How to listen to the good stuff?

How is one able to hear some of the 100's of great systems described in review after review?

There's been six or seven high-end dealers in the local area and I've been to a few out of state, and among all the auditions I've listened to at these places with all sorts of different speakers and electronics, from systems costing hundreds of dollars to systems costing many tens of thousands of dollars, only one system ever sounded 'great', and only one or two I would consider barely 'good'. The vast majority have sounded quite poor to awful.

The funny thing is, even with the awful sounding systems, the dealers will gush about how great it sounds, how it sounds so live, and use all the usual audiophile superlatives and descriptions to describe what I'm supposed to be hearing. Yet it sounds nothing like that to me at all -- poor sound, little emotional connection with the music, no PRAT, nothing like live music, and almost always boring. It doesn't come anything close to what I hear at home, or anything like the descriptions in so many reviews. Yeah, I know it's their job to talk about everything in glowing terms, but that is the point I'm trying to make. If all of this stuff sounds like crap at the dealers, how do I find speakers I might like better than the ones I have? How do I hear a great SET amp or an exotic horn system?

I want to hear some more of these setups that are described as being able to image a full size orchestra right in your living room and you can pick out each individual player, etc., etc.

The descriptions I've read of all the different audio shows over the years make it sound even worse than auditioning at a dealer. Crowded rooms with little chance to sit in the sweet spot. Systems setup the day before in a crappy hotel room. Poor selection of music. etc. And I don't know anybody with a high-end system, let alone the high-high-end stuff, and the audio 'club' (society?) is pretty much dead.

Do you guys think most of the dealer setups you've heard sound good? How do you guys listen to some of the more exotic stuff? Pretty much going to shows, or do you live in L.A. or N.Y.?

(Some of the speakers heard at dealers: Magnapan 1.7, Sonus Faber, various B&Ws, Wilson X-1 and Sasha ?, Joseph Audio Pearl, Linn, Vienna Acoustics, Totem, various Martin Logans, Thiel, ...)
You mention that you did hear one system that sounded great. Was that at a dealer? If so I would continue to visit that dealer and try to ascertain what you need through that store. If they have demonstrated once that they are capable of putting together components in a synergistic manner they should be able to repeat this, although it's not a given. I have visited dealers in the past who had a set-up that sounded excellent only to have them never be able to repeat it in subsequent visits. I think it just goes to show that setting up a truly good sounding system regardless of the quality of the components is not an easy thing to do.
There is no perfect answer.

This is the benefit of audiogon. Admittedly a tedious and frustrating task, there is no one "best" answer.

I went through many changes, buyin', tryin', & cryin' all the way.

Audiogon does afford the ability to buy stuff at a good price, try it out, and usually sell without taking a hit, or much of one, if you're patient and careful.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.
It is tough. Keep looking and one day you may get it. It hit me in late 1995 - just by hazard I found something that worked. I wasn't even looking but stumbled into a dealer while on a business trip. When you hear it you will know. So keep checking out dealers - I assure you that when it hits you you will know - we are talking the "earth moved".

So keep looking.
Agree with Shadorne, when I heard my present amps, they were being sold by someone on audiogon nearby it was obviously to me, they were something special. Have heard some decent sound in stores but rarely enough to get me back, When I have, that gets me back. A good salesman who is looking for a long time client and not a quick sale is also really nice to find. Also I never sit in the sweet spot. If it sounds good further back and off to the side it can only get better. Have tried being in the sweet spot and had it deteriorate seriously due to synergy, room, buggadyboo, who knows.
Maybe I did not word this correctly. I have two incredible systems in my home right now. Much better than anything I've ever heard at a dealer. But reading all these reviews of so much different equipment makes me want to see if there are better speakers, amps, sources, etc. that I would like even better. While I can afford what I have, it's not practical for me to buy and sell $5,000-$20,000 (and above) speakers every six months, just so that I can try different ones out. (Let alone the wife-acceptance-factor with doing that.)

