Hi-Fi – try before you buy
Buying a Hi-Fi system is not an insignificant purchase and, as with any purchase of value, customers will often do a great deal of research to ensure that what they’re spending their hard-earned money on is actually suitable for their needs. Unlike most other consumer products, the key feature of a Hi-Fi system i.e. what it sounds like is not something you can experience online. Also, reviews, while useful, may not be that helpful as music is very subjective (otherwise we would all love Bjork and Wagner with equal measure).
So, you should really go and listen to it before you enter your PIN. Sadly, the industry does not necessarily make this an easy process. While many retailers have great demonstration facilities, the “mystique” that surrounds the industry can be daunting for a lot of people, who would rather take the risk of buying the wrong product than go through the ordeal of visiting a Hi-Fi retailer.
DON’T BE PUT OFF. In fact, it’s often a fantastic experience. You can spend a relaxing afternoon drinking coffee and listening to some great music. Most people who work in Hi-Fi stores are also passionate about music. They have their favourite bands and tracks and are eager to share old favourites and new discoveries with anyone who wants to listen. They are also pretty knowledgeable so you can learn a lot. But if you find the thought of talking to these Hi-Fi buffs a little off-putting then try these eight simple tactics to get the best out of your audition experience.
- Take your own music: Take music you already know. This way you can tell if the system you’re listening to is going to give you something more than you’re used to. If you listen to a new track (the shop’s favourite demonstration tracks for example) then you have no other experience of that music to compare it with. Also, take music in the format that you will use to listen to it. So, if you have a massive CD collection, take some CDs. If you stream everything from your phone, take your phone.
- Know your budget: Go in knowing exactly the maximum you want to spend. Then when asked by the shop staff give them a figure that is 80% of your budget. A good salesman will demonstrate a range of products starting at your price point, so you can see what you get if you spend more money. By setting the bar lower, you may be able to afford not just the cheapest option you are shown.
- Use your ears: Your demonstrator will tell you lots of things about the relative technical merits and features of the various products. Do not favour one product over another because it uses a newer or supposedly better technology. At the end of the day, it’s what you think about the way it SOUNDS that’s important.
- Listen for what YOU like: Your demonstrator may, because he is a music enthusiast, explain to you what he thinks, and what he can hear in A, that he cannot hear in B. These may be useful pointers to help you decide which you like best, but you do not have to agree with him. It’s what you can hear that matters, they are your ears not his, and your musical tastes are yours not necessarily his.
- Take your time: Listen to a number of tracks of different types of music. Some systems will handle different styles of music better than others. Also, some systems that sound energetic and exciting when you first play them, can sound wearing and draining after you’ve been listening for 20 minutes.
- Trade Down: Nine times out of ten, if it costs more it will sound better. But sound better to whom? Not everyone has a finely tuned musical ear. If you can’t tell the difference between two products, buy the cheaper one.
- Be aware of the extras: To make a complete system, you may also need interconnects (to feed the audio signal from one unit to another) and speaker cable (to take the audio signal to the speakers). These vary enormously in price. With every system you listen to, ask not only the cost of the main units and speakers you’re listening to, but also the costs of the cables. If they’re too expensive, get them changed for something in your price range, as they can influence the way the system sounds, and you want to audition the complete system that you end up buying.
- Don’t commit on a first date: Listen to the system you’re considering buying a few times on different days. Check it sounds as you remember it. The way you hear can be influenced by many things if you had a slight cold if you were in a bad mood if the weather was sunny. Checking it sounds the same a second time helps eliminates doubt. This way you can be pretty confident that when you get it home, it will sound as good as it did in the shop.