“Speakers……Faarsands of ’em”

DOM Team | |

There’s nothing I like more than kicking back and watching a movie. A cracking little film is always preferable to an absolute duck-egg, but I’ll give anything a chance.

The only way of assuaging a sense of celluloid shame and guilt after watching something lousy is by doing a hardcore Ebert and Roeper. Rather than dual or single thumbs-up or down, a couple of thumbscrews can be tightened to inflict an inversley proportionate amount of discomfort in accordance to the lameness of the film.

Now it should never have a bearing on any film you watch, but high definition and surround sound do provide you with something extra when it comes to watching movies at home. If anything, it means the unbearable tripe that’s had your thumbnails turning black and blue is almost worth watching for the sights and sounds alone.

HDTVs don’t take much buying – trust your eyes, but keep one of them open to monitor the bulge decrease in your wallet. Sound on the other hand, is a completely different beast. You can easily spend more on a pair of front speakers than you can on a Porsche. And if you think people won’t spend a million on a custom sound system, then you don’t know how daft, I mean wealthy, some people are. Or, how much they crave the best sound possible. But, you still have to trust your ears and listen for the slight rustling of your wallet being emptied.

HDTV is an impressive technological advancement, whereas sound is a holy grail going back eons. It’s another one of those realms that invokes passionate debate amongst the hardcore, and is a fairly major purchasing decision.

There are literally thousands of speakers out there to choose from, but for me, it’s been as interesting finding out how certain companies market and sell their speakers as it has been shopping for the speakers themselves.

One of the first things you do is a bit of online research in and around your budget. In the good old days you would’ve bought a magazine or two. These days it’s much easier to compare and contrast online as you have entire back catalogs to leaf through. You also don’t have to drop an extra $5 on each and every home audio magazine you come across. There are specialist forums dedicated to all things home theater and audio where you can get real hardcore advice and suggestions as to what you should be looking at buying.

As I got round to deciding which speakers I might be interested in listening to prior to purchase, a few names were being bandied about in certain forums and reviews alike. They also happened to be in the right ballpark pricewise. So, it only seemed right and proper that I tried to audition them.

Now this is where it gets interesting (honest).

I kept coming across speaker manufacturers that magazine reviewers claimed to be astonishing and forum posters unanimously agreed were fantastic. They also came in under budget. But, they dealt directly online. They didn’t have any dealerships and you couldn’t purchase from anywhere else. Their sites consisted of a shopping cart and a forum for feedback purposes and customer service. And, you auditioned the speakers by either turning up at a trade show or by finding somebody in a similar area willing to let you audition them in their home. One particular company had its CEO posting regularly on other forums where questions about its speakers cropped up. And you know something? All their stock is currently on backorder until mid-October. They simply can’t ship it out quickly enough.

Now these online business models are a great example of having an extraordinary product that relies on viral word of mouth and customers evangelizing the products. It’s also a pretty nice touch the CEO getting in amongst the hoi polloi and sharing his passion with their passion. And that’s the thing: both company and customer are aligned in the pursuit of the fantastic speaker.

It’s as good an example of the world of new online marketing you’d ever wish to see.

I also kept coming across manufacturers that were held in great esteem across the forums and also received some great reviews. They were a slightly bigger and more established group of manufacturers than the previous model and relied solely on independent dealers to peddle their wares. They had Web sites, but they acted only as online brochures. The only places you could find them for sale online were on certain auction sites, and they tended to be older models.

These companies seem to use the Web as a way of providing specific information about their products and then pointing you in the direction of an independent retailer in your area. You would be guaranteed a decent audition experience and also some genuinely good advice from the in-store experts. The customers of these brands were generous with their praise and had an unnatural love for their speakers that dare not speak its name.

In many respects, it’s online old school. In the case of one speaker manufacturer, they had to stop all forms of online sales as dealers far and wide were threatening to stop stocking them as they were unable to compete with online retailers in Canada undercutting them.

It’ll be interesting to see how they adapt as the direct online manufacturers expand further.

Then we get to your bigger brand speaker manufacturers that sell everywhere and anywhere, both online and offline at some of your larger consumer electronics establishments. These things are everywhere, but there tends to be considerable heated debate as to how good some of these types of speakers are. Not only that, but the big consumer electronics stores come in for quite a pounding for having fairly clueless staff and appalling listening environments. They seem to get it wrong on both scores. The forum world and peer review world is littered with enough bad reviews to make you think twice and the audition experience is enough to never make you think again.

I’m staggered by the ineptitude of this kind of approach. Granted, it relies on people who might not care, or who haven’t investigated quite as thoroughly, or have a terribly low budget, but it almost smacks of corporate contempt to me.

Yes, they might have some awesome deals, but they just want to shift sub-standard units with worthless warranties.

It’s interesting to see where certain market shares will go if this isn’t addressed. You’d almost advise some of these companies to embrace a spot of online reputation management.

