|Buying AV on the Net|
|Home Theater Feature Articles Other|
|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Saturday, 01 May 1999|
In the history of commerce or communications, nothing can compare with the Internet. In four years, the Internet has reached 50,000,000 users which took radio 40 years and TV 19 years to achieve. E-commerce is a term even your grandmother has heard and possibly experienced. While some of the Baby Boomers that run the high-end industry still don’t have e-mail, many companies do their marketing better now than ever before on the Net. The Internet, with its cost per thousand advertising model and well-financed, upstart e-commerce virtual stereo stores, has provided the industry with the opportunity to weed out under-performing high-end companies, while rewarding more cutting-edge and far-thinking firms.
There are advantages and disadvantages to buying on-line, depending on the products and services you require. Buying music online is genius if you your goals include making a fast buy, getting a good deal and choosing from a huge selection. I buy easily $1,000 in CDs a year over the Net from CDNow.com and VirginMega.com, yet I still shop at the Virgin Megastore and Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The Internet cannot replace the analog beauty of flipping through the racks to find a new artist you’ve never bought before. On my last trip to Virgin, I bought a funky Euro-techno-dance record based on what I head the in-store DJ playing while I was shopping. Earlier the same day, I clicked on a CDNow.com HTML ad on AudioRevolution.com and actually filled in the name of the band I was looking for and bought a CD there.
Buying Equipment on-line
When it comes to acquiring equipment online, I urge you to buy carefully. The best kind of online purchases are elastic products. By "elastic," I mean items that you can get in stores in every major city in the US. The e-commerce sites are killer for ordering a DVD player, a ReplayTV, TiVo or a TV. You can nearly always get a good deal and hook-up is pretty easy. You have to be more careful and/or use a more advanced approach if you’re buying a complete or more complicated system online. In today’s AV market, anyone can sell you a home theater system. How much you love the end result is based on set-up, programming and installation more than the performance characteristics of the gear itself.
AVRev.com never advises its readers to buy with price as the sole determining factor. Brick and mortar dealers provide a service by demonstrating products and assuming physical overhead. They also train their staffs so that you can experience the best in AV at their locations. Most on-line e-commerce dealers work more on the mail-order model. Therefore, if your local dealer puts in the extra effort to help you out, don’t begrudge him or her that extra 10 percent. You can, and should, expect a higher level of service and support for your loyalty to the dealer’s business model.
I could name the names of AV manufactures who still don’t have e-mail or websites, even though studies done in the luxury car market show that 44 percent of buyers of high-priced cars did their research on the Net first before going to the dealers. These are the same companies that won’t let dealers sell gear over the Net, because the dealer might sell outside of his or her geographic boundaries. These are not only shortsighted and protectionist business practices – they are illegal. Unfortunately, AV dealers don’t have the might to take AV manufacturers to the mat in a legal battle. The dealers would win if they could afford the legal fees. Perhaps an e-commerce giant may yet take on the challenge. Ironically, many high-end AV companies allow "custom dealers" to design systems anywhere in the world, while telling traditional dealers that they must to stay inside a geographical radius. The upshot is that if the product you are buying needs no or little support, then you should consider buying it on-line. If you require a demo or installation, or simply want to keep your local dealer afloat, make sure you bring him the sale for your gear.
Credit card fraud and hackers, which have recently plagued sites like CNN, Amazon and eBay, are really no threat to you. 20-bit credit card encryption is really advanced and, even if the hackers got your card number, most cards protect you for every fraudulent charge over $50. I recommend using American Express for on-line charges, as they will back you, the consumer, up consumer 100 out of 100 times. While I don’t have one, I hear that AmEx’s new Blue card has even more advanced on-line buying protection and functionality.
