Esoteric Audio Rises Again in Phoenix

by Marc Mickelson | March 31, 2016

've reminisced more than once about the good old audio days of the 1980s, when record stores and hi-fi dealers were plentiful all over the US. But I never knew just how plentiful they were until I saw some of the early issues of The Abso!ute Sound. The half- and quarter-page dealer ads near the back frequently caused me to mutter, "There was an audio dealer there?" Never mind big cities; name a medium-sized or even small city -- Shreveport, Louisiana; Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin; Eureka, California; Portland, Maine -- and there was a local dealer there. This shop was often the center of a vibrant audio community.

I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, where there were four dealers at one time -- in a city of less than 200,000 people. I have vivid recollections of those shops, each a cramped, dimly lit space with a faint smell of burning dust. In those days, I never had the money to buy from them, so I treated them like museums: I looked at and sometimes heard the exotic treasures, often from behind the closed doors of demo rooms. What the shops lacked in openness they made up for with an aura that still creates fond memories more than thirty years after the fact.

It was with all of this in mind that I made the trip to Phoenix, Arizona, two hours from where I now live, to attend the grand reopening of Esoteric Audio. The difference that thirty years have made was immense. Esoteric Audio has been a fixture in the Phoenix area for decades, but in late 2013, its longtime owner, Gary Hjerpe, sold the business to one of his customers, Andrew Papanikolas. Before devising a plan for launching the new Esoteric Audio, Andrew set about analyzing the business of selling audio equipment in the 21st century.

At the top of his findings were two considerations that are foundational to the success of any retail business and especially an audio dealer: location and clientele. Esoteric had been located in Scottsdale, a northwest suburb of Phoenix, and its clientele had a large number of legacy customers who had been buying from the store for many years. Research showed that moving to the Phoenix downtown/midtown area, nearer an under-40 urban population, would not only give Esoteric Audio a different location but also help broaden its clientele.

A location was chosen near downtown Phoenix and a long walk from Chase Field, where the Arizona Diamondbacks play. This space also addressed another of Andrew's professed criteria: "locating the store in a part of town where there's a reason for a store like this to exist." The area is flush with other specialty businesses and urban high-rise housing, and the particular space Andrew found is certainly unlike the strip malls in which so many audio shops of yore were located. It was once a bank, large and open with a high ceiling and abundant light, on the bottom floor of a high-rise office building. Passersby can window shop, all the more significant in these days of blind Internet purchases.

With visions of the audio shops of my youth filling my head, I strolled into Esoteric Audio from the building's lobby and was immediately confronted with glass. The shop is arranged unlike any audio shop I've been to. Where are the shelves of amps, preamps and CD players? Where is the wall of speakers? Where are the display cases crammed with phono cartridges, CDs, contact cleaners, footers and other audio knickknacks? Esoteric Audio has replaced them with vignettes: areas of the store where an audio system -- just one -- is displayed in a way in which it might be used, with rugs, sofas, and comfy chairs. At Esoteric Audio, audio fits your life, not the other way around.

But what about a demo room? The store's large, open area didn't really lend itself to a dedicated listening space, especially with all of the hard, reflective surfaces. So Andrew and his architect came up with a commonsense workaround. Near the back of the main space walls rise up from the floor and end before reaching the ceiling. This marks the main listening space, literally a room within a room. Chairs take up the central portion and can be faced toward one end or the other, depending on which pair of speakers and amp are in use -- another novel nod to using the space wisely. It's a big room designed from the ground up for superior sonics.

Esoteric Audio's two-day grand reopening was a true event, with better traffic than a room at CES. Manufacturers reps were on hand to answer questions and play music -- lots of music, on LP and CD, and from files. The demo room was standing room only, and the crowd was diverse, including some twenty-somethings -- the future of high-end audio.

Andrew Papanikolas is an energetic guy, and by his own admission, "I've been in the hobby since I was a little kid. It has been in my blood." So he's doing something he knows and loves, but that doesn't explain the freshness of his approach. I suspect it's his relative youth -- he's younger than I am, younger than many of his customers. He isn't set in stone, determined to imitate the past, with its abundant dilemmas, in the 21st century.

If the new Esoteric Audio stands for anything, it's making active listening to music inviting -- and relevant -- to more people. We audiophiles have seen the light, and this shop in the Valley of the Sun aims to help others do the same.

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