How do you listen to new gear before you buy?

Moderators: not sure if this is the right category for my question. Please feel free to move if needed.

I"m new to this hobby. I bought a Hifiman Sundara as well as a Topping E50/L50 (thank you headphone.com!) aa little over a month ago. I absolutely love them! It’s opened up a whole new world of listening enjoyment. I used to think that my Apple AirPods were the epitome of sonic excellence.

I would love to try some new headphones, amps and DACs for comparison to my current setup. However I live in a relatively small New England town and there is no local HiFi store to visit where I compare/contrast audiophile components.

My question is for those of you who don’t live in a large metropolitan area: How do you get your hands on various components for evaluation? I wish there was a service that loaned gear on a short term basis for evaluation. (I know that headphones.com was doing this on a limited basis but suspended the program due to equipment damage). I don’t want to buy and return gear just for evaluation. To me this seems unethical and burdens the seller with B sale gear that they then have to sell for less. (No judgement on those of you who may do this.) I see a lot of folks who sell items mere months after buying them. My wallet cannot stand this kind of churn.

Any advice/insights greatly appreciated. Thanks!

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This is a good topic I personally think that many people have to deal with in many places due to the lack of brick and mortar stores that specialize in headphones and in-ears and the multitude of options available online that are exclusive to online stores only.

For me, I am a bit lucky in that I get a lot of review units sent to me, but before I engaged in the audio review world, I did some of the following:

  1. Read a lot of reviews, impressions ,etc. and then take risks on buying stuff (easy, but most expensive option). Of course, finding like-minded reviewers with have similar tastes in music and sound qualities is the best option for taking the least grain of salt from reviews (and also being aware of “bad reviews” which are more of an affiliate farm than an actual review).

  2. Spend time on forums like these, and occasionally, (at least in prior to COVID times), people who organize meet-ups. Head-Fi has a lot of regular community meet-ups all over the world, and hopefully there is one near you. In Seattle where I’m from, there is/was a regular quarterly meetup setup on Headfi, and Torq also used to set up meetings here when he lived in town.

These meet-up opportunities were awesome for me. I got to meet a lot of new people who I only knew by usernames prior, try out a lot of gear, and also a lot of DIY creations. It was good networking event.

  1. Some stores do offer loaners. It doesn’t hurt to ask. Some may require downpayments, and/or credit to their stores to use them. I know a few people on here who have done that, but I don’t remember the exact stores that do this. Things may have changed now during the pandemic.

  2. Along with #2, I’ve found there’s a lot of very nice people on the forums who are willing to meet up on a 1on 1 or a small group setting and have little listening sessions. I actually wrote about one of them in my qdc Anole VX IEM review here: Qdc In-Ear Monitors - #15 by antdroid

  3. Also an easy one. actually should be #1 on this list. Buy USED. Then you can sell it for same or with very little loss if you do not like it. The caveat of course is that you are buying used, and there could be problems or other things that come along with it, but my experienced buying used so far (and I’ve bought/sold a ton of things) is that most people are honest and I’ve never gotten ripped off personally in the audio world, at least.

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I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘evaluation’. If it’s just ‘I’m curious what the XXX sounds like’, vs. ‘I want to buy some specific category of gear but am not sure which one I’ll like best’. (The use of the word ‘you’ here and what follows is the generic ‘you’, not aimed at the personal you you…) Just FYI

If you really want to have an awesome shop ‘nearby’ that displays, demos and sells the kind of gear you want-- convince a sufficient number of your neighbors and town-mates that they should want that stuff too, then present the newly created/discovered demand to an existing shop or entrepreneur, so they can open a store to satisfy this (new or heretofor unknown) demand in a way that is mutually profitable for vendor and customer.

Move to where the relevant shops are, if it is super-important to you.

If you are in the market for something specific, then find a dealer who carries that stuff, and is willing to help out reasonable customers with reasonable questions and pre and post-sale service support and advice for said gear. Returns for gear bought in good faith, should be easily returnable, so long as a pattern does not emerge…

Buying audio, and most other retail goods these days, is much more like a blind date that trying to ‘pick up’ people at a public place. Heck, people even buy shoes and mattresses exclusively online now.

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Head-Fi has tours where you can audition gear for a week. There’s a bit of a background check, and requirements to get into the tours.
I auditioned a number of high end (priced) IEMs and a whole slew of cables through the program.
You might want to check that out.

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Buy…try…keep (return if possible) or re-sell has always worked for me.

Even though I live near a good variety of mid and high-end audio retailers, they still have huge gaps in their product lines. Various local stores told me they refused to carry HiFiMan (reliability/retun problems), Audeze (too many models to track), and Sennheiser (buyers tend to test in store and then buy elsewhere).

Local vendors also attempt to sell high-margin products that they stock (e.g., McIntosh, B&W) so there are huge gaps in what you can try. I once brought my own amp to use with their headphones.

So, your questions apply to all of us. Great topic too.

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@Lotek, thanks I will check that out.

@Antdroid, thanks.
I have been reading a lot and watching videos. I have a huge bias toward “try before you buy” but it may be that I just need to rethink this approach.
I will try to cultivate some local hifi friends. Hopefully Covid will wind down soon.

@fzman 1956, thanks.

I would love to bring my headphones to the store and try it with different amps/dacs or try various headphones to educate myself about different sound signatures. I’d be happy to buy local as well and support a small business.

Wont be moving anytime soon. I love where I live despite the lack of a good Hi-Fi store!

@LittleCans

Yup, sounds like the approach to take. Thanks.

@generic
That’s good insight. I’m sure no store carries all brands/models. Delving into the audiophile world involves a leap of faith!

General thoughts…

  1. Go to shows like CanJam (when they’re on again). It’s not the best listening environment but gives you a lot of gear to try out. It’s also a great way to form some relationships with manufacturers, vendors, and others in the hobby (I’ll come back to this).
  2. Check around, a lot of shops aren’t in cities or surrounding areas… maybe one that not hours away that you can visit.
  3. Buy used stuff that you would like to try then you’re not paying the “new” price and likely won’t lose out as much selling again.
  4. Ask to demo. Some vendors / stores may say “no” others may be willing to work something out. You probably have a better shot with people who know who you are (back to #1 and networking with some of the people in the hobby). And there are some people around the forums/discords that may also be willing to let you borrow their gear to try.
  5. Buy from stores with good return policies. Just don’t abuse it.
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I would recommend listening to YouTube reviewers and if what they say makes sense, buy something they rec. I was fortunate to find BGGAR, whose ears seem to be like mine. Listening to his recommendations has saved me a lot of money. Currawong also is very good, very informative. Resolve is another. But ultimately your buying, trying and happy or returning.

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Thanks @CoachB

Currawong is a favorite. Tends to listen to the same type of music.
@Resolve is, of course, excellent!

@bigshel99, thanks. All good advice.

I definitely don’t want to abuse return policies. That’s why I’d prefer to test gear in person.

I am tentatively thinking at CanJam NYC in February.

That’s great if you can wait for that and travel. For me it would be two hours to NY City, which is rarely a pleasant experience. So then you have no choice but to pick out what you think will be great for you and hope.

Haha! I’m not much of a big city person myself. I’m more of a country bumpkin.
However, as I am new to this hobby it would be worth it to spend the weekend in NYC and soak up some knowledge!