Part II
Were you wondering - about destroying people's musical-appreciation life, that is?
Absolutely. But get this. When I came back into the industry after my intermediary telecommunications deal, I still had all these clients. They apparently hadn't really done anything in the intervening 7 or 8 years. Could I possibly have wished for better? The moment they found out I was back in the game, every single one of them -- and I'm talking abot a fairly large number of clients here -- everyone returned from out of the cold so to speak. They all came back save for one whose changed life circumstance prevented it.

They used to be these giant billboards, sparkling in all the colors of the rainbow. Then one day, the lightbulb went out. Someone pulled the plug. Their world collapsed. They went into darkness, wondering what to do about their systems. And guess what? They did nothing. They stopped in their tracks. Were they waiting? Had they given up? Whatever may have been the overriding impulse, they just sat there and didn't move. The spark had died. That summer vacation had been indefinitely postponed.

But now the billboards are burning brightly again. They're alive. They call me about music they've heard. Concerts they've been to. Gigs they hope to attend. And each time they drive past Barnes & Nobles or Borders, they hear that whispering siren call. "Srajan, come in. There's a couple of CDs here that are just pining to come home with you. We've been waiting for you - don't tarry, come right on in." In their own way, they all experience that. Again. It's a very powerful gratifying thing.

So you see, High-End didn't die. The hunger for music didn't wither away. These people merely went into hibernation. They retreated into a state of stasis, went off to some dark off-planet labor colony that we condemned them to by ignoring their vital needs.

Maybe they were cryogencially frozen and now we thawed them out? (Cracks up.) All of them are back again. I can't tell you how that thrills me to no end. It's healed a wound I've carried, about having gone astray, about having abandonded my musical friends. I just love to see all these people who get it, whose lives are enriched because music moves them, speaks to them, entrances them. That's the key, the real magic. That's what Avantgarde-USA is all about.

Just two days ago in New York, I talked to this fellow who was over at Bob's. He admired our TRIOs on display and wondered how well they'd soundstage given their size ... (Jim shakes his head remembering.)

Now this may sound like heresy and I'll be the first one to confess that I do enjoy a nicely layered soundstage. But I will also tell you that it can serve as lousy distraction to the actual music itself. Especially on a highly produced recording that has all sorts of things zooming all over the place. It unnecessarily causes people to worry - whether they can hear sound outside their speakers, behind their heads, snippets of sound riccocheting through space, buzzing past their heads like swarms of drunken angry bees.

I'm here to tell you that if you hear sound outside your speakers, it was a mistake in the recording. There should never be a sound outside the speaker. Ever. The geometry of stereo doesn't allow for it unless you introduced phase errors. Perhaps the figure-eight pattern of a mike picked up negative polarity from a wall reflection? That's not replay precision then. That's a simple mistake in the recording process. That's a plain flaw in its applied technique. That causes the artifact of a phantom image outside your speaker. It's nothing to pursue hot and heavy, as though it was a status symbol about the resolution of your system.

There's a producer I like. He does very good work. And he also has that uncanny ability to float images way behind my head - on standard 2-channel recordings. He's somehow figured out how to consciously manipulate the process and pull this off reliably at will. That's cool - in a special effects, trick-you sort of way. But as is true with movies, it can be used to mask the absence of real substance; to hide the lack of a good story; to brush over the broken promise of a strong musical message. It'll dazzle/distract you with special effects instead. Rambo part IV?

So I asked this fellow at Bob's. Had he ever gone to a live concert and -- assuming it was a good concert -- enjoyed that special feeling in his body afterwards? Perhaps even still felt it the next morning, carrying it through his entire day as though he were wrapped up inside a warm fuzzy blanket? A sense of expansion, a lightness of being, a song in his heart, a bounce in his step, a secret smile of knowing he'd been deeply touched?

He knew this feeling, instantly.

Now I asked him whether he ever got this same warm, full and satisfied reaction from his system. And he looked at me as though I had just switched from English to Greek. What the heck was I talking about? He just shook his head looking lost.

So I reminded him. A soundstage was never going to give him that feeling he knew so well from live concerts. After all, you don't have a soundstage in a live venue. Neither are you wondering about it, missing it or mapping its breadth and depth like some silly test CD would have of you. In fact, with an amplified event, you probably were listening to multiple mono for hours and never once noticed it, never questioned it, never considered asking for that I-didn't-get-full-stereo refund.

Have you ever heard music spilling through a door or window? Say a string quartet in a bistro down the block? Did you know immediately that it was live, not some clever playback system? That instantaneous recognition wasn't about soundstaging! Being off-axis and filtered through walls and other obstructions, it wasn't about timbre either. Or bass slam. Or any of the other vexing audiophile buzzwords.

Now let me ask you: How did you do that, diagnose this remote source of music to be the real deal in a few short moments? I believe it's recognizing the correct rendering of the dynamic envelope. At CES during the 80s, we used to decide which rooms to go into by simply listening from outside the door in the hallway. Was the sound convincing out there in the hallway? Did it sound boring and canned? Did it have life and energy? We knew about proper dynamics even then.

