The Audio Shop from Hell


Over the past three years I've begun to appreciate hi-fidelity stereo systems and home theater. (Thanks to Brian Gentry for converting me from an "It all sounds the same" type guy.) I've been to numerous shops looking for the perfect compromise of excellent sound, price and awesome home theater ability. I believe that I've come close at the moment. I am however always looking for the bigger, better deal, thus begins our tale.

December 21st 1996

I was going with my good friend and audio nut Brian to Sunshine Stereo in Miami for a day of listening to high fi equipment. Sunshine had a number of speakers that I wanted to listen to (Von Schweikert, Near, Gallo, NHT, Energy...etc) What started out as a good day turned into the audio experience from hell. Of course after driving from Tallahassee to Miami and finding Sunshine Stereo, it was closed. Bummer, I must have lost the stores hours, but all was not lost: Brian knew another shop that carried the Von Schweikert speaker line. Making good time we arrived at Audio By Caruso at about 3pm.

Pre-warnings of Kookdom

Brian had mentioned that the owner: Don Caruso was a bit quirky, and that the first thing that he would do is take my name and write down what I currently own in terms of stereo equipment. No problem, many of the audio types get a bit "In to it." So I was prepared for a bit of a fanatic. With this in mind and our CD's in hand we went in to listen to the VR3's and VR4's.

A Nice Shop

Audio By Caruso carried Genesis, PSB, and VSR speakers and was well stocked. This made me happy as I had wanted to listed to the PSB speakers as they came highly rated by friends (Note, I never did get to hear the PSB's). There was one other customer in the shop, and two guys working so it took about 25 minutes to get any help (No problem, we weren't in a hurry and I understand that good shops take care of their customers.)

Enter Don

Finally, Don Caruso came over and the odyssey began. After taking down my current system and frowning ( I have a Denon AVR 3600 and Def Tech BP2000's...BTW: I love the sound that I get from this combo), Don assured me that I wanted the VR3's rather than the VR4's, since I said that I was happy with my Denon and was only thinking about possibly upgrading my speakers if I liked the VSR's more. I think that his quote at this point was "With the electronics you have, you won't get anything more out of the VR4's over the VR3's." Ok so he was a touch hard to take, but hey, I really wanted to hear these speakers so I quietly listened to his perturbations about my system.

The Hookup

Don had a variety of amps to choose from and began wiring up the VR3's to a NAD receiver as preamp and a Rotel power amp. Another famous Caruso quote: "Well you won't be able to hear what these speakers can really do with this setup, but it will be like the system that you'd get at home." A bit rude, but I thought that we were just seconds from hearing the VR3's and I was pumped. Don finished wiring up the VR3's and came over to Brian and I. He then hit me with a question that floored me. "If I demo these speakers for you, will you buy them from me at full list price ?? I want you to know that I not interested in selling these for less than list." At this I was shocked. I told him that I'd definitely consider his shop for a purchase, but that I hadn't even heard the speakers yet!

Don Mid Frenzy

While leaning on the VR3's, Don continued on his semi-demented chatter. "I don't want to take the time to demo these, then have you shop around to other stores, that's just not high-end." My jaw must have been a bit slack at this point, but I stood there and listened to his continuing spiel. What follows are some excerpts from about 30 minutes of horrifying banter that could be summed up by the underlying tone in his voice: GET OUT!

"I don't want to take the time to demo these speakers and then have you go somewhere else to shop around and buy them for less."

"The US Government is killing high-end by not allowing the speaker manufacturers to price fix to the merchants."

"I don't deal at less than MSRP, that's just not the spirit of high-end."

For about the third time Don asked:

"Will you buy the VR3's at $1850? I'm not interested in selling them for less."

To which I replied:

"If I like them, I don't have a problem paying $1850 if I think that they are worth it, but I haven't heard them yet."

To which he replied:

"Yes, but will you buy them from me?"

Now he went into a riff on trust and lying, saying that the way that most speakers are sold constitutes lying, with the price of a speaker not really being the price, and the customer talking the merchant down, which again he noted, is not the spirit of high-end. In other words, shopping around to save money was beneath the high-end attitude. This guy would have a serious hard time in hispanic countries. More blather about dealer/customer trust ensued with his beady eyes boring into me.

The entire time he went on this tirade, he was looking down his nose at Brian and I, like we were street trash just coming into his store to waste his time and then go shopping for better prices. (Note, there was no one else in the store at that time.) I was being made to feel most unwelcome in no uncertain terms. When Don turned around, Brian looked at me and mouthed "Sorry about this...." I shrugged, it wasn't Brian's fault that this guy was a maniac.

Brian had come in two weeks before and demo'd the VR4's, then referred his friend to the shop who purchased a ~$700 cd-player. Don knew this and still was being extraordinarily rude. I was serious about looking at the VSR line, and if they were all that they were cracked up to be, I would consider selling my BP2000's and getting a pair. None of my purchasing was going to happen today, as there were a variety of speakers that I still wanted to listen to in this price range. After telling Don this, he seemed even less enthused about actually putting the CD in the player and hitting play.

