Boston University Re-educated on Hi-Fi ‘Concepts’
With neighborhood’s legendary stereo stores all but gone, custom electronics installer 'Audio Concepts' looks to fill void.
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Don Houde (left), owner of North Attleboro-based Audio Concepts, and Spencer Kalker, consultant, in front the soon-to-be-opened Boston showroom.
October 19, 2009 by Tom LeBlanc

The area around Boston University used to be a hi-fi hotbed.

BU students, Boston College students, faculty, personnel from nearby hospitals and affluent residents from Boston’s Back Bay, Brookline and Newton would flock to Tweeter, Electra City, Goodwin’s High End and Spearit Sound.

They’d listen to some Blue Oyster Cult or Grand Funk Railroad or maybe Weather Report before hauling away a pair of 4-foot speakers in the backseat of a Buick Riviera.

Those stores moved to suburban locations (Goodwins in nearby Waltham and Spearit in Northampton) or closed.

Though it hung on for a couple of decades, that era officially ended late last year when Tweeter closed all its stores — including its Commonwealth Avenue location across from BU.

With all respect to Best Buy, which has two nearby locations, the BU area has lacked a high-performance audio/video store since Tweeter left. That’s about to change.

North Attleboro-based custom electronics provider Audio Concepts is currently renovating the old Spearit Sound location. Owner Don Houde is hoping to open the 5,200-square-foot showroom by November 1, although he’s wary that permitting issues could push it back a little.

Custom Solutions Hub
When Audio Concepts opens at 870 Commonwealth Avenue, consultant Spencer Kalker says it will become the only custom electronics installer with retail space near downtown Boston. It’s a void he says was created when Media Systems closed its waterfront Boston Design Center location in 2003.

The custom electronics market has changed a lot since 2003 — let alone since hi-fi reigned. Most of the BU students living near Audio Concepts aren’t audiophiles, preferring to download music from iTunes and listen on their iPods or iPhones.

In fact, there aren’t likely many audiophiles among the BU faculty and neighboring communities either — high-end audio just doesn’t carry the cache it once did. Audio Concepts, therefore, is banking on complementing its custom solutions with off-the-shelf solutions, such as high-performance headphones, and converting foot-traffic into cash flow.

It’s also banking on creating new audiophiles. Many of today’s consumers, especially college students, haven’t been exposed to high-performance audio, says Houde.

“We’ll have iPod docks. They can come in here and put their iPod in and we can show them how much better it can sound,” Houde says. “If we [custom electronics] want to survive as an industry, we really need to start educating them.”

The Concept
Leasing and renovating the Boston space is a risk, acknowledges Houde. The custom installation business infrastructure that he already has in place with his North Attleboro location helps.

The approach will be a little different in Boston, however, in order to also cater to students. “It’s really three businesses in one,” Kalker says. “There’s custom installation, there’s audio and there’s lifestyle.”

So in addition to upgrading people’s iPod experience, the company will also sell audio/video/control systems worth $5,000, $10, 000 or even $100,000, Kalker says. Manufacturers include:

  • Pioneer
  • Runco
  • Rotel
  • Yamaha
  • McIntosh
  • B&W
  • Boston Acoustics
  • Niles
  • Crestron

Additionally, Kalker expects Audio Concepts to do a lot of lighting and shade control business and acoustical room and design treatments.

Once the renovation is complete, the layout will include an entrance foyer in which customers will learn about the technologies they’re about to experience, explains Kalker, who owns Imagecrafters, a store design company.

From the foyer, customers can experience a small home theater, a large home theater, a library home theater, a customer bathroom with technology including a mirror LCD TV and a conference room with several flat-panel TVs.

“They’re not just getting pieces of the puzzle. They’re getting the whole puzzle here,” Kalker says.

In other words, it’s a little bit different than the audio stores to which the neighborhood is accustomed. “It’s a gamble and it’s a little scary,” says Houde before adding that he’s confident because he did his market research.

It would have been easier for Audio Concepts to remain content with its suburban location, but “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Kalker says.

Houde hopes he’ll gain an urban market that’s craving a custom audio/video/control store on Commonwealth Avenue. His North Attleboro location, he points out, is also located on a Commonwealth Avenue — “even though it’s not a common street name.”

He hopes that’s a good sign.

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