Where Have All the Hi-Fi Shops Gone

When I was a lad I served a turn as a Hi-Fi looker with no bucks to burn…

With apologies to Gilbert & Sullivan, I’d venture that more than a few veteran audiophiles began that way. Back in the day every city of medium to large size had at least one hi-fi shop. Big cities had dozens. I still remember New York’s Sam Goody and Harvey Radio. We lived in Connecticut but I visited relatives in New York several times a year. Goody’s main business at the time was LPs, and they might well have been the world’s biggest LP retailer. I bought numerable LPs there before CD was a thing. I also bought my first loudspeaker there to go with the Heathkit amp I put together on the kitchen table to the consternation of my what-have-we-raised parents. My hi-fi catalogs and magazines were dog-eared.

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but by the mid ‘90s there were far fewer shops than before. Major cities were still served, but smaller cities were lucky to have a Best Buy or Circuit (RIP) City. Was it a lack of interest? Or the growth in that decade of the home theater market that pushed many retailers to transition from exclusively audio to custom installations? Or was it perhaps the perceived, skyrocketing prices of audio, at the least at the high-end, that discouraged buyers and therefore drove many brick and mortar audio dealers into closure?

It's hard to believe it was a lack of interest. Music is a perennial leisure activity. But there’s also no doubt that explosive growth in other product categories has grabbed a huge chunk of fans’ disposable income. Personal computers were everywhere starting in the '90s, and at least initially they weren’t anywhere near bargain priced. I remember paying $2,000 for my first serious laptop in the early aughts, but could justify it for work reasons. But for many folks it was simply something they wanted to have; personal computers were hot, and still are. Later came other tech toys we all needed, from $1,000 cell phones with computer-like ambitions eventually moving to virtual assistants named Alexa and Siri. Then big-screen TV’s became must haves, and only recently become relatively affordable — at least at the low end.

We’re certainly not into disparaging home theater here, but there’s no doubt that it has had an impact on audio sales. True, in some respects this has been positive, since audio is just as important to a home theater setup as video. But it has certainly complicated the marketplace. Many audio dealers managed to survive by moving into custom installation, and some of them closed their less profitable storefronts, saving big time on overhead.

The effect the rise in audio prices has had is hard to nail down. It’s complicated. On one hand there’s now a wider range of good quality, affordable gear than ever before. True, much of it now comes from countries with low labor costs, mainly China. There are potential downsides to this that are too complex to address here (it would take a books, and has), but for buyers it’s been a boon. Because U.S. (and European)-produced gear carries a heavier labor burden, it has tended to concentrate on equipment that most buyers can only dream of owning. That means that the casual or entry-level buyer, who could well first be exposed to such dream gear, might conclude that this is a hobby only for the rich, not even realizing the wealth of affordable equipment still available. Thus the Catch 22; many of these potential buyers then avoid shops where they might experience it, even casually, and with fewer customers the shops pack it in.

It also doesn’t help that so-called boutique audio stores have long had a reputation for snobbery. I well recall visiting one such store years ago to audition a pair of moderately-priced but well regarded speakers. I was the only customer in the store, but after five minutes of listening the salesman inquired as to whether I was ready to buy or not, as these were only budget speakers after all! I’d venture that more than one reader has had a similar experience.

The key players in today’s audio market, outside of a few big cities, are the internet and regional audio shows. You can buy almost anything audio- (or video) related through your computer or smartphone and often get it delivered in two days (though I’ve recently been seeing more “out of stock” notices on such sites as Amazon, largely due, I suspect, to shipment disruptions caused by the Coronavirus epidemic in China). Often, returning such items is possible if it doesn’t fit your needs, though shipping isn’t always free and even if it is return shipment can be a hassle. It’s more practical with smaller items such as headphones than with large floor-standing speakers or heavy power amps.

Attending an audio show is another route to actually hearing gear you might be interested in. There’s now a number of them in the U.S. every year. The heavy hitters are currently Axpona in Chicago in April and the (Denver-area) Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in the fall. And there are other shows as well in the Los Angeles area, Northern California, New York City, Washington D.C., and Tampa, Florida.

One issue I have with such audio shows is that their demos often feature the exhibitors’ most expensive gear. That’s understandable, but it also emphasizes the unaffordability of those products to many potential buyers. It would be interesting if someone would run an audio show where no single product in the demoed system could be over a certain retail price, including pair-cost for the speakers. I can’t say what that top price might be, but $3,000 would work for me, and even $5,000 might be acceptable as exhibitors would now be competing for the eyes and ears of a bigger subset of buyers than simply those with Platinum charge cards. I know I’d be first in line to attend such a show; I recall going to Rocky Mountain a couple of years ago where one room was designated as the Affordable room, featuring products from a number of manufacturers. It was the most crowded room at the show.