I could be wrong here as to the cause of this but I believe -- and have always believed -- that it's dynamics, the subtle shadings of emphasis that give life to the music and anchor its rhythmic qualities. Many systems wreck the rhythmic qualities altogether because they cannot render the true finesse of the dynamics. If rhythmic coherence is lacking, you won't get carried along with the music except in fits and starts. Your hips won't swing, your toes won't tap, your head won't bop. The music is talking to you in a language that you understand only marginally. You may grasp the raw gist, but you'll miss all the subleties between the lines. You'll overlook the complex message, what makes it unique in the special way the artist intended.
Abusing the word "dynamics" for a moment to suggest "dynamic content", could we switch track? Let's talk about the present-day challenges of a changed marketplace. Of former distribution schemes failing. About how you might like to adapt in this altered landscape to benefit Avantgarde-USA.

(Without missing a beat.) Sure. When my partner Bill Nelson and I started this whole project three years ago -- after we had met Holger and Matthias and committed to going forward -- I visited some of the dealers here in Atlanta. With one glowing exception, I was terribly underwhelmed by what I saw and heard. Then I went across the country -- incognito as it were, with our contract signed but not revealing it to anyone yet -- and I became even more distressed. Again it goes back to killing the High-End.

On more than one occasion, I'd walk into a shop and they didn't know who I was. I was dressed nicely but not extravagantly. Call it casual comfort. Still, I was clearly a customer of enough means to warrant attention. But 'twas as though an imposition: "Darn, I gotta get up, stop reading my magazine and talk to this guy."

And on top of that lamentable lameness, these guys spouted attitude. What bigger offense could you possibly level at me while being offered the opportunity to win my business? Here were retail clerks -- call it unskilled labor to really drive the nails into certain rotting coffins --and they flounted a serious attitude. For all they knew, I could have been a CEO. In fact, I once watched a fairly powerful CEO who probably made more in the first three hours of a day than the salesman made in his entire year. And this retail clerk was talking down to this guy. What utter insensitivity and disrespect, never mind pure stupidity while conducting business!

The other thing I observed during this stint? Audio sales people suffer the unique compulsion to win arguments even though -- or because -- it makes the customer feel like a total jerk. And that's assuming the salesman knew his stuff to win the argument fairly. Even that wasn't a given. There of course is a proper way to educate and transform ignorance into knowing appreciation, perhaps even eventual mastery. But we can surely agree that none of this ever transpires through intimidation, arrogance and ill manners.

I'm a consumer. I buy stuff. I go to other kinds of shops and spend money on goods and services. I don't encounter retail clerks with that kind of attitude outside High-End audio. Sure, there's the occasional snooty Art Gallery type, the overworked underpaid waiter, the overwhelmed packing clerk during Christmas season. However, as a genre, the High-End audio retail clerk is uniquely disgraced by a special kind of bad attitude you won't encounter elsewhere.

To be candid, I was completetly dismayed by this lack of quality on the audio retail salesfloor. In the roughly 10 years since my departure, it had significantly eroded. Significantly. (Still distressed from this realization.) The other disturbing insight? The leaders -- the proprietors, managers, senior partners -- they acted like the walking dead. I don't know how else to put it. (Visibly shudders.) They had no energy, no passion, no enthusisasm. They had forgotten why they entered this business in the first place.

Did they install one too many ceiling speakers? Did that cause their burn-out to no longer give a damn? I couldn't say. But I certainly recognized the pattern. Loud and clear. These so-called go-to experts were tired. They were worn out, no longer sharp. They were dull, without the drive to learn new things, bereft of the natural need to advance themselves, empty of the desire to stay on top of the ever-evolving game. They had become audio zombies!

This raised an interesting question. ( Nearly chokes illustratively.) How was I going to sell hornspeakers to guys who had vacated the mode of educating their clients, who had squashed their native curiosity about new frontiers? If you educate your customers, you're performing an actual service. You offer a value of real substance. It liberates you from that downwards spiral of habitual discounting, to barely stay in business while you resent being at it.

So I looked at all that and got more and more depressed. Consequently, Bill and I decided to create an entity called High-End Direct. Believe it or not but we were actually going to sell Avantgarde direct, perhaps with showrooms in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. We would invite people from other parts of the country to come in. We'd exercise control over the quality of our presentations, assure the integrity of our salesfloors. Everyone on the retail floor would be thoroughly delighted to see someone walk through the frontdoor! Because last time I checked, you needed those people coming in through the door to make a living.

I pondered the High-End Direct model for a while ... (cracks up) and I got scared. I chickened out. I went back to the dealer model. Doing horns was crazy enough by itself. Selling expensive exotic speakers direct smacked of unqualified madness. I knew very well about the thorough, time-consuming, labor-intensive follow-up work that would be essential to stand a fair crack at success. And I was just one guy who'd have to wear so many different hats just to make it work. So we returned to the dealer model and decided not to worry about quantity but quality. If we were initially prepared to operate through at the most three company-owned outlets across the country... how many good dealers did we really need to make it happen?