There are plenty of ways for buyers of home entertainment equipment to be stitched up and, while the industry is much better than it was, it still happens. An example is the young guy who wanted to spend $300 on a pair of speakers with heaps of bass. He bought a pair for $349 that truly rumbled, except that they rumbled less when he got them home. The dealer had probably patched a subwoofer into the demonstration.

Then there was the buyer of a Chinese television set who said the picture was great in the shop but dreadful at home. It had been demonstrated with a DVD player, and when he’d asked to see broadcast he’d been told reception was terrible in the store. If a television retailer can’t manage decent reception why would you buy a TV there?

It’s both incorrect and paranoid to assume you’re going to be had when buying equipment, but it’s also wrong to assume the tricks are all history. With a market as competitive as this it’s hard for dealers to make money.

“People go into shops thinking they’re going to be ripped off because current affairs shows say they will be,” a retail consultant said. “Most dealers make very little on the electronics because customers screw them comprehensively. Dealers screw them back on accessories. Overall, are the customers getting screwed? Probably not.”

One of the biggest-selling accessories is cable, both for speakers and for connecting one component with another. “I’ve seen very expensive looking cables that turned out to be little more than light flex,” a wholesaler said. “They’re made by shrink-wrapping a good looking sheath over standard flex. Put gold connectors at each end and a 25-cent cable becomes a $25 cable.”

Gold connectors are another thing. While silver provides a superior connection it tarnishes quickly. Gold doesn’t, so good equipment often has gold-plated connections. Note that term gold-plated. Lots of relatively inexpensive cables have gold connections and even though they may not contain a particle of gold the labelling is legal; they’re gold in colour. Gold and gold-plated are two entirely different things.

Retail margins are better on some components than others and retailers naturally steer buyers towards more profitable items, but in a business where so much depends on personal taste buyers must stick to their guns. If they like the sound of, say, a less profitable speaker then that’s the speaker they should be taking home.

But there are ways and ways of convincing them otherwise. The experience of some buyers suggest that, as well as phantom subwoofers being covertly added into the sound equation, it’s possible some extra power is added from time to time to give an inefficient speaker more thump. Location can also affect a speaker’s sound – if it’s in a tight corner or against a wall it may not sound its best.

The most basic ploy is kicking up the volume. Because of the way we perceive sound a louder speaker will always sound better than a quieter one.

But retailers suggesting you spend more on a television than you plan may be doing you a service. It’s a very long-term purchase, it’s a major piece of furniture and it’s very hard to trade if you make a mistake. “I always suggest a widescreen with a 100 Hertz tube,” one retailer told me. “This covers the next ten years. I also suggest delivery and installation because they’re hard to set up and they’re very heavy.”

Software is important in testing. Just as animated movies such as A Bug’s Life or Toy Story 2 make practically any television look great, so a lone acoustic guitar will sound fabulous on practically any system.

“Listen to a range of music,” a dealer said. “Female vocalists will work the mid and high ranges and if the voice starts to get brittle the equipment is having problems. Jazz vocalists are a great test as is a single piano, although people not experienced with the sound can think it’s harsh. I use three different CDs – no more or I lose track – of both classical and popular music.”

Shopping around reveals more than who has the best service, the best advice and the right prices, it also tells you about the products. Grey imports exist and it’s not just novices who get caught. A few years ago a major importer saw a big brand laser disc player that doubled as a five-disc CD carousel. He liked it so much he bought four. All of them broke down and when he went to the brand’s agents he was told they had never been imported and therefore had no factory warranty. The retailer was no help. If you’re wondering about an unusual product consult the brand’s customer service centre or website.

It’s a simple truth that cheapest deal is not always the best deal. “The fastest way to get ripped off is to get the cheapest price for every piece of equipment,” an importer said. “The dealer will hardly be motivated to spend much time, if any, setting it up and when you have a DVD player, a television, a five-channel amplifier, five speakers and a subwoofer, you need help in setting up. Customers should be happy to pay a little for help in getting the best out of the equipment, but there are legions of buyers who screw down the price so hard that the dealer won’t even return their calls when they need help.

“It’s more important to shop for professionalism rather than price. Professionalism is easy to pick – the dealer asks about room size, taste in music, existing equipment and what the customer is trying to achieve. Complex issues will be explained and no one is made to feel like a moron.”

Trust your ears

“I’ve got one of these at home.” It’s one of the most common things that home entertainment salespeople say, and while it’s undoubtedly true from time to time, it’s also an effective way to close a sale – it reassures customers they’re doing the right thing.

But only the customer has the customer’s ears and taste in music, and in a business where the right choice is so personal, customers have to have enough strength of character to make the choice that sounds right to them. If that means a taking a bit more time, it’s well worth the effort. Try to avoid asking the question salespeople hear all the time: “Which one would you choose?”

A discount isn’t always a discount

If the discounts look too good to be true, they’re probably untrue. Pricing tickets frequently indicate a markdown from an original price, but that original may not reflect the current market – it could be the recommended retail price from the launch of the product. Current recommended retails can be checked by ringing manufacturers’ customer service centres. Some list RRPs on their websites.

From the back of a truck

Over the last 10 to 15 years a scam selling speakers off the backs of trucks has been operating in both Sydney and Melbourne, with sellers frequently accosting potential buyers (even at red lights) and explaining they have to get rid of some imported speakers fast and will take a punishing deal. The speakers are seldom much good and warranties will only be honoured if you can find the sellers, which is far from easy. Don’t be swayed when you’re told to look up the manufacturer’s website – anyone can set up a website.

Published 2001