Traveler's picture

Only a small percentage of people are interested in spending big money on gear that sounds no different than their phone. That there are a lot more people with big bucks means that there are still a large number of audio snobs.

brenro's picture

There are far too many people that can't tell the difference between the sound of their cell phones and an actual high fidelity system.

snorene's picture

In my opnion, like car show, most people love going to see the hot stuff; in car shows to see the Ferraris, Lambos and McLarens, Porsches, etc but they still might find their next car, a Kai, Toyota, GM, or what have you after looking and sitting in one and grabbing some free swag and brochures. Audio shows need to keep that in mind.

In audio shows, they too showcase top stuff, and I believe if you have great gear show and play it, but also make and show what mere mortals can afford as well. Imagine if PassLabs, or Magico, or Esoteric made a less expensive, ie. low-end line, that looked and sounded like 90% of the top end, but at 1/10 the cost like Paradigm speakers does.

Also, start playing modern music in shows. What 18-30 year old wants to listen to Diana Krall...seriously. Just play top 40 and accept you next generation of buyers is already there, start marketing to them.

Billy's picture

Why has no one focused on the hard core economic realities of the Western world? The average worker has not seen a raise as adjusted for inflation for over 40 years, yet prices keep rising. Yet the cost of living for the things that are needed goes up and up, as do our taxes. There is not only less money to buy higher end gear, but a vast smaller group able to afford it. The middle class who purchased most of this stuff is shrinking like the man in that bad 1950s sifi movie of a similar name. Remember, it was never the very rich who bought this stuff, it was the regular guys who were the smitten and saved their pennies to get it. Years back I was in HiFi Heaven in Green Bay, Wisconsin, home of the Packers. I asked if the players came in to buy high end stuff, and they told me not at all. Your average player bought stuff that was loud, not good. Said they came in with crazy expensive (read flashy) cars, but music, was just loud back ground noise for parties. The rigged economy favoring the 1% has almost killed the high end because they have severely limited the ability of the average lover to be able to make a purchase. Of course, a lot of what everyone else here has said also is for sure part of the problem, but I feel this is the main cause of this, as it is so many other problems we face.

alexanderc's picture

When I was a kid, the best "hi-fi" I had ever seen was my dad's pair of Sansui speakers, with a reel-to-reel tape deck (I'm told it was a good one), a cheap record player, and some kind of integrated amp. He rarely listened to it when I was a kid, and by the time I was old enough to reach the buttons where he had it up on the shelf (say, age 8 or 9) cassette tapes were the only thing going. When I was able to afford my own equipment in the mid 1990s, I bought one of those semi-portable, plastic Sony CD player/dual cassette/radios (at Wal Mart) because that's what was cool--that's what my friends had, and anything more would be needlessly big and complicated. I had never heard of, much less been to, a store that sold real hi-fi equipment. Best Buy, Circuit City, and Radio Shack were it, and I never knew anyone who bought the big, fancy speakers they carried either.

Fifteen years later, I had bought a Sony HTIB for $150 or $200 (which my wife thought was recklessly exorbitant--Ha!). After one of the speakers died, I couldn't find anyone who could tell me anything about replacing it: did I need to buy the exact same kind of speaker? Would any old speaker work? Would do any damage if I just tried one? Seriously, no friends, no family, and none of the people I worked with had the slightest idea! I was in my mid 30s trying to find out how to replace another plastic Sony speaker when I first discovered that there was more out there than what they sold at the big-box stores.

My generation are the ones responsible for the death of hi-fi stores. When I was a teenager in the 90s (which corresponds with what Mr. Norton remembers) hi-fi wasn't important to me or anyone I knew close to my age. There were no commercials for those products on TV and no ads in the magazines we read. The people we knew with record players and amplifiers were OLD, and what high school kid wants to be like his dad or grandpa? We didn't listen to the same music, and we didn't listen to our music the same way they did. Even now, having been converted (so to speak), I only have one friend who has any idea what this hobby is about and he's 25 years older than I am. I regret that it worked out that way, and I'm glad that quality audio appears to be making a bit of a comeback (vinyl, at least). I hope the trend continues.

Mikedt's picture

When I was in college, when it came time to move, the last thing you packed and the first thing you unpacked was your stereo. I'm guessing for your group it was your Xbox.

Mikedt's picture

I walked into my daughter's room the other day and she's playing music using just the iPhone's built in speakers. She has a rather nice sounding bluetooth speaker a foot away. When I ask her why she's not using it, she says "just too lazy I guess." That right there sums it up. Turn on a receiver or a preamp/amp combo? Too much effort. Same reason crappy k-cups have taken over the coffee section at the grocery store.

Now get off my lawn.

