All photos by Rob Schryer except where otherwise noted.
“I’m a headbanger,” Tri-Cell Enterprises’s Vince Scalzitti responds when I ask him what kind of music he likes. I must look stunned at the answer, because he repeats it, “Yes, I’m a headbanger”, then stands from our couch facing one of his showroom’s multiple audio demoes and waves for me to follow him, which I do, into a small room. There, he pulls from a shelf against the wall one of his cardboard boxes filled with LPs, grabs a few and strews them across the table between us: BTO, Yes, Mountain, Warren Zevon. He grabs another handful and splays those out: The Who, Deep Purple, The Cars, Pink Floyd. “This is what I like”, he says, beaming.
Tri-Cell enterprises, based just outside Toronto, is one of the most successful and enduring audio importers in Canada. Founded in 1989 by three individuals, hence the “Tri” in the name, two of the partners eventually left to pursue other interests, while Vince expanded the business. Tri-Cell currently represents 50 brands and has two locations, including this one I was visiting, opened in October, 2022. Situated a short distance from the company’s headquarters, the new place is a sprawling floor divided into cozy showrooms equipped with hooked-up sound systems and all sorts of eye-catching gear on static display. The rooms are decorated to look homey, with furniture and acoustic panels camouflaged as colourful paintings. For a visual of the place, imagine a huge furniture store with areas split up to look like regular rooms in your home, only in this version each room comes with a fancy stereo setup.
But why this mega-showroom? Tri-Cell is an importer / distributor, not a retailer. What purpose is this place serving? Turns out it’s for Tri-Cell’s dealer network, to be used as an auditioning playground for potential customers. In other words, Tri-Cell invested the money to build several listening spaces and to inventory several products by various brands, so its dealers don’t have to.
Another cool aspect of the mega-showroom is the side projects Vince has in store for it. Women-only seminars, headphone-listening sessions, educational listening classes—anything to get people involved in good audio.
Some people, however, weren’t sure about the showroom idea. “Some have wondered if we built the showroom because we were planning to sell direct to consumers,” says Tri-Cell’s Sales Manager, David Geist. “We never will. This place was built to support our dealers.”
Vince’s career in audio started when, as a young adult, he walked into an audio store looking for a job as a sales rep and was told his employment was conditional on him getting a sale that day. He sold a pair of KEFs two hours later.
Years later, in the ‘70s, Vince opened his own audio store, which he ran into the late ‘80s. He calls those years the wild days of audio, a reference, presumably, to a period when the audio industry was booming.
Vince recounts the story of how, after being told to fetch the manager after refusing to refund a demanding customer, he disappeared into the back room only to reemerge a minute later wearing a paper hat with the word “Manager” on it. “I’m the manager”, he told the increasingly irate fellow, who then demanded to see the owner. “I went back to the back room and returned with a paper crown I’d made with the word “Owner” on it,” says Vince with a chuckle. “I told him, “I’m also the owner’. The man left in a huff!”
At one time, Vince used to drag his weighed-down station wagon to the Toronto and Montreal audio shows. It was packed with so much gear it was hard to see through the windows. Vince still attends audio shows—he went to this year’s High End Munich show—but not as an exhibitor. “Some manufacturers were getting jealous that their products weren’t included in the exhibit,” he says. “I go now to interview potential dealers for my products.”
“It was easier in the older days”, says Vince. “There were less manufacturers and equipment. The Chicago audio show used to have 75 exhibitors, now it’s 500. We used to have five types of products, now there are so many it’s hard to keep up. Audio equipment used to be the most important thing to me, now it’s my relationships with people.”
I’m struck by how much beautiful gear is on display here, some of which looks like contemporary art. I ask Vince if there’s anything he feels is missing in the selection of gear he carries. “Lower-priced equipment,” he says. “We’re working on it.”
Biggest challenges Tri-Cell has faced?
“Being selective enough in the products we represent,” he says. “Another is learning to project people’s needs. The biggest challenge, I think—and it’s always there—is to try to overcome our own deficiencies.”
After all these years on the sales side of the audio business, does he have a buying tip for readers? “A tube amp with the right tubes will offer better performance than a similarly priced solid-state amp,” he says.
When I ask if he’s contemplated retirement, he scoffs. “Retirement is for workers. It’s for people who take orders, which I stopped doing 30 years ago.
“You can’t call selling toys a job. What would I be retiring from?”
Wagging his finger in front of me, the eternal headbanger says, “If the mind and feet still work, don’t be slackin’, get crackin’, or I’ll give you a big whackin’!”