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Scott Soloway’s advice to customers of Evanston’s venerable Audio Consultants, 1014 Davis St., sounds suspiciously like, “Don’t do your homework.”
The store manager, speaking from 25 years of experience with the company, says, “People who haven’t done the research can end up with a better result when purchasing audio and video equipment.”
When the goal is finding what it takes to facilitate the enjoyment of music and TV, he says, “Thinking about technical requirements – knowing ‘woofers’ and ‘tweeters’ – can get in the way.” He responds to the misconception that people need to know a lot when they go to Audio Consultants by saying, “If all customers knew as much as I do, I wouldn’t have a job.”
“Listen, hear the difference,” Mr. Soloway tells clients. “Either you hear music and enjoy it, or you don’t.”
Though he says “more and more customers have done research on the Internet” before coming in, Mr. Soloway says he thinks evaluating online data without the guidance of “experienced people in a brick-and-mortar store” can be both “overwhelming” and “difficult.” Often customers come in looking for a certain feature, he says, but learn they do not need it after staff members hear what they want to accomplish.
Audio Consultants staff are experts at steering audio-naives through the daunting array of electronics there. Mr. Soloway explains how knowledgeable salespeople act as the “consultants” the store name promises.
Customers’ end goals, he says, range from, “I just want to sit down and listen” to installing multi-zone systems with speakers playing different things in different rooms and control systems that can operate lights and security as well as music.
The company’s goal is simple. “Plain old stereo is where our love is,” he says. “At our core, we want to retain our dedication to hi-fi. We are trying to let the music – and picture – come through accurately to give people the experience they should have.”
He describes how he works with a new customer – even a clueless one. He begins assessing the client’s needs and goals by “just talking.” Initial conversations do not revolve around budget. “That presupposes they know what they need to have to get what they want,” he says.
Audio Consultants “does not have pre-made systems or solutions. That would be fitting the customer to us,” he says, rather than vice-versa. Since its founding in Evanston in 1967, the company has made its name by customizing each individual system.
But that does not mean the store is strictly a high-end venue. “You can buy a little table radio here as well as exotic stuff,” he says. Though the company insists on what he terms “a minimum level of quality,” he says they understand many customers’ need to start small.
The opening discussion, says Mr. Soloway, gives him a “rough idea of a starting point.” The lowest-priced equipment is enough to meet the needs of some clients. Though others end up requiring more expensive systems, he says, “I would never start at the top.”
The conversation tends to move next toward “concepts and possibilities,” he says, and “at some point, we start listening to music.” They enter the Sound Room, where speakers line the wall shelves and floor.
What looks like a large collection consists of only seven brands. Unlike the big box stores, which stock “an incredible amount of inventory – most of it not good,” says Mr. Soloway, Audio Consultants has what he calls a “true selection.”
“It is not our goal to have a choice at every $25,” he says. “If $25 buys a much better product, why would we carry [the cheaper model]?”
The best part of his job, says Mr. Soloway, is “seeing [customers’] eyes, ears and head open to possibility.” He wants them to hear the differences among different systems, which means listening to CDs, not music downloaded onto MP3 players.
“Ninety percent of the music isn’t there [on an MP3 recording],” he says. To make room for the tens of thousands of tunes the tiny devices can store, he says, music is compressed. Subtle differences in stringed instruments, for instance, disappear to save space.
Thus, he says, “the customer can’t hear subtle differences in equipment, because musical subtlety is not there on the recording.”
Mr. Soloway says the Audio Consultants approach is to help customers understand the “ideal situation.” While he says, “Often they can’t accomplish it, they will understand the compromises and be able to balance them. If they understand, it’s an intelligent choice.”
In televisions, Audio Consultants sticks with three brands – Hitachi, Sony and Pioneer. “They offer good value, and the companies give us the support we need to give service to our customers,” says Mr. Soloway, adding, “No manufacturer in the world makes completely trouble-free products.”
The store has a large selection of used sound equipment obtained from trade-ins and available for loan during repairs.
Business offices are upstairs, along with the desks of computer experts who create programs to control electronic equipment throughout a home. Asked about a “universal remote” like the all-powerful one in the movie “Click,” Mr. Soloway says, “Impossible.” He points to a color-coded touch-screen program on a computer. “It would have to be something like that,” he says.
Nearly 42 years after French immigrant Simon Zreczny founded Audio Consultants, he still works there. His company has grown to four stores and 35 employees. Computers and the complex technology and products in their wake have added an intellectual component to what Mr. Soloway calls an “emotional process.” Everything – and nothing – has changed. For Mr. Zreczny, one thing remains constant. “I love what I am doing – re-creating music in the home,” he says.