The one system that did sound great was 16 years ago at a dealer and was a B&W 801 Series 3. Which I bought a year later and paired a Conrad Johnson Premier 11 amp, Melos pre-amp, Marantz CD player, and a Rega 3 turntable. I eventually sold it all, but it was great while I had it and is still pretty good compared to what I have now.

However nothing else at that dealer has sounded good then or since. I think I just got lucky then.

Why do dealers setups sound so awful to me?
Maybe I did not word this correctly. I have two incredible systems in my home right now. Much better than anything I've ever heard at a dealer.

That would probably be your room - extensive room acoustic treatments and a large space will always sound better than the limited setups that dealers can afford (due to the multiple setups they display dealerships are often cluttered)
Two points:

you're confusing words with how music actually sounds. Audio writers are writers and they have developed a specific vocabulary that while sounding nice is actually quite meaningless. It's like "Star Trek" talk, "the warp coils are being effected by the sub-space phase distortions." You hear and read it so often that you forget and gloss over how nonsensical the language really is. Here's an actual quote from a well known, major magazine reviewer:
The fast-moving "X-1" produces more of a fine-grained, crystalline transparency and purity that lets me see further into the musical presentation ¬ólike viewing a high-definition video broadcast at full 1920x1080 resolution. The somewhat slower-moving "X-2s" presentation was more soulful, more viscerally textured and tactile, and more cinematic, though equally well resolved.
Does that really make sense to you? Trying to hear what people write is a lost cause.

Second point, if you have two systems that sound better than anything you've heard at numerous dealers, then could it be you have great systems that cannot be practically improved? You're at the top of the mountain. Congratulations!
I remember hearing a system at a stereo store that sounded incredible and the speakers were B&W 801s with Levinson electronics. The room was huge and the sound was big and life-like. It was truely a rare occasion.

I am usually not impressed with what I hear in stereo stores and I think there is more than one reason. The main reason is not being relaxed and able to concentrate on the sound like we do at home besides not being familiar with the room and the system. I could never buy stereo equipment based on what I heard in a store.

For me the only way is to buy equipment and try it in my system. I have to live with it for a while and tweak the system to give the new component or speaker a fair chance. If it doesn't hold my interest I sell it and try something else. For me there is no other way and this is why buying used equipment makes sense.

However, I have growing concerns about buying used equipment lately because more and more audiophiles are modifying their equipment. I refuse to buy modified equipment. I want it to be totally original and stock right down to the power cord. I want to know how the engineers at Audio Research intended it to sound not some fool with a soldering iron who thinks he can improve a masterpiece by changing caps.
Yeah, I have SoundLab speakers and keep trying to find something better - imagine how disapointed I get ? (just kidding).

I would only work with a dealer that allows for in home demos. This is the only way I have ever bought great sounding audio gear that I was 100% happy with. Equipment is way too expensive to gamble on. Having the chance to listen for a few days with your own system in your own home with lots of music you know well is the only way you can tell if something is good. It is a total waste of time to goto some audio store and listen to 2 tracks on a CD-R on a system that is nothing like yours. I have taken a few gut-shots at highly known products and bought without really ever hearing and wound up wasting tons of money (some are amps that are raved about daily here on AG and are really on Class A junk!!). Gut shots based on glossy ads and how great some super hero designer is, is a sure fire way to waste ton of your hard earned cash.

Back, in the 90s, I bought from a great audio store and borrowed dozens of components over the years. Some sounded great, while others that were supposed to sound great left me somewhat surprised. Like big $$$$ gear that got A rating from the magazines and turned out to be truely bad. Im gald I could listen for free. I did buy lots of gear this way too.
I think shows are the answer. Yes the sound is usually awful, but what do you expect from a system thrown together the night before, in an inappropriate room, with corrupted mains. BUT, if you can find a reaonable sounding room, then the kit must be pretty good to survive the context they are performing in.