Boojiboy's picture

I worked at a major camera and hi-fi store in the 1970's in downtown Los Angeles. They did huge business, but two things happened in the late 1970's into the early 1980's; (1) video games and (2) VCR's. People, especially young people, only had so much disposable money. Something had to give and these new entertainment products sucked up a lot of the money that might have been spent on good hi-fi equipment. The introduction of the audio CD created some excitement for a while and people upgraded their systems to take advantage of the dynamic range. Then came Napster. You know the rest.

pjwenz's picture

I worked in the industry in the early 70’s. What drove me to work in the industry was the sound and the equipment. I worked and visited many stores in the Chicago area. Stores like Musicraft and others were great places to go on a weekend to listen to the different manufactures they represented. Car audio was big then and we at Autosound also had home hi-fi we were trying to break into. It was a great time for audio, the CES show was at McCormick place in downtown Chicago, and there were more than enough stores to go around. We were all very proud of our sound rooms, but now you have to rely on the reviews of others (especially for speakers) to fo determine what type of sound you may like or want. Don’t get me wrong about todays equipment, but in the mid to lower end user it is very difficult to preview the sound you may like or want in todays atmosphere. Bring back the old A-B listening test.

VeggieGuy's picture

This is a spot-on article and a fantastic thread of comments. Thanks to the author and all the participants.

I sold consumer hi-fi in the '70s in a major Midwestern city and we had a pretty good (accurate) listening room where we A/B'd loudspeakers for customers. I haven't seen such a room in a long time, especially one with a good door that could be shut to help reduce distractions and allow people to focus on the sound.

It makes me sad to read pjwenz correctly writing that people make purchasing decisions based on others' reviews — as if others will hear the loudspeakers the same way you will, right?

I am still involved in the industry, so I have a long statistical sampling from which to draw when I say that it has been my experience that once they're exposed to good gear in a properly constructed, properly treated room...and the loudspeakers are properly set up in relation to the listening position...most people immediately have their eyes (ears?) opened and never look back, sound-wise. They can't unhear the truth.

Regarding the comment about the daughter being too lazy to fire up the Bluetooth loudspeaker, I find that listening to compressed, lo-fi music through the nearest device is like having sex with oneself: more people do it than admit to it!

I have had the opportunity to listen in some of the world's greatest studios and have very good ears, but there are plenty of times when a song coming out of the nearest digital device is "good enough" to still engage me emotionally. I don't necessarily think we can equate high-end gear with a guaranteeing a satisfactory engagement between the content and the listener. Of course I wish it were so and that low-bitrate audio could be outlawed, but that isn't the reality of today's music-consumption environment. In my case, given that I spend time in the world's best recording and mastering studios, I think that I can emotionally engage with music out of a low-fi digital device because my ear-brain mechanism harkens back to the full-bandwidth sound I regularly experience and fills in the gaps. Most people (okay, young people, especially) haven't had such stellar listening experiences, so they are satisfied with limited-bandwidth listening...until they're exposed to full-bandwidth audio. Here's hoping that more of them can be.

I am glad that better connectivity is available to most people and that this increased bandwidth is at least allowing more people to listen to streaming FLAC and other lossless file formats.

There's hope yet.

Mark Kruger's picture

There are very South of Boston, MA. In 2010 we began the process of creating a new Tech Hifi based on the concepts and ideals of the original iconic company. Located in Hanson, MA we are in our 10th year of business.

Mark Kruger's picture

Edit: very few South of Boston

mkrosse's picture

totally get it: AudioCraft in Northeast Ohio during the 70's: McIntosh, Nakamichi, etc etc ..... why did the industry blow it? Did not respond fast enough to friction-free access to a total music portfolio (Pandora, Napster, Spotify)..... Paid thousands in 2005 for custom home theater + cabinetry by a local CT audio shop ..... but solution did not have a workable internet streaming solution ....... The industry missed the market at a key inflection point. Their customers are now ear-trained for iPhone, Sonos, & other ..... speed beats perfection

Olaf the Snowman's picture

Some of these Hi-Fi stores could do well, if they diversify into home theater and video display as well as Hi-Fi :-) .........

barfle's picture

I bought my first (halfway) decent system when I was in the Army in 1968/69. I started working in the industry in 1972 at Altec Lansing, where we were building commercial and consumer electronics two blocks from Disneyland in Anaheim, California. At the time, there were probably a dozen stores where you could buy pretty darn good stuff, although you probably couldn’t do that and raise a family on most of our paychecks those days.

About six years ago, I decided to get a home theater setup beyond a tube TV and a laserdisc player. There was a home theater store in a town adjacent to where I was living at the time, and I figured that would be a good place to try some equipment I wasn’t familiar with. Even though I was ready to drop some serious cash, I never got a demo of any of their gear. Even after I bought $4,000 worth of equipment from them, “personal service” was never part of the transaction.

Not sure why they didn’t want business, but they certainly didn’t get the rest of my budgeted funding.

ZmG0528's picture

I also grew up in Connecticut back in the Sixties and Seventies as well. The highlight of the year was when the new tech hifi catalog came out! My friends and I would take a ride to downtown Stamford and drool at all the equipment in the store. We would make up "dream" lists of equipment if money were no object. I bought my first real stereo setup after working all Summer and it was my pride and joy. It was a sad day when tech hifi finally closed their doors. It was the end of an era.