ARE HI-FI STORES any different overseas? This burning question was soon to be answered as my partner and I decided to take six weeks off in the depths of winter for a wee trip to Europe, taking in Germany, England and Hungary.
I had premeditated my visit to at least one hi-fi dealer in Hungary and Germany, scoping out stores in both Berlin and Budapest in order to fulfill my passion while touring ‘old’ Europe.
I wasn’t disappointed. Up first was Saturn in Berlin. To be fair it’s actually more of a Harvey Normans on steroids than a hi-fi store per se (five floors of electronic goods, including washing machines, toasters and anything else that needs electricity to make it work), but lurking on one floor was an exclusive section devoted solely to Burmester audio equipment.
Just past the Telefunken mini-systems and Pioneer iPod docks was a sub-room containing utterly, madly-priced audio porn, and as I wandered around salivating uncontrollably I couldn’t help but ponder on the tyrekicker-to-buyer ratio.
Given the unlikely surroundings (and the lack of a decent listening room) the Burmester gear sounded fantastic (Neil Diamond, anyone?), as you’d expect for hi-fi products whose prices resemble phone numbers. The build quality of both electronics and loudspeakers had to be seen to be believed, to the point where I didn’t dare touch any of ’em in case I left my depreciating DNA behind.
Suffice to say I wasn’t approached by any salespeople (my lurid shorts, crocs and jokey t-shirt must have screamed ‘just browsing’), and as I breezed around practically unnoticed I managed to take a few crafty photos while avoiding eye contact with the sales staff.
It was a bit of a cold experience. Although the equipment was simply stunning to view and listen to, the complete lack of interaction with salespeople meant I only had half the experience. Still, chances are they’d have struggled with my rudimentary German anyway – Ich spreche sehr wenig Deutsch!
After this I backed out of the Burmester room and strolled into the software section, to be greeted by an entire wall devoted to new vinyl, which I thumbed through with glee.
A couple of weeks later we jetted off to Budapest (Hungary), a city I’ve wanted to visit for years. Gorgeous it was too, and once I’d gotten over the shock of watching a dead body float down the Danube while we were walking across the famous Chain bridge (not kidding), I decided to pop into Akustztika, a small hi-fi retailer practically in the middle of the city.
Ah, this was a totally different experience altogether! I had quite a lengthy chat with owner Oszlovics Gabor about hi-fi in general and its shrinking market, and found that the scene in Hungary was very similar to what is taking place down under in New Zealand.
His store is now one of a few in Budapest specialising in proper hi-fi, with many others having fallen in competition with major chain stores.
It’s not the only reason of course: Hungary isn’t known for its large salaries, and high-end gear is definitely a discretionary spend.
This was a much warmer experience – I was talking to a retailer passionate about music and the reproduction of it, and he seemed to be a really nice guy to boot. I noticed he had Plinius as a brand on his website and mentioned this to him: “Beautifully made and sounding equipment, but priced very high for Budapest”. Fair enough I thought, along with what must be a hefty freight cost and added country tax, Plinius must be out of reach for most audio lovers in Hungary.
Still, wandering around the shop revealed a few familiar names (Olive HD, Pro-Ject, Pioneer, Nordost, Oppo, Cyrus and Dynaudio to name but a few).
Also making an impact on me was a loudspeaker brand from across the border in the Czech Republic. Xavian creates some sumptuously designed pieces of loudspeaker art, particularly the beautiful XN 360 – itself sporting the finest in Scan-Speak driver technology. Oszlovics was most enthusiastic about the lovely Xavians, proclaiming the XN 360s as “better sounding than the Dynaudio Confidence C4’s”. A bold claim indeed, but he knew he wasn’t going to sell me a pair of Xavians, so why would he lie eh!
Other brands include Audolici (tube amps and loudspeakers from Portugal), Blacknote (digital source equipment and solid-state Class-A amplifiers from Italy), System Audio (loudspeakers from Denmark), and German loudspeaker experts Phonar.
I compared the time I spent with Gabor with my Burmester experience in Berlin, and then cross-referenced both to the many times I’ve wandered around hi-fi shops back home, and made this conclusion.
Chain stores are invariably a sterile, box-shifting environment unless you have staff who are genuinely passionate about the gear they are selling. I spent about 30 minutes in the Burmester section while in Saturn and no-one bothered to walk up to me. On the flipside, my visit to Akustztika couldn’t have been more divergent. The owner was genuinely passionate about music and the equipment used to reproduce it, and he was definitely interested in hearing my thoughts and experiences without placing a time penalty on me.
So am I saying to diss and miss all chain stores in favour of the niche retailer? Well yes, and no. For starters you won’t be browsing at tube amplifiers in Noel Leeming any time soon, nor selecting a new low output MC cartridge, either. What you will find is that new iPod dock, toaster, flat screen TV (yes, I know some hi-fi retailers sell them, but…), and all the whiteware you’ll ever need.
Of course, you’ll need to visit Harvey Norman if you want to check out Perreaux and Theophany products (a good idea, anyway) but do frequent the specialist hi-fi retailers here in NZ: just like Budapest’s Akusztika, enthusiastic retail hi-fi experts like Oszlovics are in danger of dying out – to the serious detriment of all of us music/audio lovers.
Footnote: While in England I popped into hi-fi discounter supreme Richer Sounds store in Bristol (Whiteladies Road to be specific) and picked up a Pure i20 iPod dock for 70 quid (yes, 70 quid!). Crammed to the roof with bargains galore, the shop has one demo room and some genuinely tasty hi-fi bits. Here the staff were knowledgeable and courteous, and actually knew what I was on about regarding bitperfect digital streamed audio ex- iPod. How impressive from a box-shifting company to have such dedicated staff, I thought, as I made a beeline for the nearest pub. GARY PEARCE