I found several good sounding rooms at RMAF last year and many very poor and very expensive ones. It always seems odd to me, that the rooms with cheaper kit sound so much better than the costly ones. Perhaps because the latter often have high output monoblock amps and top of the range large standmounts, which just can not function in the small rooms they are in.

I still think the best route is visiting audio contacts and listening to their hopefully sorted systems, appropriate to the rooms they are in. I enjoy demoing myself to and spending a couple of hours chewing the fat.
The problem with making audio contacts is the WAF -- "Hey honey, there's a guy I just met on the internet that wants to come hear my $20,000 stereo system. I have no idea who he is, but that's okay, right?"

It seems like the bigger issue is the question about why dealers demos usually don't sound very good. If my livelyhood depended on impressing people enough to spend that much on a speaker system, I'd make sure it sounded absolutely increadible. I'd never buy something that sounded lifeless and boring.
I used to go the HE Shows (by Stereophile) when they were in NYC. When they ended, I too was having trouble hearing great hifi without bothering audio salesmen who need to make a living, and I wasn't buying. In late 2008, I joined my local audio club (the NJ Audio Society) and haven't looked back. Each month, we have a meeting in a different location, with different systems. We've had meetings at dealer showrooms, where we could hear numerous high-end systems. Sometimes it's just the host's system (which is usually very good). Sometimes we have live music, sometimes a particular manufacturer brings his wears to showcase. We've also had DIY meetings where everyone brings their home-brewed creations and vintage meetings where we listened to estate sale bargains. It's a hoot chatting in person with other audiophiles, gear designers, factory reps and music enthusiasts. The $30 annual membership fee is the best bargain in audio I've ever come across. So, I suggest you seek out your local audio club (there is a section for these here, on the Stereophile web site and other audio-oriented sites).
Go to the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver next month. 100s of companies will be there and it is set up for audiophiles, not dealers like CES in Vegas. Runs Oct 14-17.
I get the sense from reading your posts that you probably have your systems dialed in but just want to be sure: Have you taken care of the room acoustics (speaker placement, room treatment with first reflections killed and the big bass peaks flattened)?

I know your question is "how to demo the good stuff", but first things first.
I would also recommend RMAF. I attended the 07 show and found many oportunities to listen in uncrowded rooms and speak with the equipment designers. I had an enjoyable one on one with David Belles listening to his amps and Usher speakers. I spent a lot of time in the ESP room and enjoyed the music. Yes there are rooms that are overcrowded and hard to get into, MBL and Wilson come to mind but with persistence you can hear them as well.
You pay your money & take your chances! Listening to a component in your own system is the only relevant measure. Folks at audiogon have been thru a lot of "good stuff" that way. My own experience is that it takes a substantial amount of time for your mind to aurally map a new room (showroom) & most folks own "good" system would sound like crap in that "showroom"(Given the new acoustical signature the listener now faces). A fundemental "disconnect" I feel most reviews have from reality is the reviewers themselves can't afford what they are reviewing, like a guy that reviews supercars for living , but drives a toyota, the perspective is fundementally different from someone who actually buys this stuff "retail" & has been thru a risk taking "learning curve". ( and none of this industry exists without that "retail customer") Audiogon gives the opourtunity to minimize the depeciation with purchases & hopefully get a good audio education (Buy low, sell low)
^^^I bet Tony Cordesman could afford the stuff he reviews ?? heehehe
What a good question and one I have been struggling with also. I've been on the upgrade path for the last few months and after going around to my local hi-fi shops have decided that for me the best way to learn is to treat places like audiogon as almost a lending library. I research what I think I'm looking for, read the massive amount on here and elsewhere and try and dial in the sound I'm looking for within my budget. Then try and find that sound. Audition that item in my house for awhile and see if I want to live with that sound or keep hunting.

The best I got from the hi-fi stores is to learn what sound I don't like. I like the suggestion of an audio club, I did not know that existed, but I will be looking into that.

