Specialty AV retailers are dropping like flies in today's corrosive retail economy. Consumers who once lined up to buy audio gear in the 1990s and flat HDTVs in the 2000s are now either not spending on their AV systems in the same way or looking to new, value-oriented outlets like Wal-Mart and Costco, which sell beamingly beautiful Sony, Samsung and Panasonic HDTVs, Blu-ray players and other AV goodies at rock-bottom prices. Perhaps it's not the high-end or specialty gear we know and love, but even if you're a jaded enthusiast, you have to emit a "wow" when you see a huge 1080p HDTV set for under $2,000 at Costco. It's only natural.
While price is a factor in any buying decision for large-ticket items, especially in a down economy, it's not the only factor. In the "slow food movement" championed by star chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, the goal of the meal is not only to have it be incredibly tasty, but also that it be sourced with local, organic and somewhat healthier food. People buying high-end home theater and audiophile equipment can also take the same new-school approach to their systems and the way they source their gear. Much as you can buy buying canned, or frozen veggies at the supermarket, if you take an extra 20 minutes out of your week to visit a farmer's market, you can get even better, more exotic, fresher and more delicious food from people who work the land within a few hundred miles of where you live for many months of the year. Imagine if we looked at our specialty AV dealers in the same way. Would you pay five to 10 percent more for your system than you would to an online or warehouse retailer if the system were programmed perfectly, the audio was tuned, the video was ISF-calibrated and the cables were neatly installed? Would you invest $12,000 for your dream speakers over an $8,000 pair if they were hand-crafted by local artisans and used local materials without so many toxic chemicals, which can often get overlooked in the Chinese factories that make most of today's speaker cabinets?
Rewarding excellent service makes it worth spending a little more money. Specialty retailers are the dealers who fuel the higher-end, performance-oriented AV manufacturers. Without these outlets to sell their gear, many specialty AV brands are at risk of going on the endangered list. If their gear isn't up to speed and their service is sub-par, I know what you are thinking: let them go out of business. And you would be 100 percent right, as many AV dealers need to go bye-bye. If your local dealers can't provide top-notch service, competitive prices, calibration, programming and more, forget about them. But when you find a dealer who can deliver the whole AV enchilada you would be well-suited to not just support the dealer's business but to even promote it. It could be argued that when you find a truly fantastic installer or dealer, like the one I found in Scottsdale, Arizona, to install my father's home theater, it's worth traveling to work with them, even if it requires a few hours in the car and/or even a short flight.
Keeping specialty audio/video truly special is something that requires us, the passionate AV enthusiasts of the world, to support those who best support the industry and its best practices, just as Thomas Keller, Alice Waters, Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck and all the other top chefs support the best purveyors of their raw materials. The end results are worth a few extra dollars at every level of the value proposition.