Monday, December 13, 2010

Seasonal Afflictions - The Helpful Sales Staff (Hi-Fi Edition)

Over a weekend dominated by holiday errands I had several all-too-typical interactions with Helpful Sales Staff at a few big- and not-so-big-box stores around the area. A few vignettes: 

  • "Do you have any questions?" asked the young woman in the required uniform of the store's Helpful Sales Staff. When I said "yes," and proceeded to ask her suggestions for the most comfortable headphones, she directed me to the $200+ Dr. Dre-Monster "Beats" headphones, but couldn't think of any comfortable headphones in the sub-$200 price range even though we were within arm's reach of several models and makes. Then I mentioned the trouble I've had finding high-quality headphones that will stay in place while I'm running, whereupon she suggested the $100+ Dr. Dre-Monster "Beats" in-ear headphones. I asked her where I might try some of these headphones before purchasing them, specifically the many models not evident on the "try me" counter, and she told me that she doesn't know because she really doesn't work in this department. Why, then, is she walking up and offering to answer questions?
  • In another store, I asked about devices that stream audio from a home network. "No," the old-school salesman scoffed. "We don't do that; that's not our thing." Fair enough, but of course, it is his thing, not simply because digital streaming is The Way Things Are Going in the A/V world (as of this instant, the crack of dawn, 13 December 2010), but also because many of the devices in his very store do, in fact, offer some form of digital streaming capability. I noticed a number of blu-ray players with DNLA capabilities, for instance. I had asked him the question because while I can read "DNLA" or see the Netflix logo on a product description all by myself -- I mean, if I concentrate and wear my reading glasses -- I had hoped the Helpful Sales Staff would point me to some of the better implementations of this sort of thing. That's what the Helpful Sales Staff is there to do, right? In that store, they are there to disparage new-fangled technology, justifiably and otherwise, and wax nostalgically about better times spent listening to Steppenwolf on vinyl or some shit.
  •  A sales guy in yet another store was more than a little disdainful that I would show any interest in a CD player. "Those are going the way of 8-track players," he scoffed, and then popped a USB flash drive into the front of an Onkyo receiver/amplifier and began playing a .WAV format recording of "Drive My Car" or maybe "Eleanor Rigby" directly from the receiver. I mentioned that I was interested in a CD player for reasons not so distant from the little point he was making -- my music collection has been transferred to MP3 format, so I want a CD player that can handle MP3 disks. "But MP3 is compressed!" he gasped. "Once you start getting to WAV and FLAC, it is lossless!" he said, gesturing at the USB thumb drive, and then informed me that even the old-timers who pine away for better days spent listening to Steppenwolf on vinyl are now converting their collections to lossless digital formats.

    Ummm ... OK, this think about this, Helpful Sales Staff guy. I'll grant the point about MP3's terrible, terrible inferiority in audio fidelity compared with lossless formats (still, MP3 has its uses). That said, from the fact that I am expressing interest in CD players, it follows that the source from which I am potentially not losing is ... wait for it ... CD. I happen to have hundreds of CDs and, oh, six or seven vinyl records tucked away in a box in the garage. So if not losing from the source is The Ultimate Good, I would be foolish to convert my CDs to anything, even a supposedly lossless something, because any copy I make can only ever match, but never exceed, the quality of the original. Hence my interest in a high-quality CD player that can also play disks containing some of the vast library of MP3 files I've already made from those CDs. And sure, if it can handle some FLAC files burned to a disk, that's great too.

    How foolish of me! Instead of a $300-$400 CD player, I should purchase a $900 amplifier/receiver with a USB port on the front of it (to replace my perfectly good but USB-port-free amp/receiver); and I should get a high-capacity USB drive for another $50-$100 -- gawd knows those are always reliable -- and load FLAC files onto it, after spending a few weeks creating a library of FLAC files, of course.

    No, really, I should insist on perfect fidelity and only listen to music as performed live, by unamplified instruments and voices, in rooms optimized for acoustics. After having my ears professionally cleaned.
Thanks, Helpful Sales Staff, for so many things, not least the reminder of how much woo there is in the world of hi-fi.


Brad said...

Sadly the days of getting any kind of helpful assistance at a retail store are behind us. Retail stores cater to the Common Man now, and the Common Man is a moron based on what passes for popular television and music.

I've had to adopt the process below to reliably get a product that fits my needs and desires:

1. Figure out what features I want in an item.
2. Look on various websites for matches, descriptions and reviews*. For consumer electronics, places like,, and others are marginally helpful.
3. If a local retailer carries the items on my short list I may go in and see and feel the items in person. I sometimes ask questions of the Helpful Sales Staff just to mess with them.
4. Order final choice from lowest-price/highest-reliability website. Amazon Prime (free 2-day shipping) is worth the cost for me.

* The Common Man has infiltrated website item reviews lately, so one has to be mindful of this fact.

InternalContradiction said...

You know Dale, I think you are overthinking this being a consumer thing. Maybe you ought to just cowboy up and start buying? :)

And be thankful you have some discrepancy consumer dollars to spend, many people don't any more, but thanks to you for pulling along the economy!

Paul Sunstone said...

What cracks me up is how such idiots always seem to adopt a superior, know it all attitude that is quite possible not in the least justified by their 30 minutes of store training.

Dale said...

@Paul, so true. It doesn't take long to see what the Sales Point of the week is. They recite the line that makes the sale, and while they offer to answer questions, they're not ready for any.

@InternalC, I am aware of all internet traditions. Er, I certainly do appreciate the fact that I can even be bothering with Xmas consumerism. So many people have real problems this Xmas.

@Brad, too true. I was only in the stores for that very reason -- I wanted to get hands on with a couple of items I'd found on the internets. In the case of the headphones thing, I wasn't even looking for headphones, but since I was there, and since the Helpful Sales Staff lady asked (this was Best Buy, aka the 4-1/2th circle of hell), I thought I'd play the game. I regretted it, as always.

Sheldon said...

Hi was just kidding you Dale, I am "Internal Contradiction" trying to start my own blog, and meant to show up as my name. This is a test. (sorry)