Places and names
. For as long as I’ve lived in Sydney, Newtown’s The Hifi Trader has been my local hifi store. I flirted with other retailers on and off—Marrickville’s Apollo Hifi, Drummoyne’s Audio Connection and the now long gone Audio Junction up Bondi way—but I’d always come home to The Hifi Trader. Geography made this store even more local in 2011 when I moved to an adjacent suburb. Subliminal action? Perhaps. That house move put The Hifi Trader a 15-minute walk from home and an unavoidable feature on the journey to and from the day job.

Can you sense the barely concealed accusatory tone here? Like a fat man half-blaming the restaurant for his own weight gain, it’s the store, not me, that played a significant role in taking this fella’s interest in making music sound better from the personal to the professional. Over the years, The Hifi Trader has seen its fair share of ups and downs. From the outside looking in during the mid-to-late noughties, business appeared to be in rude health. When I stopped in last December, the store look tired both outside and in as if direction and focus had been simultaneously lost. Someone or something needed a holiday. Dirtied by exhaust emissions, the signage out front had begun to peel at the corners. Ominous? Much.

Perhaps the mainstream’s broader shift towards lossy streaming, iDevices and the sharp uptake in headphones had caught management flat-footed? A change of ownership a few years back precipitated some sales floor staff turnover and a promise of reinvigoration that ultimately—probably—didn’t turn the dollars required to pay rent, staff and make a profit. That’s a shame given the shop’s primo positioning: it sits at the apex of one of Newtown’s busiest intersections that hosts an abundance of foot traffic. In March 2015, fate intervened: Melbourne’s Addicted to Audio (A2A) acquired The Hifi Trader. The full skinny can be read over at DAR Australia. Having stopped by The Hifi Trader on several occasions since Addicted To Audio first collected the keys, I’ve witnessed the slow rebirth of my local hifi store. This week, fresh signage supplanted the old. The Hifi Trader name is no more. Times change, people change. There’s an upside to mistaking the pull of nostalgia for something recently gone: fresh faces and an even fresher brand selection has eradicated the need to fly an hour south for in-store auditions of Astell&Kern, HifiMan, Audeze, Resonessence Labs, Schiit Audio, ALO, AURALiC, Noble Audio, Grado and Light Harmonic. As one might surmise from that list, headfi now has a significantly stronger presence. It also reflects founder George Poutakidis’ commitment to niche brands ever since A2A’s inception in 2010.

Take a casual peak at audio forum chatter and you’ll see first-hand how these companies are now starting to challenge the old guard (which are also present at A2A’s new Sydney digs). Fleshing out two-channel offerings are more familiar brand names like Dynaudio, Pro-Ject, Oppo, Rotel, NAD, Bryston and Rega. Of course there are other fine high street retailers in Sydney. The Hifi Trader just happens to be the one in which I have spent most time. And cash. The Internet has slowly blunted the edge of former sales methodologies but as the music industry itself is still learning at a seemingly glacial pace, high street retail across many sectors is ensnared in a similar battle of ‘adapt or die’.

Several reviewers have spent former lives in hifi retail, 6moons main man Srajan Ebaen included. Ditto CNET’s Steve Guttenberg. I have no desire to quit the reviewing gig anytime soon but recent drop-ins to A2A’s freshly minted Sydney presence have me asking: how would I set up a hifi store? How would I establish a hifi retail outlet so as to better connect with potential customers? Pivotal to my shop’s ethos would be music and its in-store accessibility and visibility. Each customer arrives with a smartphone in their pocket. That potential needs tapping from the moment they set foot across the threshold. Hardware display would be system based. Store managers past and present might be silently shaking their heads at this point. Their instant counterpoint might be that distributor A would not want his gear displayed alongside that of distributor B, who has in turn supplied a dedicated fully branded stand. Such are the behind-the-scenes politics of the distributor-to-store dynamic.

Never mind. In the central space of my own shop, I’d position a pair of 2 x 4 IKEA Kallax (formerly Expedit) shelving units back to back. Atop one would sit a NAD D 3020 feeding a pair of affordable (<$500) standmounts. Why this NAD in particular? It accommodates both Bluetooth and analogue inputs through both of which a customer can hook in a smartphone. It also has a front-facing 3.5mm headphone socket primed for price-appropriate models like the NAD Viso HP50, Master&Dynamic MH40 or the KEF M500. Each would be sound choices here.

