The Custom Installer: The Lost Art of the Demo

When I'm on vacation, I peruse the local phonebook for A/V stores. It's a great opportunity for me to go rub shoulders with other installers, trade war stories, get ideas on how to set up our showroom or solve a problem I've run across - and to get wowed by a killer demo.

While vacationing with my wife's family in Florida a couple of years ago, I spotted a custom-install shop. I introduced myself and asked if I might look around for a bit. I was thrilled to see they carried B&W Nautilus 801 speakers since I'd always wanted to audition them but had never had the opportunity. When I asked the proprietor if I could listen to the 801s, though, she said she was too busy - even though no one else was in the store. Okay, could I just turn on the system myself? (It was a simple - but elegant - two-channel affair.) Again, no. Nonplused, and rather irritated, I walked out.

I couldn't believe it. I had politely asked for a demo and been flatly rejected - twice! Granted, I wasn't a potential customer, but you'd think a modicum of professional courtesy would apply. While this might be an extreme example, I think it's indicative of a trend - the art of the demo is going away.

There was a time when even big-box retailers had nice rooms set aside for elaborate stereo demos. But many stores have replaced these areas with TV-lined walls and shelves stacked with "bargain of the week" home-theater-in-a-box systems. What used to be a critical buying decision based on sound quality, system interaction, and driver and cabinet type has in many cases been reduced to, "These are small and come in silver." And I think the lack of demos is one of the reasons high-res formats like Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio are floundering.

Also putting demos on the endangered list is the belief - among customers and salespeople alike - that people can't hear the difference or won't pay for quality. Sure they'll fork over $10,000 for a plasma TV. But $1,000 for a pair of bookshelf speakers? Forget about it.

Two words: B.S. Too many times I've seen people dead set to buy a certain speaker system ultimately buy one far outside their original budget because a demo revealed nuances in the music they'd never heard before. And this only happened because somebody took the time to let them actually listen.

A well-designed demo delivers an incredibly powerful, emotional experience that can stay with you for years. I clearly remember the first time I experienced a home theater system (at my friend Travis's house, watching Speed on laserdisc) and the first time I experienced a truly high-end system (in San Francisco). I'm sure you can vividly recall similar A/V encounters of your own.

Since a good demo can be amazingly effective, why does it seem to be getting harder to find one?

Frankly, some of the blame lies with consumers. All too often, people are in such a rush that they pick out A/V gear as if selecting grout for their bathrooms. If you don't seem interested, you aren't likely to inspire the salesman to go through the effort of setting up a great demo. But if you're actually excited to be there, a good salesman will feed off that enthusiasm and want to show you the best gear he has.

Love the brand or hate it, when it comes to giving a demo, Bose has its act together. When you go to a Bose store, the sales staff's main function is to get you to see "The Demo," and the presenters have memorized a script that walks you through the features of whatever you're being shown. These demos are slick, well timed, controlled and - judging from Bose's tremendous success - very effective.

You can do a few things to make sure you get a proper demo. If it's a small shop, call and schedule an appointment. If they know you're coming, they'll make sure someone is expecting you. Next, bring your own CDs and DVDs. While most stores have a decent selection of demo discs, you'll get a much better sense of the differences between models by relying on something you've listened to hundreds of times and know inside and out. And give the salespeople some feedback: "I like this, but . . . ," "I wish it had more (or less) . . . ," or "I want it to look/sound like . . . ." Finally, don't be afraid to "sit in the Ferrari." Experience the best - even if you can't afford it - just to establish a reference point.

And if you still can't find a good demo, look me up the next time you're in South Carolina.

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