On the third floor of the former Sporting News building at 2020 Washington Avenue in downtown St. Louis, Charlie Schnyder sits in one of two listening rooms. It's appointed as you'd expect the living room of a small, tasteful loft condo would be: There's a vintage couch, modular shelves for records and CDs, a few framed posters of jazz musicians. (A widescreen TV, however, is notable for its absence.)
The listening rooms of St. Louis Stereo (online at www .stlouisstereo.com), a high-end audio store that opened in October, are arranged for sound. Schnyder is the sales manager of the venture, which has no storefront or signage and sees customers principally by appointment. (St. Louis Stereo's owner is Mike Pranka.) When asked to demonstrate just why one should part with the two to three thousand dollars required to cross the high-fidelity Rubicon, he sizes up his audience and chooses an LP. Schnyder is happy to play a CD if you ask, but St. Louis Stereo is, unsurprisingly, focused on the glories of the two-channel analog experience.
Coming through two sleek Harbeth speakers (a UK brand, modeled on the BBC "box loudspeaker" design), amplified on Audio Research components and spinning on a boutique Well Tempered Lab Amadeus turntable, Belle & Sebastian's Write About Love sounds exquisite: velvety, lively and somehow intensely visual. Schnyder isn't entirely satisfied. "We just installed some new cable," he apologizes. "It's still breaking in."
For all the rows of exotic Totem, DeVore and Vandersteen speakers and racks of Naim, Halo and Leben components, St. Louis Stereo is a relaxed and unfussy space where one could even bring an iPod or laptop and hook it up, just to hear what you didn't know you've been missing.
"I think it's just about having people over and sitting and listening to music," Schnyder says, explaining his sales philosophy. "People either get it, or they don't. Or they start asking questions. It's like anything else. If you go to a restaurant, some people are all over the food, dissecting it, loving it. Other people can't wait to pay the check and leave. It's the same with hi-fi."
Perhaps, but dinner isn't known to run into the five figures, though a lifetime of gourmet cuisine might. "One bad rap that high-end audio gets is that it's just for the doctor or lawyer crowd," Schnyder says. "That's not the case at all. A lot of my friends, like me, have fairly basic systems, but they play music really well. They capture an emotion that makes you want to sit and listen to your hi-fi for a long time. It's not like your iPod, where you listen for a while and shut it off, or you're at a party, and there's music in the background. It's secondary. But when we listen it's like watching TV, being focused on that."
For his part, Schnyder got into hi-fi as a hobby in high school then began working in music stores in the '80s — and watched in horror as the sound he loved was squashed by the rise of the big-box electronic store.
"In the old days, St. Louis had quite a few hi-fi shops, smaller mom-and-dad types," he recalls. "When Best Buy and the big-box stores came along, those started drying up. People started going to multi-speaker TV sound and 5.1 [surround sound]. But there are people out there whose systems are dormant, and maybe they want to add to what they have. And a lot of people still have vinyl, which has seen a big resurgence. It's the cool thing. We're here to assist people who are getting back into it and sorting out their older systems. They can't go into a Best Buy and get help."
But is opening a hi-fi shop in the midst of the worst recession since the '30s the wisest business move?
"You could definitely ask that," he says with a smile. "But companies like Audio Research are celebrating their 40th anniversary, and they just made this behemoth $25,000 preamp, which is just awesome. They're claiming the past three years have been their best. They do do a lot of international business. But as we're finding out, getting phone calls and e-mails, I think there are people out there interested in high-end audio, so we might have a small niche market."
The line between the hi-fi enthusiast and the obsessive-compulsive absurdist isn't always clear. Schnyder isn't interested in leading customers down the exponential consumption rabbit hole. "Some more expensive pieces are better, sometimes they're just marginally better," he says. "It can become a game, like boys with their toys. We're not into that."
According to Nielsen SoundScan, vinyl album sales, while still a small percentage of total music purchases, rose by 33 percent in 2009 — twice the rate of digital sales. Some 2 million vinyl albums were sold last year, with artists like Radiohead, Animal Collective and Wilco leading the way. Of course, those albums can be played (and likely are played) on any number of systems, from the sublime to the secondhand. Can a high-end store connect with the younger, album-buying market?
"We do want to appeal to a younger demographic," he offers. "When I was in retail, a lot of people would come in who were finding turntables at Goodwill. We don't have anything at that price level. There was a big gap when hi-fi stores started closing and Best Buys started opening. A lot of people just didn't get the training. They thought all there was 5.1 surround sound. We call that the era of bad audio."
But Schnyder believes that if people just listen, they'll embrace pleasures of a beautiful hi-fi, analog system. "I tell people that if I listen to digital too much I get all jittery," he says. "Then I have to listen to my records and just calm down."