Reliving and Reviving the Lost Art of the Audio Demo

By Chuck Schneider

I spent over five years working on the floor of a stereo shop back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In many respects, it was some of the best times of my life. I was in college, making good money at one of the few jobs a hippie could be proud of. There were lots of female customers, a great bar within walking distance and, unlike Bill Clinton, I inhaled.

Doing speaker demonstrations, A-B comparisons, was a focal point of being an audio salesperson. It was as routine as putting fenders on Fords in Dearborn. You did it over and over every day, all day long.

I vividly remember one particular demo. It was early on a busy Saturday sometime in the spring of 1973. My store had recently taken on a new line of speakers from a company called BIC which previously was known as the US distributor of English-made Garrard turntables. The brand was called BIC/Venturi, touting the porting system in the speaker which was fashioned after the Venturi carburetor in high-performance automobiles. Continuing the automotive hook, the model numbers were Formula 2 (a bookshelf speaker) through Formula 6 (an oversized floor speaker with a 12” woofer).

The BIC/Venturi Formula 6 was not a really accurate or subtly nuanced speaker but, man, was it loud.

A couple of guys my age strolled into the store looking for a system. They confessed they’d been around some other shops and told me what they’d heard. I asked them what they liked. Lots of bass and loud was their reply. I smiled.

Bachman Turner Overdrive logo“Check these out.  They’re brand new.” I gave them a brief pitch on the lineage and the technology, then took a fresh copy of Bachman-Turner Overdrive II out of the album rack and laid the stylus down on “Let It Ride” at pretty low volume. “Watch the woofer,” I advised them.

Without warning, I cranked a 150 real watt-per-channel Crown DC-300 up to (maybe just a bit past) 10.  My customers jumped—hell, everyone in the store jumped. I saw my manager at the front counter smirk. You could hear the speakers blocks away. I’m not sure the Bachman brothers couldn’t hear the speakers at their home in Winnipeg.

Then—literally from above—a true miracle. One section of the store’s dropped ceiling jarred loose and crashed to the floor between me and my customers. We all looked at the tile, then looked at each other, and I deadpanned “Cash, check, or charge?” Sale closed.

You couldn’t count on an acoustic tile falling at your feet for every demo. In lieu of that, an audio salesperson had to be prepared. What made a great presentation back then still makes a great one today, but I wonder if any but a few selling the experience today truly makes the effort.

What makes a great demo?  Let’s start with source material, or what today the Whippersnappers call content. Back in the Stone Age, my fellow sales folk and I would painstakingly prepare demo tapes on open-reel machines, what Millennials might think of now as big kludgy iPods.  Every genre of music was represented while each and every cut had a purpose.

When starting a demo, ask the customer for their favorite style of music and begin there. Let each speaker play for 30 seconds or so, then 10 seconds each. Next, you pick a music selection, maybe a vocal or an instrument solo. Yes, it’s true, female solos work best. Avoid using music videos; they distract from the audio experience.

Oh, a side note. Don’t assume that Hipsters like jazz. By and large they don’t. Now they may have a lone Miles Davis album downloaded somewhere but they never listen to it. They’re Hipsters, not Hepcats (Google it).

After you’ve taken control of the demo process with your content, let the customer know what he or she should be listening for. By doing that, you are not only educating your client, you are nudging them towards the best-sounding product. One would hope the product you are touting is more expensive, and you are letting them know why that’s the case.

A good old-school music demo is obviously called for when your client has requested (or you think you can convince them to consider) a throwback two-channel listening room. But you should also do a speaker comparison when pitching the home theater experience. You can even do this for in-wall/in ceiling speakers. Your counterparts in the 12-volt business do this every day. And as MDA (Multi Dimensional Audio) formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X become more popular, a solid demo will be even more relevant.

A good audio salesperson is a teacher. In the brief time that one has to interact with a complete stranger, a salesperson must impart knowledge and must do that without a hint of superiority or condescension or patronizing. Sure, the ultimate goal is to close the sale, but have some fun too.

If you’ve never done a speaker demo, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. I’ll almost guarantee you’re going to enjoy the process. Yes it’s fun. But it’s also informative and interactive. You can show off your knowledge and skill sets. Can you really wax poetically about a thermostat, no matter how pretty it is? I think not. But speakers? Ah, yes!

Check your ceilings.