At this point Don went back to his "Will you buy them " rant and I mouthed lip service to his dementia.

Mass, Reality and the Desire to hear the VSR's.

As Don continued to blast Brian and I like we were ignorant school children set upon ruining his business, I had to restrain a few urges.

Urge 1

It occurred to me that the spirit of high-end notwithstanding, that this tremendous prick was about 130lbs soaking wet, and that crushing his head might sooth my hurt feelings about the treatment that I was receiving. It was the holiday season so I mentally searched for another option.

Urge 2

Tell Don where he could stick his VSR's and leave. I repeatedly had this one flash through my head but a few things kept me from doing this:

  • I really wanted to hear the VSR's and living 500 miles away from the nearest dealer prevented an easy demo. If I left, it might be months or years until I could hear them.

  • It really looked like that's what Don wanted us to do: leave. I wouldn't give that frenzied munchkin the pleasure.

    Ok so we sucked it up and finally after about 30 minutes of his pontificating, he put a disk in and hit play.

    VR3 Opinions and More Fun.

    So I popped in Seal's "Kiss from a Rose" The imaging and definition of the music was great, but the VR3's lacked bass. I put in a few more tracks, one being an imaging test, and while the soundstaging was excellent, the imaging wasn't as nice as a pair of B&W CDM1's ( I have a track from "The Best of Eric Kunsell" that has a cowboy run a horse in a circle, and it was much better defined on the B&W's. For some reason, I just wasn't satisfied with the sound from the VR3's. Great soundstaging and definition, but there was something that just didn't grab me (May have been having Dick-overload, which soured my judgment).

    After about 15 minutes of listening to the VR3's, it was clear that I liked the sound from my Def Tech's better, and told Don as much. (Maybe it's sick, but I really enjoyed telling Don that I didn't like his speakers....)

    Don replied with: "Well I have these running through similar electronics to what you have at home, you aren't hearing the potential of these speakers." (He neglected to note that I love the sound I get from my home system.) He continued: "The room that the VR3's were in sucks bass energy." Ok the room was huge, but now I wanted to hear the VR4's.

    Don didn't look like he wanted to show me to 4's (Which were already setup in another room.) I made it clear that the VR3's lack of bass would prevent me from even considering them. Don agreed to move the VR3's into the other room, where the VR4's were setup, and I could A/B them.

    As Don was setting up the VR3's into the new room, I noticed that he had the demo chair which could be raised and lowered to put the listeners ears directly at tweeter level, and there was a yardstick mounted on the wall with a black dot where the listeners head went. Wow, talk about anal retentive. It appeard that Don really cared, but to quote Rodney Dangerfield from "Back to School" when describing Sam Kinison "He Cares, about what I have no idea..."

    Still Unimpressed with the VR3's

    Now the VR3's were being played through about $10,000 worth of amplification (Some exotic tube stuff), and I still didn't find the sound satisfying (Actually I couldn't hear much of a difference). Putting the VR3's in a different room and butting them next to the VR4's improved the bass, but I still couldn't get involved in the music.

    Now the Big Boys

    We then shifted to the VR4's. They were VERY NICE!! Sweet, and crystal clear with a satisfying low-end. With my rock CD's they were nice (Seal, Sting, Tori Amos), but when Don put in Ricky Lee Jones "Pop pop" on track 1, I was staggered. It was as if they where there in front of me. Switching to the VR3's on this track provided some of the "Wow" of the VR4's, but it was in a different league.

    In the end, Don seemed to loosen up and wasn't as abrasive. I was still plenty pissed at the treatment that I'd received upon entering the shop.


    At the heart of Don't ranting and raving he had a few solid points for which I want to give credit:

  • I understand how it might be frustrating to have people come in and listen to your speakers and buy them somewhere else, ala mail-order.

  • He had I'd guess over $150,000 in speakers in the building, and I can work with him on his shop's overhead vs. mail order.

    A few points that I'd like to make to Don:

  • Being a dick to potential customers is never a good idea. I really have a hard time developing loyalty to someone who wanted me out of the building and put me through hell just to sample their merchandise.

  • I will never be hard sold on anything. I will pay a fair price to a local retailer, but as I live 500 miles from his shop, he's got to provide something special for me to deal with his shop over some other (Price, service...etc.) This just didn't appear to exist.

  • In less time than it took Don to abuse my friend and I, he could have been a decent guy and just demo'd the speakers. I would have appreciated it, and would have seriously considered his shop for a purchase, and in the end it would have taken less of his time and made me a happy camper.

    To sum up.

    I wouldn't buy water from that rude little bastard if I was thirsty in the desert. I look forward to going to Sunshine Stereo on my next trip to Miami, and seeing how Zip treats his customers.