Inside High-end A/V Showrooms
A look at some pricey products and how they stack up against their mainstream counterparts.
The McIntosh MT10 turntable is priced at $9,500.
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October 10, 2008 by Richard M. Sherwin

I thought it was all over until November…those tiresome, sometimes boring but occasionally fruitful audio/video press conferences. The big manufacturers occupied the summer holiday-preview slots and now the smaller companies take their turn showing off their wares at smaller venues.

Most of the time, the well meaning media relations people were demonstrating a $600 Blu-ray player or $500 home theater in a box…topped off with a $1,500 to $4,500 giant screen, 1080p, 120Hz plasma or LCD screen. But thanks to the crowded room and/or bad speakers, I could rarely hear the difference. 

So I decided to see and hear what the really elite audiophiles, “pro”-sumer video aficionados, top video game geeks and the ultra rich were actually buying and using. I visited one of the top high-end custom design showrooms near my home in New Jersey and then while going to other press events in L.A and Denver, I stopped by private showrooms…sometimes invited, sometimes posing as the super rich.

In those custom design showrooms and high, high, high-end venues (you couldn’t call them stores) there were ashtrays and fruit bowls that cost more than many of the TVs sold in Wal-Mart, Target or even Circuit City. And the salespeople were dressed accordingly; no company T-shirts with logos here, just fancy schmancy suits and designer dresses. 

The names of the companies, especially in the really exclusive showrooms like Stewart, Sim2 multimedia, Runco, Thiel, Sanus, Niles, Meridian, Grado, Audioquest, Escient, Linn and McIntosh, were not unfamiliar. However, I wanted to find out whether the people who owned or operated the showrooms had some recommendations for me as an elite buyer.

I also asked some of the owner-operators what they might recommend for my kid in college or even for their workers who, like most people, couldn’t afford this super elite equipment. Are there off the shelf A/V products they might recommend? Surprisingly, once out of reach from their supervisors, these salespeople often recommended the brands or the products we all use and even those less well known brands available at discount stores or wholesale clubs. The showroom owners themselves had recommendations for the average consumer (I’m guessing the equipment was for the second or third home or servant’s quarters).

Here are some of the showroom owner answers and/or what their employees are buying:

Turntable: $299 vs $9,500
No surprise on the audio front. It would be great to afford that McIntosh MT10, but if you just want to play your old LPs, convert them to high quality CDs and play them on your Blu-ray or component CD player, chose Ion’s LP 2 CD. The company also makes plain affordable turntables, but this is probably your best answer for playing and converting vinyl records to CDs. And like the almost 20-year old Philips play-and-record device, you don’t need a computer to capture the music, preserve it and make it into a CD.

Some $200 turntables that could easily slip into many high priced component audio systems are the Audio-Technica, Pioneer and the Panasonic produced Technics models. In addition, as hard as it to believe, there are 20 year Kenwood, Dual and Sure models (new and still in their boxes) from some on-line dealers that are also terrific alternatives.

Blu-ray/DVD Players - $279 vs $2,000
I borrowed the soon to be released Funai/Philips $279 Blu-ray player and my friend’s $2,000+ Sony special edition player and voila, the terrific resolution of both players was pretty much equal in quality with the DTS audio slightly more rich on the Sony. In all cases, these Blu-ray players were attached to either Runco and/or Epson rear-projection models, and Panasonic plasma or Westinghouse Digital LCD 1080P sets. When doing this experiment in a fancy showroom near my home, the owner and the salespeople had a myriad of reasons why there wasn’t too much difference in the results. But when using older non Blu-DVDs (Standing in the Shadows of Motown - 5.1 channel edition) and Blu-ray “Iron Man,” then the experts did point out some differences in the budget player and the elite player. At least we all agreed on the differences when viewing content that really required some extra upscaling.

Receiver/Amplifier/Pre-Amp - $8,000 vs $800
Not everyone can appreciate or afford an $8,000 Mark Levinson dual mono amplifier from Madrigal, but there are audiophiles chomping at the bit to get the new $800 Emotiva MMC-2 audio-video processor. That processor manages your A/V component system with as much aplomb as the Levinson series, according to some of the salespeople. Utilizing Motorola’s top of the line DSP, you can expect dramatic improvements in all areas of sound reproduction,” said the owner of a Connecticut based audio-video showroom. While watching movies, you will receive amazing clarity and instrument/effects separation. Precision steering logic like you’ve never heard coupled with a simply natural and emotionally engaging sound.

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Richard M. Sherwin - Contributing Writer
Richard Sherwin is a former syndicated technology columnist and TV/Radio analyst, who has also been a marketing executive with IBM, Philips, NBC and a chief advisor to several manufacturers and service providers.

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