With an oversized cardboard cut-out hand suspended from the ceiling and pointing to the gear below, I’d clearly signpost an opportunity to hear how a wired connection compares to wireless Bluetooth streaming. The sharpest lesson here is reserved for iPhone users who might not be aware that with Apple yet to support aptX in any of their devices, the gulf between a direct-connected iPhone via a 3.5mm-to-twin-RCA cable and Bluetooth’s SBC protocol is substantial. This delta was underscored thrice in black marker during a recent Sunday afternoon spent streaming Pandora from an iPad to a Chord Hugo TT. It isn’t Pandora’s choice of lossy wrapper that causes the uppermost frequencies to warble. It’s the Bluetooth codec itself. For those customers not hearing the difference, happy days. The point is that they are encouraged to engage with the hardware.

On the adjoining IKEA bench, a vinyl-headphone rig. Vinyl is back and headphones are running hot. Why not combine the two? No need to spill on an expensive turntable here. Careless customers ruin needles and carts. A Pro-Ject Debut Carbon with Ortofon OM10 would suffice. I’d hook it up via an entry-level phono stage to a half-decent headphone amplifier (e.g. Schiit or Burson) and customers could be off to the races with pretty much any headphone of their (or my) choosing (‘cept those with ball-breaking impedances and sensitivities).

Most critical of all to this display would be the box of records sitting next to the turntable. Customers would be invited to choose from a selection. The classics are obvious—Kind Of Blue, Exile on Main Street, Easter, The White Album and Highway 61 Revisited—but new stuff is also a must irrespective of mastering or recording quality. Folk in their thirties won’t drop a dime if the store doesn’t relate. Right now that means selections from the likes of Tame Impala, Wolf Alice, Mark Ronson and Royal Blood. My store would stump up the $60/month required for a range of streaming subscriptions—Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, Tidal Hifi or Deezer Elite—each of which would be deployed via a storewide Sonos setup.

Why Sonos? Much as I dig ‘em, Squeezeboxen are no longer made and the AURALiC Aries Mini’s release date has slipped again. Sonos is a cinch to set up, use (unified search!) and is scalable. The Connect:AMP will help sell passive speakers whilst the Connect itself can be fired into actives. An external DAC is the Connect upgrade for down the line. To wit, on a sidewall would sit a Sonos Connect feeding a pair of Audioengine 5+ (or similar). The speakers contain no DAC of their own so for D/A conversion we look to the Sonos itself and then offer an upgrade as required: next stop Schiit Modi 2 Uber!

Wanna get really nerdy with a better quality low-noise S/PDIF feed? That’ll be the Wyred4Sound Remedy reclocker, good Sir. Going posher with active solutions that pack a DAC on the opposite wall, we’d see a Microsoft Surface Pro running Roon (with Tidal plus locally hosted content) firing over USB into a pair of KEF X300A. If I were to provide customer access to the store’s wireless network, I’d also call up the Airplay-direct Wireless iteration of the same. A public WiFi connection also brings another super-affordable streaming device into play. The Apple TV currently requires the user to stream content via Airplay from a separate device—iPad or iPhone—but when the chaps from Cupertino eventually introduce a native Apple Music app, whoa boy! Forget that the digital audio stream is lossily encoded. It’s the surrounding hardware that will make the bigger difference to the customer’s audio experience. And hifi stores are in the business of selling such hardware. This is not the time for codec snobbery. I’ll save that for the back room where an “MP3-free zone” might raise a chuckle.

The back audition room in my hifi store would feature a leather couch and, space permitting, a couple of side chairs. There’d be a lava lamp and an ordinary freestanding lounge lamp. I’d put a dimmer switch on the overhead lights or better still, run a couple of Hue-networked light bulbs from Phillips whose smartphone app handles colour and luminescence. Classic album covers would adorn the walls, mounted in proper display frames of course. A rug would be a nice touch. So too would a coffee table on which to place remotes. In essence, the aim of this room would be to approximate a lounge room with a slightly vintage/retro feel, to transport the customer to another place not just sonically but visually. Most importantly of all, it would not have the look or feel of a retail store.

