The bricks & mortar, mom & pop specialist high-end audio store is fast becoming an endangered species. Just how endangered depends on where you live, but even traditional hi-fi hot-spots, the days of the ‘we stock the lot’ audio stores appear long gone. What’s left is either the low-mid-end superstore, or increasingly bespoke stores targeting a smaller, but wealthy clientele. Reaching the ‘excluded middle’ and the concept of a smooth transition from entry-level to the outer atmosphere in a single store has all but disappeared.
Or so I thought.
The Electrical Appliance Plaza in Guangzhou, China doesn’t sound like the ideal audiophile venue. At first glance, it could pass for the number one destination to buy a steam iron or a portable air conditioner, perhaps, but not high-end audio. Then, you look at the store-fronts along this part of the Dashatou Road and you notice the row upon row of loudspeakers and the walls filled with audio electronics. The store dedicated to McIntosh, or the one next to it that stocks every Focal speaker you can think of.
Any one of these stores holds more stock than you’d see in a month on Audiogon, but are merely an appetizer for the Elegant Music Garden itself. This large, two-storey store sits in the centre of the plaza and is a department store for audio and video equipment. It has a very wide gamut, dealing with everything from starter NAD/B&W systems (or similar) right up to the very highest of high-end. There can’t be many stores that have a dedicated listening room for the likes of Wadia, Boulder and Wilson, and have a set of Alexandria 2s and MAXX 3 on permanent demonstration, with a full-on Burmester Top Line system (with a Metronome CD as an alternative) in the next, a room filled with Naim, a cinema/lecture room with a state of the art Barco Cineversum, more Sonus Faber loudspeakers than you might see in the Sonus Faber factory and some of the best electronics Colorado has to offer and another pair of more down-to-earth listing rooms that were in regular use (playing Audiolab, Quad and Wharfedale Jade while we were there).
Even the most seasoned audio traveller had that ‘kid in a toy shop’ look, faced with wall upon wall of hi-fi’s great and good all in one place. It’s almost overwhelming, especially as there’s no sign of ‘end of line’ or discontinued products… it’s all brand, spanking new and completely free from the half inch of dust so often seen in today’s audio stores in the West. Where else could you find a cheap pair of Mission loudspeakers standing next to a four-box dCS Scarlatti?
Interestingly, there were some big differences between the Chinese market and that of the Western audiophile. Turntables were virtually non-existent. Home theater and computer audio were available, but trailing far behind CD/SACD replay and two-channel audio. And, although the big names in cable were on show, the whole ancillary market was not as developed as it is in the UK and US.
I have visited some of the best audio stores on the planet. Some of them (like Grahams Hi-Fi in London) long-established and very professional, some (such as Sound & Colors in Paris) are new, ambitious and very professional. But few have the breadth of products and the sheer size of store to express that professionalism to its logical limits.
Audio is still an aspiration product in many parts of the East (hi-fi is often used in advertising for high-end apartment blocks in the same way flashes of expensive watches are used to help sell luxury cars) and this means there are more buyers likely to spend bigger sums on audio equipment. Even so, stores like Elegant Music Garden highlight the disparity between East and West. Far from being the grim hi-fi outlet for the repressed, downtrodden Chinese masses, places like this can put our own stores to shame.