What’s more fun than shopping for high-end audio equipment? If you’re someone who enjoys SoundStage! Ultra, walking through a high-end audio store can be a revelatory—and exhilarating!—experience. Although you’re unlikely to find dealers of speakers, amps, cables, and sources on just any corner these days, there are still many good purveyors of fine audio gear out there. But what about great audio dealers? I visited just such an establishment recently—Audio Advice in Raleigh, North Carolina—and man, was it impressive.

Bowers & Wilkins

When you first enter Audio Advice—a store that’s been in business for a whopping 45 years—you’re instantly greeted by a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 loudspeakers and a McIntosh Laboratory MA12000 hybrid integrated amplifier-DAC. If those products don’t scream “High end is sold here!” I don’t know what would. This display was a harbinger of great things to come.


The store itself has a spacious and warm feel from the moment you walk in. Audio Advice isn’t one of those stores that caters to a select group of wealthy, appointment-only clients. In fact, you can find myriad inexpensive products and accessories on display for the music lover on a budget—this photo shows a full range of Bluetooth speakers from Audioengine, Kanto, and others. Why rule out serving any music lover as a customer? AA seems to want to cater to them all.


Are brochures made of, um, actual paper still available for high-end audio products? Apparently so. Although I have to say (with tongue in cheek), I haven’t seen much paper at audio shows lately, AA does have any printed info that might be available for the gear they sell. And it’s all right up front when you walk in, in case you just want to grab some reading material and go.


The home-cinema demonstration area at Audio Advice comprises four rooms, three of which which are partitioned off from the rest of the store. The four theaters available for audition represent systems that can be purchased at four price points, starting at about $15,000 (in USD), excluding room treatment and furnishings, and moving up in price from there. The top theater is priced just over the six-figure mark. These setups are more accessible than ones I’ve seen on offer in other high-end shops. I can envision someone actually hearing and seeing one of these systems and saying, “I’ll take it!” rather than “How can we scale this down to my budget?”


AA customers will find an inviting and friendly atmosphere in any of the rooms in the store. What’s more, you’ll be able to hear music systems at many price points that, as I’ve mentioned, are often approachable as opposed to aspirational. These theaters were spaces I could see many of my friends wanting in their own homes.


Of course, with the huge upswing in custom installs (CIs) audio dealers are experiencing worldwide, it should come as no surprise that in-wall and/or hidden speakers were being used in some of the AA theater demonstration rooms. Setups like this make for a pretty non-intimidating recreational environment that’s very family—and pet—friendly.


The full line of Devialet Phantom speakers were on display at Audio Advice. (You can’t see them in this photo, but multiple Phantom II speakers were mounted near the ceiling.) You can hear all the Devialet Phantom speakers in one area, so it’s quite easy for customers to compare the various models.


I also appreciated how the audiophile-oriented tabletop speakers were displayed and demonstrated in simulated residential settings. This provides a way not only to hear the products the way you might experience them in your own home but also to see them integrated into an environment that you (or your significant other) might treat in a very décor-conscious manner. The Naim Mu-so you see here is a prime example.


The Sonus Faber Omnia all-in-one makes any space it’s in look better, in my humble opinion. In the Audio Advice display area this wasn’t much of a challenge, as the store’s spaces are gorgeous and well appointed.


Although far from a “lifestyle”-only product—this speaker system beautifully bridges the gap between lifestyle and high performance—the KEF LS60 system is available for demo at AA in a configuration I can easily see them occupying in a customer’s home.

How many speakers?

I was told Audio Advice offers 19 brands of loudspeakers. One thing I noticed was that AA doesn’t typically have just one model of speaker from a particular brand, they have almost all of them. It’s really convenient to audition speakers up and down a loudspeaker line so you can see which ones best fit your preferences and budget. This isn’t always the case in high-end audio shops, and it can lead to customers having to guess what might work for them rather than clearly understanding the different options based on their own listening experience.


Some brands are very well represented with rooms that are (almost) entirely devoted to a single manufacturer. In this case, you can hear several Klipsch speakers in a good-sized room. Can you spot the JBL imposter in this photo?

More speakers

Sonus Faber, KEF, and Aerial Acoustics speakers—all very similarly sized—can be easily compared with electronics that they might typically be paired with. McIntosh Labs seems like a great partner for any of the three brands!


Similarly, Focal and Paradigm are two brands that can be easily auditioned back-to-back at AA. I like the fact that speakers arrayed in close proximity are not only similarly priced but also similarly sized. After all, speakers need to be the right size to fit their intended space. In some cases, size can be an even more important consideration than price point.


During my visit, I was able to see the new Paradigm Founder series in person for the first time. I think the Canadian speaker maker knocked it out of the park with this line. And putting Paradigm and Focal head-to-head was an inspired choice by Audio Advice: these are both great speaker choices for the customer, but with very different sound signatures for sure.


Further up the price spectrum from the models we’ve seen so far are speakers from MartinLogan’s Masterpiece series. These Impression ESL 11A speakers are, again, situated in a space that could approximate an owner’s residential setting.


The concept defining this room is one I could readily adopt myself: an optimized two-channel system with the lion’s share of the budget spent on the stereo components, but with multichannel home theater integrated into the system for those times when you want to experience video with surround sound.


Even in this setup, the stereo speakers had obviously been optimized for proper stereo imaging. The KEF Reference 1 speakers can easily do double duty for music and home theater, as is the case here.

Next . . .

A single article documenting my first visit to many high-end audio stores would likely be enough to cover all of the products and spaces on offer, but not so with Audio Advice. There’s much, much more to experience at AA, and you’ll see that on November 15, right here on SoundStage! Ultra.

. . . Jeff Fritz