Back in the old days there were boundaries you could count on. RogerMaris defined the number of home runs a human could smack in a singleseason when he yanked a Tracy Stallard meat ball over the old YankeeStadium right field porch. Presidents dallied with mistresses thegeneral public could accept. And damn it, there was a clear divisionbetween pro and MI audio gear! Audio equipment manufacturers nowrelease gear so inexpensive that amateurs can avail themselves offeature sets many pros would not have been able to afford several yearsago.
New York City's B&H, a privately owned single store with nochain affiliations, had specialized in catalog sales and videoequipment. Several years ago, the store's owners looked at thedeclining cost of recording gear and decided to enter the market. Theyhired John Storyk to design a listening environment that mirrored atypical recording studio and set up the entire space so that all of theequipment-speakers and microphones, for example-can be accessed off oftouchscreens for quick and accurate comparisons.
B&H brass set up a five-year plan for the audio department,expecting it to take that long to turn a profit. However, the firstanniversary recently passed, and by that time they were already in theblack. Where did they find the customer base? For starters, the store'svideo customers have shown increased awareness and interest in audioproducts, according to Al Spinelli, head of the Pro Audio Department."We found that our video customers were becoming more audio savvy,"Spinelli says. "We're a big Avid dealer, and we also carry the Media100 nonlinear editing system." Spinelli says that in addition to soundfor film, a lot of the video clients who migrate to B&H need livesound gear for their applications.
Pro audio buyers generally know what they need when they step into astore, but MI clients need more education. B&H decided to go after"the best salesmen on 48th Street," according to Spinelli, who notesthat sales people are all salaried. Commissions tend to push salespersonnel to drive a sale when it might not be right for an individual,he believes, and the ethical conviction that the client should beserved rather than slammed seems to be more than lip service atB&H. "We have a policy of no spiffs," Spinelli says. "We feel thatmotivates salesmen improperly and could conflict with what would bebest for the customer."
Like many of you, I've bought lots of audio gear. Sometimes I knowexactly what I want and know that I'll need no post-sales assistance.Picking up the phone and shopping price is the way to go in that case.However, there are other times when it would be extremely helpful tolisten to four or five mics, for example, in a well-tuned room. AtB&H they give you a set of headphones and record you to a harddrive on a variety of mics. This is handled very neatly-a Mac sits outof sight behind a wall, with an Audio Media III card dumping your takesto disk. When you've tested all of the mics in your price range, youcan listen to the playbacks through the 'phones. Very helpful. Ifyou're in Manhattan, give it a shot.