So, considering this, which approach did I stump up the cash for?

Well, I spent ages reading looking at all the various reviews and searching for various models online.

I also spent far too long wasting my time checking out terribly set-up speaker systems and separates with complete half-wits. It was that bad I vowed never to shop at any of them ever again. I suppose my favorite speaker experience was over at a particular Pittsburgh branch of an consumer electronics behemoth with one kid who couldn’t actually hook a particular speaker up. He asked if we wanted to listen to something else then a colleague hijacked our audition with a speaker we didn’t ask to audition by putting his respective customer’s homemade DVD into the DVD player hooked up to the speaker and we watched him towing his kid on a water ski.

It was shameful that he mentioned how full the thing sounded considering it was nothing but wind buffeting the camera’s mic. Their online reputations went before them.

As for the direct online speaker manufacturers, I got so excited by the various online reviews and all the good things I was reading in various forums, that I pulled the trigger on something I hadn’t heard. I was also so impressed by the CEO and how much the customers in the forums seemed to love the product and the company that I was onto what I thought was a surefire winner. I managed to find a great little B-stock surround system for a steal, but I hadn’t read the bit where I couldn’t send B-stock back. I also had Steph complaining how they were actually bigger than the ones we were replacing, so I cancelled. When I get a basement……………..

Now we wound up going the independent retailer route with the speaker manufacturer that didn’t sell online. You see, there’s a little speaker place in Wheeling where Steph first listened to our prospective purchase. And once I had a listen I really liked them too. So, I decided to read up on them online a bit more to gather a few more experiences, and they ranged to fantastically positive to positively average. But, most were very positive. I found a few other independent retailers online round here and auditioned what they had. Yes, I do enjoy reading up on certain speakers, checking the sites and then auditioning certain sets locally.

It’s one thing imploring businesses to spend their hard-earned money on online marketing efforts, but it’s another to spend your own hard-earned based on how businesses market themselves online and what the word on the online street is about companies and their products.

I was obviously most impressed with the online efforts of certain direct manufacturers. I can’t think of too many companies selling something so expensive purely online. They relied on exceptional products at an affordable price (for speakers). Maybe you couldn’t find a retailer, but their customers were so taken with the experience that they offered their own homes as places to audition the goods. They also trusted them to provide input on product development and the whole online experience felt inclusive. Customers were a vital cog and the company had no problems giving them full reign. The CEO even answered questions in other AV forums and was an integral part of the online conversation about his company and products. If it had been just me I’d have bought these, no question. And, when I get round to buying a place I probably will. It isn’t about creating passionate users, but about creating great products that align with users’ passions.

I suppose it’s quite ironic that I bought from a company that will not allow its products to be sold online and from a dealer that doesn’t have a Web site. But, I found more than enough information online to ease and inform my furrowed brow. And, considering the dealer is just round the corner, I’d be a fool not to pop in.

However, they could easily have lost out had my wife not been so adamant that we needed something smaller than we possessed currently or I’d giddily thrown some plastic at. But, I have to thank them and the speaker manufacturer for proving to Steph that there are things much better than those small over-priced and over-hyped boxes that rhymes with blows. At least the dealerships have passionate folk running them who absolutely love selling the stuff they do. I would never have dreamt of purchasing or even visiting had they been slightly further afield. Especially considering the dealership didn’t have a Web site. Only the auditioning, its proximity and the wife appreciation factor trumped this one. But are we happy? Ecstatic!

Now, if there’s a guaranteed way of ensuring I don’t purchase then go the way of the consumer electronics giants. The online experience is nothing more than a shopping cart with customer reviews. This can be a double-edged sword. I’ve never found customer reviews enough to totally swing a purchase, but they can be enough to hinder it. You always want to go elsewhere to confirm or deny what people may bring up. But, “Best bang for the buck. These speakers are just WOW,” tend to be quite common comments. They also have no control over other reviews elsewhere on the Web and their in-store buying experience is beyond lousy. If I had high end electronics for sale in these places I’d want them out of there pronto. Then again, if I cared about them in the first place I wouldn’t be selling them there. What’s so difficult about turning a receiver on and having the speakers pointing in the right direction?

The point here is that we’ve managed to spend an appreciable chunk of change on something we really do like and ticks every single box we needed ticking. And the Internet has been instrumental in the purchase.

And, to be fair, I’m very happy to have bought from a local retailer with the Internet as a trusty sidekick.

Yes, we drove past it a few times a week, but never thought it sold home audio stuff. Only doing a search intimated that it might, and looking for dealers on the speaker manufacturer’s site led us there for sure. Only after auditioning did I want to do more research online. After all, most products, especially those enjoyed by hardcore users, are spoken about online. And that’s enough for me to decide whether the wallet gets opened.

I shudder to think what the alternative might have been.

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