I also think it's really tough to match your house acoustics, I live in a house built in 1799, and my equipment is in the old part of the house. The pros are extremely thick walls that seem to have a nice affect on the sound, but the room is the oddest shape and I have a wood stove somewhat blocking the whole sound. But, again, buy getting the equipment in my house, I can hear exactly how it reacts to my particular setup.
Hhiggins Thats an interesting perspective and true when you think about it. Reviewers are divorced from the business of actually paying for the kit. You get that feeling from High End magazines. I am thinking particularly of HiFi+ in the UK. I have lost count of the reviews ending with "this 8 watt tube amp is a bargain for £20000"

You end up thinking, what is this guy on, whatever it is, I want some.
I asked the OP about his room because ultimately, as Hhiggins just wrote, he needs to hear the equipment in his room. I think it is important to eliminate the room's effects as much as possible.

The OP wrote he had two "incredible" systems in his home already. I infer that he probably has done something to treat the room and he has achieved good synergy with his components. When he swaps out equipment, he probably will be hearing that change more so and not the effects of the room.

With good synergy in place already, where should he start: With the Source or the Speakers?

To answer his question, since local audio clubs are out of the question, and it really is difficult to audition in someone's home, he first should think about going to RMAF. As has been stated already, if he can hear something he likes in what is a very challenging listening environment, then he has his jumping off point for the next part: Identifying dealers that other members have been to before where the dealer has made the extra effort to set up a good room or two in his business and who reps the equipment he is interested in and then go visit them.

Will that cost more? Yes, but depending on his location, maybe not that much more expensive than using a hit or miss approach buying/selling equipment off Audiogon without having heard the equipment somewhere else and just relying on professional or user reviews.
I also agree with shadorne;for me it was actually meeting a dealer in st.paul minnesota who actually took time with me to listen to several pieces of equipment and never jammed the gear down my throat to make a sale;I eventually bought from him although the gear was used;he never slammed me or treated me any different;one postive was being able to meet Ralph from atmasphere in the shop and talk with whom I believe is one of the top designers and manufacturers in the audio industry.I probally learned the most from this dealer and his business practice that drew me into the great hobby foir which I can say I am learning still after some 27 yrs.Probally my best tip is to bring your own music and better yet see if you can audition the gear in your own home.
Finsup wrote: "I get the sense from reading your posts that you probably have your systems dialed in but just want to be sure"
This is exactly the heart of my question. What if there are speakers or other componants out there I would like far more than what I currently have? How do I find them?

While of course I agree that listening to a piece of equipment in your own home and with the rest of your system is best, it's not exactly practical repeatedly buying, selling, crating and shipping $15,000, 300 lb speakers for a lot of people, me included.

From the responses so far, it sounds like the best thing to do is try and go to a show.

As far as doing in-home demo's of expensive speakers, what's the usual policy for something like scratching the speakers while setting them up or boxing them back up?
From the responses so far, it sounds like the best thing to do is try and go to a show.

Going to a show, even some of the smaller regional shows, is probably the best bang for the buck. If you can find something that appeals to you at the show, then you have a good place to start.

If your budget is $15K for speakers, though, after going to a show, I might allocate some of that to visiting some reputable dealers whom have demonstrated care in setting up their showrooms, even if it means buying a plane ticket if nothing local is promising.

In a sense, you have it harder than someone just starting out since you already have two dialed-in, synergistic systems. Do you look at your source and amps and then research compatible speakers, or do you find something in the chain you can replace to get even more performance from your speakers?
Some dealers have excellent rooms and others do not. Maybe they rely upon the salesman to identify the best system that will fit your room. It seems like you have been to the latter and are just not satisfied.

Do you read Socrates? Perhaps you are searching for the answer that does not exist? Only you can answer the question and if you have traveled the globe and have not found the answer, buy a sailboat instead. Audio is not going to make you more happy.

Maybe a show will do it or maybe you should just tour with bands. Don't mean to be a downer but if it doesn't do it for you...

Good luck!