than his original budget allowed because the used model I’d mentioned originally sold for well over $3,500. The process might be a pain, but if you don’t have access to a wide variety of products, it can be well worth the effort, and might be your only option for better sound.

Granted, to make an informed purchase, one must have some idea of where to start—which products most closely match the parameters of the system in question, the room, the budget and so on—and this takes some dedicated research that should be done wherever you end up shopping. By reading a few select resources, including this column, narrowing down the field of potential new or used gems can actually be fun.

For instance, audioasylum.com is a hotbed of audio-related forums including boards dedicated to vinyl, tube equipment, speakers and even computer audio. Reviews are available, and regular posters to these boards will happily make recommendations to newbies, though it helps to have some information at hand before posing questions. But even queries like, “What’s the best CD player under $800?” will receive helpful, insightful responses. Other online sources of information include enjoythemusic.com, 6moons.com, stereotimes.com and sonicflare.com, among others. These are full of reviews and opinions, but don’t include forums or other avenues for peer-to-peer information exchange. However, some manufacturers’ Web sites do offer forums that can make interesting reading with no shortage of opinions on which component to check out—just visit klipsch.com or omegaloudspeakers.com. Audiocircle.com hosts a couple dozen other boards that contain not only manufacturer-specific topics, but general audio and video discussions as well.

After adequate research, where does one turn to make a purchase of used gear? Well, eBay is one obvious place, but the overwhelmingly generic nature of the site makes it a bit iffy to find the good stuff there. For the crème de la crème of used audio equipment, the best place is audiogon.com where, for example, the price of a used speaker can range from $50 all the way to $50,000 and above, depending on what’s available on any particular day. If you are searching for a specific model of amp, turntable or whatever, one need only to wait for a short period of time before one is likely to show up, usually at a very reasonable price. I’ve seen some amazing bargains on Audiogon largely because there exists a sizable population of wacky audiophiles who feel the need to continue trading up the component chain several times each year. The result is often like-new gear at less than 50 percent of the original price.

Are there unreliable sellers and buyers on Audiogon? Certainly, but a feedback system on the site helps filter out the bad guys from the good. And one rule of thumb I’ve found helpful is to pay for purchases via the proven COD method.

Buying audio components on Audiogon or similar used-gear sites makes the entry into the arena of high-performance gear much less painful, financially speaking. And once you’ve had personal experience at home with Art Audio, Halcro, Arcam, Naim, Triangle, Nottingham or most any other “audiophile” component, you will assuredly seek out more of the same. The improvement in the reproduction of your favorite jazz sides will not be subtle, and you will become one of the true believers.

Plus, as stated above, used gear holds its value relatively well, so diving into unheard territory is not a horrible risk. Enjoy a pair of Vandersteen speakers for a month or two and if they don’t float your boat, sell ’em and try a pair of Paradigms. Eventually you will find the perfect piece to fit comfortably in your listening environment while educating yourself on the very real difference between one product and another.

And to meet the need of the far-flung consumers interested in this level of gear, but who want it new, not used, many manufacturers have established online shops for potential customers who don’t have access to a local dealer. To eliminate the risk of getting stuck with a product that doesn’t meet one’s needs, most of these Web-based concerns will offer some sort of in-home trial period during which the buyer can return the product. Thirty days is the usual grace period, but one witty company, run by former jazz bassist George Kaye, offers its Moscode amplifier for a 33 1/3-day audition.

For some state-of-the-art electronics employing the latest in digital amplification, investigate the Web site of Bel Canto Design (belcantodesign.com), whose products we’ve discussed favorably in these pages over the years. At the other end of the techno-spectrum, try upscaleaudio.com to investigate the value-laden PrimaLuna tube gear and discover the joys of this time-honored technology. Upscale’s Kevin Deal claims a nearly zero return rate on his equipment.

Magnepan (magnepan.com), creators of the highly lauded Magneplanar speakers, offer a 60-day trial period for their entry-level MMG line of speakers; the idea is, once you get used to the Maggie sound, you will surely want to trade up the product line...and many satisfied customers do just that, in locales as remote as Montana, as one loyal JT reader in that state can attest.