On-line auctions are a funny beast. The idea is that you as an interested party in a particular product will bid on said product at a price for which you’d buy it. In many cases, the price is amazingly low: $9 for an Apple Macintosh G4/400 or $19 for Genesis AMP-1 loudspeakers. Understandably, these products create a buzz, yet they never actually sell at such low prices. In fact, I have seen cases where products are selling for more than the going price at non-auction e-commerce sites on the web. The advantage to bidding in auctions is that, when you don’t really need the product you are trying to buy, you use your willingness to take it at the right price as leverage. I have successfully done this with a Philips CDR machine on uBid. The disadvantage to auctions is that, if you see something you like and want to cut to the chase and just buy it right away, you often can’t. Every time I try doing business on eBay, I have this problem. I saw a life-sized poster of Fletch that would have been perfect for my office with a price set at $20. I bid well over that price and for some reason I never wound up with it. For this reason, professional sites like uBid or Amazon are preferable to eBay. The former two are retailers auctioning products to you, while eBay hosts a sort of virtual flea market.
Here is a rundown of my favorite sites for buying music, video and gear on the Net:
Buying CDs and DVDs on line
CDNow.com – CDNow’s design is kind of sparse, but they have a pretty good selection of the kinds of music I like. Their search engine has great flexibility in looking up artist, album title, song title, record label, movie title or director. Once you sign up to buy CDs from CDNow.com, you have the option to have your information saved so that, using cookies, the site recognizes you and remembers your preferences and credit card information. I find this extremely useful, as I can get in and out, buying a CD in less than 60 seconds. The downside of CDNow is their video selection isn’t as big as Amazon.com’s and, when a CD or DVD isn’t in stock, the wait can be over a week. CDNow does have a good number of downloadable audio files that go deeper than the first track of a record, which raises the in-store listening station concept to new heights on their site.
VirginMega.com – Virgin is the most stylish of the music e-commerce sites I frequent. VirginMega.com, much like their brick and mortar stores, has a great selection of popular titles. However, their access to hard-to-find records and imports sets them apart from the rest. Radio Free Virgin is also cool, as you can stream their new music DJ right into your computer. I frequently find new acts that are not heard anywhere on U.S. radio.
Amazon.com – Amazon is the best site to buy DVDs from in most cases. They have a huge amount of titles in stock. Therefore, your software arrives quickly. Their database is far more complete than that of any other site I have seen. If you are researching a DVD buy, go to Amazon.com first. The downside to Amazon.com is that their ordering and shipping can be complicated and illogical. For example, I ordered Caddyshack and Titanic at the same time and paid for UPS two-day shipping at an extra charge. I assumed that this meant both DVDs would arrive that much faster. Unfortunately, Titanic arrived first, then Caddyshack, both UPS Blue and both with a $6 charge. I could have walked to Tower Video from my condo and just bought the movies cheaper myself.
DVDTalk.com – If you are really into shopping for the best DVD deals, this is the goods. All they do is review DVDs and shop all of the e-commerce sites for the best deals for you. Don’t be surprised to see them link you to an e-banking site to get a ridiculous deal on Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me for $3. You may or may not have to open an account. They normally give you other options for buying DVDs as well. The disadvantage to the site is that they focus on only the most popular DVDs. The advantage is that they have an e-mail service in html format that sends you the best deals right to your mailbox.
Buying New Electronic Gear on-line
800.com – When a Microsoft co-founder and multi-billionaire invests in an e-commerce site, you know it is serious. 800.com is a rocking site that sells both AV gear and AV software. Clearly, their focus is on AV equipment. As one of the biggest and earliest players, loaded with venture capital, 800.com picked up some great lines that you won’t readily find all over the Net: Klipsch, Panasonic, Kenwood, ReplayTV, TiVo and many more. The site design is second only to VirginMega.com in pure appeal. They also offer an e-mail update package.
uBid.com – uBid is all auctions and mostly features b-stock or re-conditioned products. This is why the deals are so good. Unlike 800.com, uBid sells a huge variety of goods ranging from iMac closeouts to high-end products like Parasound and Harman. Their site looks as though they hired a disgruntled George W. Bush poster artist to do the design. uBid is down and dirty and focused on value and variety. Stunning deals can be had here if you are willing to work with b-stock items in some cases.