Between the speakers in this main audition room would sit a high-end turntable, another box of vinyl and a large-ish touch screen desktop Windows PC also running Roon. Roon demands to be touched. That’s possible on a touch screen, a particularly strong draw card for the more visually motivated among us. Throw some hi-res albums on there for customers that insist on it. Two key new hi-res releases over at HDTracks this month are fresh remasters of Roger Waters’ Amused to Death and Joy Division’s Substance (just don’t call it a ‘Best of’ in front of fans). Otherwise stream Redbook from the internal drive or the store’s Tidal Hifi account.

Like the setup out front, Roon encourages customers to engage and control the music. And with Tidal or Qobuz on tap, we’re not limited to a tired collection of the same old same old. Staff would be encouraged to make playlists and add them to the store’s streaming accounts on the proviso that I have right of veto on some cuts. For the customer who shows up with USB stick/drive in hand, no need to run the risk of virus infection on the Windows PC. The Linux-powered AURALiC Aries will readily accommodate an impromptu USB drive rendezvous and can output via S/PDIF to the same DAC as the Roon-running PC, which already occupies the DAC’s USB input. Another Sonos Connect would feed the DAC’s Toslink input. We’ll come back to this shortly.

Credit here to AURALiC’s software development team who after months of unexpected delays finally got the Android Lighting DS app out the door and onto the Google Play Store. It scans and indexes direct-connected content with lickity-split speed! Whilst my remote control form factor preference still resides with the Lightning DS 2.0 on an iPad Mini, running the Android version on a Google Nexus or Samsung tablet is the way to go if you also want that tablet to double as a Roon remote as their iOS app is still some way off. For the Roon remote app on Android, a minimum screen size of nine inches is required.

If I wanted to get a little showy, I’d detach the Microsoft Surface Pro from the KEF loudspeakers in the front and use its install of Roon to remote control that running on the bigger desktop PC out back. Note: one license only allows for a single instance of Roon running as library manager at any one time. At US$144/year, it isn’t cheap. Our store ethos being for greater hands-on action from curious drop-ins, I’d not hesitate. If I wanted to get showier still, I’d hook the front room’s entry-level turntable system’s line-level output into the line-level input of the Sonos Connect and have it stream wirelessly to the Connect out back and out via the Toslinked DAC. Purists might wince at the additional steps of conversion to digital and back again but it’s a neat party trick to impress those who prioritize functionality and convenience over sound quality. We’ve taken the long way ‘round to get to my point. Not everyone who visits my store will want to go out and out with ultimate SQ at the expense of convenience or UI niceties. That’s why Sonos and Roon feature heavily, the latter showing that vinyl isn’t the only modern way to get hands on with music playback. Developing the music theme, I’d make a point of befriending the local record stores and building relationships where possible. Come Record Store Day, the cross-promotional opportunities write themselves. I’d also give over (part of) a wall to a company with official sanction to display promotional posters for upcoming live events and festivals. These guys stop by on a weekly basis to change ‘em up. If nearby cafés opt to promote live music in this way, the neighbourhood hifi store should be doubly committed.

Of course I’m open to the possibility that much of this might sound hopelessly naïve coming from someone with zero audio retail experience. However, no need to throw the details back as tiny darts of reality. Pick up on the bigger picture here: hifi stores could do with more visual cues and hands-on experience to better engage the customer beyond ears and mind. That is unless your local proprietor is quite happy presenting wall-to-wall black and silver boxes whilst looking back fondly over the Golden Age of retail and simultaneously shaking his fist at a cloud that now supplies the kids with (almost) any music they can think of for next to nothing, direct to their phones. To the playlist!

