Josh gave pretty much a good interpretation of what we saw on display at Magnolia, but I feel the need to opine some more…
The problem wasn’t so much the gear that was being displayed – for all I care, they could have had Wilson Audio, Von Schweikert, Von Gaylord, Von Dutch, you name it on display and it wouldn’t have made an iota of a difference. Why? Several reasons:
1. First and foremost, the room's acoustics were an absolute tragedy; the simple, yet most effective, “clap your hands and check for echo test” revealed a room I would more commonly associate with echos I hear in the Alps; standing in the room, speaking in clear voice proved to sound way too thin and edgy; whomever “designed” this room (and I wish to stress the term “designed” since having observed various room treatment elements proves someone’s intention to “woo” the CON-sumer (or is it the CON-SUMED?) into believing they “entered” an “expertly” treated acoustic chamber) didn’t know the first thing about acoustics and/or was instructed to simply make the room look “busy” with various treatments for the aforementioned net effect.
2. Second, the old “honey, just put these “ugly” things (speakers!) over there in that corner so I don’t have to see them” trick proves just that: MOST people, and I say that with sincerity, not in a vain attempt to provoke idiocy (or elitism on my part), don’t have a clue what a true STEREO image is, much less how you go about creating one with two equal loudspeakers. Somehow or another we managed to forget to teach that during 12 years of public indoctrination of impressionable minds, hence this “natural” contempt for one of the most basic elements of creating three dimensional sonic images with (drum rolls please!) ONLY two equal loudspeakers! Thus, this explains the exact formula for catastrophic sound in a supposedly controlled environment: the “expert” dealer down the street, or, as in our case, Magnolia A/V.
3. Third, you can’t have people giving you “expert” advice when they themselves have little to no knowledge of the very subject they are supposed to advise you on. Josh, in his ever charming ways, gave too much credit to the poor sales guy we met – a brief counter-conversation with him revealed his true identity and aspiration: a clever real estate broker disguised in perfect audio clads. The fact that his preference was towards Sonus Faber speakers did little in my highly liberating opinion (sarcastic emphasis added for your viewing pleasure) to sway me into believing that this young lad actually had a clue what he was talking about. Mind you, it wasn’t as though we were inquiring about his thoughts on DSD vs. PCM, or, 24/96 vs. 24/192, lest he of course knew what any of those acronyms stood for; no, simple questions such as “so, what’s your take on this room?” or, “do you even know what this is actually supposed to sound like properly setup?” provoked the proverbial dazed on confused look and perspiration (“God, I hope these guys wont be asking me any technical questions, as I’ll have to attempt to explain myself away with fancy gimmickery”). Needless to say, I really don’t blame our real-estate agent for his deficiencies in all things audio – no Sire, blame in this case goes fair and square to the depths of HQ of whatever enterprising soul thought of opening up this dealership. Why? Simple: if my tooth hurts, I typically seek the advice of my dentist, not Sam, my handy-man, turned real-estate agent mogul. Surly, you must catch that drift?! Presuming that my clientele doesn’t know a thing about audio playback I would certainly seek to employ people with necessary skills to educate my customers and consumers about the pleasures of two channel (or even multi-channel) audio playback. Whatever your musical interests are, you deserve to hear them at their best, wouldn’t you agree? Well, in theory that would be so of course, alas most of the guys working at these parlors get paid just a smidgen above minimum wage (plus perhaps some form of commission, though I doubt that); with such conditions what true expert would want to work there?
4. Yep, the “Bose” factor: absent any clear education and demonstration by sales professionals John Doe will ALWAYS go for that which is most publicized and marketed any and everywhere. I call it the “Oakley” factor. Having spent many years in the highly competitive sports sunglass industry, I can tell you that in effect, the name “Oakley” has become synonymous with sport sunglasses, much like Kleenex has become the de facto noun for paper tissues. So what’s the connection? Well, as in Oakley’s case, an annual marketing budget of around 160-180 million dollars buys you the function of being able to drop an “Oakley Tower” (ie. their fancy looking display case) into virtually any retail location and have consumers make purchases without any sales interaction. The fact that a) Oakley only has a handful of really good optically correct lenses, b) their quality is only so-so, has virtually no impact on this phenomenal sales model. The problem is that any manufacturer going up against Oakley either has to outspend them on their marketing efforts (not likely), or has to go through a grassroots oriented education and demonstration model, whereby consumers are being given the opportunity to see for themselves that Model B is indeed better then Oakley. Same thing with the audio industry: the only reason Bose is as successful as they are is because of the hundreds of millions they spend each year on TV, print and other ads and their illustrious retail locations. Again, as in the Oakley example, absent any proof to the contrary, the masses will simply flock to Bose as they do to Oakley, because they don’t know any better.
The moral of the story? No wonder hi-fi is drowning itself into oblivion – answers there are many… hang around and expect the unexpected.