GetPlugged.com: GetPlugged.com is your best source for a complete system on-line. It works with a network of excellent high-end dealers and custom installers to stack the deck in favor of you getting a well-designed and properly installed total solution. GetPlugged.com features an excellent sense of community and has a good amount of content that teaches end users how and why they should buy a high-end system, starting the education at square one.
e-town.com – e-town.com is a retro GenX looking site that does the best job of blending community with e-commerce. Advertising prospects often confuse e-town as a competitor with AudioRevolution.com, which it is not. e-town has talented reviewers, many of whom held prestigious positions with respected AV companies before going to work for e-town, who evaluate all sorts of gear. I can’t take their reviews as anything more than informational, as it would hard to remain unbiased when your site is trying to sell the same product that you’re reviewing. e-town.com’s strategic alliances are amazing, including Best Buy and Yahoo. And now they sell Sony, the best line in all of AV. It is hard not to be impressed.
Buying and Selling AV on the classified sites.
AudioGon.com: AudioGon.com is a classified site dedicated to high- end audio-video products. The site design is aesthetically sketchy, but the horsepower under the hood is impressive. The site requires you to sign up with e-mail and a password but posting is free. They offer auction functionality but also have traditional classified sales. The site is always fresh and well-managed. It is not over-crowded with ads and is moderately easy to navigate, even though the Yahoo-esque text links look tiny on my Mac but are decently-sized on a PC. AudioGon.com is a great place to find big-ticket items being sold by predominantly private party advertisers. It is also a great place for you to sell your gear at no cost to you.
AudioWeb.com: AudioWeb.com offers a similar model to AudioGon.com with a stronger focus on phono, analog and hobbyist gear. Their list of hard-to-find audio-video sites can be hard to locate on their page due to bland html links. However, once you find the list page, you’ll want to bookmark it. Their discussion board suffers from a lack of users and is littered with flames. The two- column design and frequently asked question (FAQ) sections are pretty advanced. Even so, the site could use some more promotion for those sections to make them as happening as the newsgroups. Nonetheless, AudioWeb.com with its free ads is another good source for you to sell your high-end audio gear.
Rec.Audio.Marketplace: This is a newsgroup section that requires you to know how to get to your ISP’s newsgroup sections. If you don’t know how to get there, cut to the chase and call your ISP’s support. Netscape will get you there, although I needed serious help from Earthlink. Historically, I have used the shareware program NewWatcher to surf the newsgroups. Rec.Audio.Marketplace.com is a lively venue of used and demo AV gear sold in a virtual free market economy. I personally have sold some very expensive gear on this bulletin board. The downside is that this venue is not really monitored and is something of a free for all. Buyer and sellers beware: use secure payment CODs and/or do your deal in person. I can’t stand to hear any more stories about guys saving for two years to buy a Krell amp, only to open the box after the FedEx guy leaves to find a cinder block and an smashed-up old VCR inside.
AudioVideoMarketplace.com: -The Audio Video Marketplace is AudioRevolution.com’s classified site. It is the only site on the list that charges for ads. This means that there are far fewer private party ads on AudioVideoMarketplace.com than you’ll find elsewhere. This site has the slickest design and is the easiest to use. However, they expose you to easily three times more banner ads than any of the other sites. The focus of this site is on very high-end music and home theater gear. The advertisers are predominantly AV dealers and custom installers who you won’t see on the newsgroups and the other classified sites. The site is being re-launched with free ads for end users later in 2000, but for now, the $10 fee for a classified ad is expensive when compared to free ads elsewhere. The advantage is that if you are looking for a big- ticket item like a Vidikron Vision One with 300 hours on it or Wilson WATT Puppies in Asian pearl, you can find what you seek on AudioVideoMarketplace.com. The site is sure to attract more end users and private party ads when it re-launches with a free ad model in April.