Moritz Von Oswald – Sounding Line 6
From the Godfather of dub techno (Basic Channel and Maurizio) comes another slice of jazz-inflected electronica with drum kit subtleties that recalls Tony Allen’s turns as a member of Fela Kuti’s band. Listen for the deep bass in the opening section and how well it integrates/separates from the layering of snare and hi-hat, which eventually lead the track into funkier territory. There’s plenty of timbral and tonal info on offer from those drum fills too.
Ben Salter – Boat Dreams
“Another song about man pain” is show Salter himself described this song at a recent live show. It’s a cut above the usual singer-songwriter dreck (of which there is a global over supply). Unlike many of his fellow countrymen, Salter isn’t ashamed to sound Australian. More wine than whisky, his voice shines through without the need for the listener’s prior acclimatization (see: The Drones’ Gareth Liddiard)
M. Ward – Stars of Leo
Here’s an even more palatable singer-songwriter, this time from Portland. Every time you hear an M Ward tune you’ll say, “Who’s this? I gotta get this!” - but you never do. And so the cycle of appreciation without financial commitment continues. Anyone taking offense upon hearing an M. Ward song at an audio show or in-store demo needs to take a long, hard look at themselves. His is a sound that will impress one’s parents and new flames in equal measure.
Bichi – Counting Out Horizons in Discrete Steps
Probably not so parent friendly is a little known alter-ego of little known Dane Tobias Wilner. One for fans of Autechre’s 90’s output before they lost their way with the fundamentals of a) a tune and b) a discernible rhythm at the turn of the century. In fact, this cut recalls the best bits of Ae’s LP5. Elsewhere on Bichi’s Notwithstanding (2005) you’ll hear echoes of Bola. Interestingly, the CD of the same didn’t enjoy a global release until 2011 and Wilner is credited with guest vocals on “River Of Life” found on Trentemoeller’s most recent album Lost. This cross-referenced morsel of info came by way of Discogs and not Roon.
Ratatat – Drugs
Ratatat are whom you ultimately gravitate towards once you’ve soaked up the entirety of Daft Punk’s catalogue, only this duo are from Brooklyn, not France. “Drugs” is fronted by (what sounds like) a keytar; hard to know with software emulation being so darn impressive nowadays. No mind - this is mindless fun for those who wanna get a groove on without clearing the demo room.
Air – Electronic Performer
This French duo’s catalogue has recently seen the vinyl reissue treatment. Mercifully, they are not (just!) shameless cash-ins on the part of the record company. Thick sleeves with proper protective inserts shield quiet, heavyweight pressings that bring out the best in Air’s immaculate production. I’ll confess to buying the 2LP of 10’000Hz Legend more because it sounds good and less because of the music contained therein. Why? Because playing songs like “Electric Performer” over and over as I swap between turntables or DACs can really drive a song into the ground. Better to do it to something you don’t love.
Portishead – The Rip
Delicacy, air, midrange eloquence, textural reveal – these are some of the sonic qualities I listen for when spinning this most underrated second single from Portishead’s Third; qualities that the Chord Hugo driving AudioQuest’s NightHawk headphones get oh so right. It starts innocently enough. Beth Gibbon’s stark vocal and plucked guitar drive out the opening metronomic right-channel keyboard until her vocal note is held and looped (presumably by Adrian Utley) before a heavily textured synth line takes the song up several gears and Gibbons returns with more. The simple percussion that ducks and weaves recalls Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden. A shout out to Harry O’Sullivan, formerly of Music First and now at The Bespoke Audio Company, for turning me onto this very lovely song.

Banco De Gaia – Amber
Most Banco De Gaia fans would argue that Last Train to Lhasa is Toby Mark’s best work. A shame then that his ‘world’-inflected ambient dub sounds a little dated in 2015. So what. This year also clocks up Last Train to Lhasa’s 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, the original 2CD has remastered and expanded to a 4CD set. The new digipackaged version not only includes everything from the original Limited Edition 3CD but loads in several extended versions and a smattering of remixes from ‘like-minded’ contemporaries. But there’s a catch. Those wanting a lossless download must drop coin on the new 4CD set over at Banco De Gaia’s Bandcamp page. Only then will the FLAC or ALAC spill – something to enjoy whilst the physical product makes its way to your door the old-fashioned way. I think Marks’ hardline stance on CDs is to be applauded despite it meaning that the version of Last Train to Lhasa found on Spotify and Tidal is the mid-noughties reissue. I sometimes use this track to listen for bass depth and tightness (or lack thereof). Behind a pair of Sennheiser HD650, it’s a real skull rattler but even out in the main room the KEF LS50 standmounts shortchange nobody.

Tidal playlist & Spotify playlist.
For more John Darko, visit his website