Photos by Robert Schryer unless otherwise noted.
My first thought when I’d heard the news that Ontario-based retailer Audio by Mark Jones had relocated from Mark’s home to an actual brick-and-mortar establishment was, “Really? In our day and age?”. I wasn’t being critical. I was taking in the news with a mixture of incredulity and admiration. The current trend in hi-fi retail is to dispose of the store and its attendant overhead and operate from home, where business is conducted by appointment. It’s a good model for some, but not everyone.
Not for Mark Jones. Such was Mark’s drive to take his business out of his home and open a “real” store that he renovated a dilapidated, mud-flooded, 100-year-old brick house to do it. The place, about a three-minute drive from Mark’s home, now offers a charming, well-lit, multi-roomed listening environment where you can audition all sorts of gear to your heart’s content. But why go through all that trouble when more and more retailers seem to be bailing on the traditional-store concept to conduct business from home?
“For a few reasons,” Mark said during our interview at his new location. “First, I couldn’t do my job properly. I became the household family guy doing a lot of chores and a shitty job at my work. I had to separate the two.”
Another problem was COVID. “Even after the pandemic people seemed weirded out about going into a home to listen to audio. So I wanted to make it easier for clients to visit, but still in a comfy home-type environment, by having some regular hours where they could just drop by to browse, listen or chat.
“I think making an appointment and visiting outside of regular hours is important to get the perfect demo, but I always had planned to have regular walk-in days.”
Growing up in Montreal, Quebec, Mark’s home was one of the first he remembers as having a serious hi-fi. It was thanks to his dad, who was an audiophile—“on a low budget”—and would take Mark with him on audio store runs. Having a good sound system was an integral part of Mark’s family life and his love of audio.
Mark eventually moved to Ontario, where he studied mechanical engineering and worked for General Motors. While at GM, Mark took a part-time job selling hi-fi at Whitby Audio Video. He eventually became co-owner of the store but left to open his own to focus more on two-channel audio and turntables, the latter being something he not only loves to listen to, but set up, a service his store offers.
Was his affection for turntables the reason I’d only ever seen him use turntables as a source at audio shows? “I love digital and couldn’t live without it,” he said. ”But playing vinyl at a show helps me connect with visitors. You get up from your chair, put on a record in front of the people, engage with them. I’m not just sitting in my chair picking a tune from a tablet.”
When I asked what the biggest challenge of his audio career had been, Mark blew out a deep breath and looked reflectively skyward. After a moment, he said: “Confidence. Believing that I could leave Whitby and make it work on my own. I loved my old store, but I finally realized I didn’t need it anymore as a safety net. It was time to follow my passion.”
Mark’s store carries several established brands known for their sound quality—Linn, Kronos, CH Precision, Magico, Nordost, Luxman, Bryston, Chord, plus many more—but sound quality isn’t the only criterium Mark looks for when it comes to choosing what brand to represent. Equally important is the relationship he has with the people behind the brand and their dedication to customer service.
Case in point: a customer of Mark’s with metastatic cancer had placed an order for a Bryston preamplifier and subsequently returned to Bryston his 4B amplifier so it could get a new faceplate to match that of the preamp he was getting. Unfortunately, the new faceplate was backordered for two months. When Mark learned of this, he contacted Bryston in the hope of speeding things up, but what happened next exceeded his most hopeful expectations. Over the course of a weekend, during which Mark and Bryston’s principals discussed the matter into Sunday evening, Bryston decided to not only push up delivery of the customer’s new preamp but gift him a brand new 4B amplifier with the proper faceplate. “That’s a big reason I carry Bryston,” Mark said. “It was just phenomenal what they did for this person.”
About the future of our hobby, Mark is gung-ho. He cited this year’s Montreal Audiofest as an auguring example of a shifting demographic. “There seems to be more young people and women coming at audio shows and at this show that seemed more obvious.”
He concedes there’s still work to be done to make our pastime more welcoming. “I worry about the rising cost of gear. Our industry is too focused on wacky-priced equipment. My goal is to sell more affordable stuff at my store.
“I also think there’s a bit too much snobbery in the industry and among hobbyists. I saw a thread recently on an online forum where people were making fun of someone who had an all-in-one product he liked. That sort of behaviour will scare people away from the hobby.”
Mark is no snob. Enter his exhibit room at an audio show, and rather than being greeted by the same great-sounding shlock you hear replayed in so many rooms, you might instead hear Willie Nelson’s tender rendition of “Georgie” or John Bonham’s drum-whacks on Led Zep’s “Moby Dick”. “I like to play regular music at shows,” Mark said. “I want to show people how good their music can sound on a quality system. That’s how we convince people of the value in good audio.”
I couldn’t agree more, Mark. Best of luck with your nifty new store.
AUDIO BY MARK JONES
656 Rossland Road East, Ajax, ON, Canada