The Nottingham Space Ship turntable, reviewed here in the December issue, was designed specifically for analog lovers who live outside the high-end audio grid. Their American distributor (audiophilesystems.com) wanted a table that would be more or less ready to plug and play without need of a degree in astrophysics; so the arm is prebalanced with a proprietary cartridge already mounted. All one has to do is unpack the thing, drop the arm and platter into place and it’s ready to go. The intent was to offer these to customers with no local dealer to facilitate what can often be a complicated setup procedure.

PS Audio (psaudio.com) has made a tremendous name in recent years for their very effective power-line conditioning products and have lately introduced their own line of amplifiers and preamps. Like Bel Canto, they rely in large part on an effective dealer network, but for those outside the reach of those normal channels, they offer online shopping as well.

And as a further example of this sort of direct selling, another JT reader just purchased a $10K pair of Tetra speakers (tetraspeakers.com), the same model mentioned by bassist Ron Carter in the Nov. ’06 issue. Since the reader had no local dealer, he purchased the speakers directly from Tetra, which also put him in direct communication with the speaker’s designer, Adrian Butts—a nifty perk which gave him better insight into speaker placement, the design theory and so on.

For a wider variety of manufacturers, there are other online purveyors, more or less full-line, many of whom started out specializing in audiophile recordings, particularly the LP format. In time, they’ve branched out into hardware, first offering turntables and cartridges, and eventually expanding into electronics of all shapes and sizes. These firms include acousticsounds.com, elusivedisc.com and musicdirect.com. Music Direct is probably the largest of these, having grown into a first rate importer featuring Avid turntables from England and Valve Audio electronics from South Africa. They’ve even gotten into manufacturing a line of terrific loudspeakers, and most recently, debuted a breathtaking $3,500 phono cartridge. Their equipment line is about as complete as an online store can be, but they have not forgotten their software roots; they also own Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, producer of those amazing reissues of the ’70s and ’80s, and currently the proud papa of some of the best-sounding vinyl reissues on the planet, particularly their 45-rpm LPs and their standard 180-gram 33-rpm LPs. Any of these online shops are a great resource for the jazz-loving music fan with a dearth of well-stocked dealers in their local area.

A few rules are in order for online buying, however. Don’t bypass your local dealer to get what might be a better price online. You may end up with a component sans warranty since many manufacturers void the warranty for such sales. This is to protect the territory and pricing integrity of these products. Local dealers have a small fortune invested in inventory, personnel and real estate so their overhead is higher, their ability to discount lower, but their level of customer support is difficult to achieve online. Further, some unscrupulous online dealers will tell you to audition a component at a local dealer, then come to them for a lowball price. You are cheating the local guy, and yourself since you just might end up with no warranty, and certainly no local support. And will you feel right about busting that local guy’s chops only to stab him or her in the back by purchasing elsewhere?

If you buy used, don’t pester the seller with silly, uninformed questions. By all means pose questions, but don’t hammer meaningless points, and don’t insult the seller with lowball prices. If you treat sellers with respect, they will return the favor, and your site-specific feedback as a buyer will remain high, making it that much more fun to wheel and deal in the future. Who knows, you may be the next to post an ad to sell that classic McIntosh amp or Dynakit preamp, and you want potential buyers to respect your position on the site.

The world today is changing rapidly, and sadly, for many of us, the selection down the street, whether it’s for audio equipment or fine pinpoint Oxford shirts, is growing smaller year by year. We can, however, buy just about anything on the Internet, even if we live in Pocatello or Wichita. Will buying long distance replace the fun and satisfaction of walking into a neighborhood audio salon to audition speakers for a few hours? No, never. But thanks to the Net, the potential for assembling a world-class audio system without driving for days has become a reality for anyone with a modem and a computer. Drop the needle onto some old wax, fire up the laptop and go shopping. The end result can be countless hours of seductive listening.

Add a Comment

You need to log in to comment on this article. No account? No problem!