Len Wallis Audio is an audio retail institution in Sydney. Period. In Australia’s largest city, the store’s reputation and sheer gravitas when it comes to ‘brand recognition’ is the envy of its competitors. But this has not been achieved overnight. The business has been trading successfully for decades and, in fact, has recently reached a milestone that places it among the top three longest-running audio retailers in Sydney. Very recently, Len Wallis Audio celebrated its 40th Anniversary.
Len Wallis, the man, in conjunction with his hand-picked staff now led by son Tim, has polished the Hi-Fi and audio visual shopping experience to an art form. Len Wallis Audio is a refined, comfortable and inviting multi-auditioning space where product choice is wide in scope and stock-abundant. You could spend entire weekend afternoons in the lounge-like rooms – many customers indeed do – just wallowing in musical pleasures and discovering audio treasures.
Over the years, the combination of all these aspects has led Len Wallis Audio to amass a large customer base. Even in these fickle days of internet shopping, loyal customers keep returning to sample in-store audio joy.
The Early Days
Back in 1978, a modest start saw Len Wallis trading from a small commercial unit in Lane Cove, an affluent Lower North Shore suburb which, it was hoped, could provide opportunities for steadily growing a solid client base. In those early days, the brands stocked were Acoustic Research (Len was particularly keen on that one from the get go), Aiwa, Sansui, Yamaha and others. With these heavy hitter brands on-board, the store soon grew to a point where bigger premises became a priority. After all, the burgeoning brand representation – and the associated ever-expanding floor space requirements – needed to be accommodated. As did the larger and larger throngs of customers arriving at the store’s doorstep, particularly on the weekends. That led to a relocation to larger premises in a small plaza directly across the road from the current location. There, Len Wallis Audio remained for many years and the store achieved a reputation for offering superb product choice and excellent service from its dedicated sales team.
During that time many brands have graced the store’s display shelves and demonstration rooms… some have come and gone, others remain to this day. This writer recalls spending way too much time at the store lusting over Duntech Audio speakers and Krell and McIntosh amplification while considering in-store Creek electronics and Orpheus Audio speakers as more realistic options at the time.
Over a few years, even that store was outgrown. It was then that Len embarked on his biggest and boldest move yet. He relocated to a bespoke property directly across the street which was fitted out to accommodate a sans pareil audio store.
This was 1995 and the new store featured multiple auditioning and comparison studios, a full service department, several office spaces, state-of-the-art home cinema auditioning rooms, custom installation demonstration areas and more. I asked Len what opportunities the new premises opened up for Len Wallis Audio. Indeed, this exceptional facility was way ahead of the competition at the time in this country. And in fact, it was ahead of its peers in most of the world, with the store receiving a “One of the World’s Top Five Audio Stores” accolade from now-defunct High Fidelity magazine.
This store has been great, especially in terms of demonstration facilities. In the early days we were very system based with variations of 2-channel systems where now, and for quite some time, a large percentage of our business is in custom installations. Up to 50 percent, actually. That’s a whole different genre of product, like automation, video, distribution, integration and now we’re employing programmers, CAD stuff and installers and project managers. These larger premises have allowed us to work in an environment that we were not able to prior. My only concern with that aspect of the industry is that some areas of it are moving away from performance-based to convenience, price and ease of installation. There is less thought to “Is this a better sound.”
Len Wallis Audio has received many awards for excellence with one of the highlights bding the first company outside of the United States to be named as CEDIA ‘Dealer of the Year’ back in 2001. In 2005, Len Wallis Audio was awarded with the inaugural Crestron (USA) ‘Best International Total Home Technology Integrator’ prize. The man himself has also received Lifetime Achievement awards from both CEDIA and Australia’s Sound and Image magazine.
I asked Len what he found most rewarding about being in business for 40 years:
I guess one of the things I found most satisfying was the number of people who have come through the store and then have gone on to enter the industry and form their own careers. I’ve also loved seeing Tim, my son, come up into the business and he’s doing a terrific job. I’ve also enjoyed watching the changes and how the industry has evolved and then tried to evolve along with it.
Len (right) with his son Tim Wallis
The success of the store aside, I wanted to ask Len somewhat more personal questions in terms of his own audio journey. With both humour and nostalgia, he recounts his first audio hobbyist days.
I had a system which was stolen at a party. I wanted to replace it but I had very little funds. I was living in St Peters at the time so I rang a company there. The young sales lady said, “I’ve got just the thing for you!” She sold me a JVC receiver. So I went home with it and nothing else! Coincidentally, the man who ran the store later gave me a job.
Going back such a long time, I was curious as to what Len missed about those early years…
I do miss the simplicity of those early days of Len Wallis Audio. It was such a simple industry back then. It revolved around amplification. Sources were either cassette or turntables. Speakers, a rack… really that was it. You just went up and down the scale depending on the client’s budget. That was it. Now, aside from the complexities we spoke about earlier, we also have a diminishing pool of customers. Many of our early ones have either retired, or no longer have the means, or unfortunately have passed on.
We need to do a better job of replacing those who have left the audio hobby. Both Len Wallis Audio and the industry itself. We have the challenge of bringing new young enthusiasts into audio. Part of the problem is that nowadays there are far more distractions. If you go back 40 years, Hi-Fi was pretty high on peoples’ list. The reason for that was that back then you had only three entertainment choices. Hi-Fi, radio or television with only four stations. Now you have video, computer games, internet, dozens and dozens of television options… there are so many distractions now. I remember playing records with mates at lunchtime at university, or in the dorm. These days you’re more likely to spend it on your own, mucking around with your phone.
Present & Future – 2018 and Onwards…
It’s a rapidly changing world in this 21st century… There’s no denying it or even slowing it down. It’s exponential. Product-wise Len Wallis Audio has always had a sturdy finger on the pulse and the current portfolio is staggering in its wide gamut and thoroughly representative of the latest technologies. Brands such as Axis Loudspeakers, Bowers & Wilkins, Devialet, Focal, Krell, Marantz, Meridian, Musical Fidelity, NAD, Naim, One Audio, Prima Luna, Pro-Ject, Rega, Triangle, Yamaha and, yes, much more, all grace the shelves and demonstration rooms.
Given the remarkable longevity, I wondered what Len’s thoughts were in terms of the audio industry’s evolution across the years.
I think the biggest changes have occurred in the last few years. I mean, music streaming services, high-resolution audio. The way that people are accessing music is the big change. And I think we’re at the start of it. We’ll see better and better systems. The early-adopting audiophiles are now getting into Tidal and MQA and so forth. That is going to spread into a much, much wider audience and they will want that in more varied environments. Products like Roon, for example, are a great step forward in facilitating high quality audio streaming. It’s simple to use, it crosses a lot of platforms, it’s been adopted by most brands… the quality is there and it gives you tremendous amount of data.
I also think the vinyl revival is great. What I enjoy about it is how there’s a new audience of young people embracing it. People are also rediscovering their vinyl which they may have owned for decades. But the young people getting into it is great. The beauty with vinyl is that you have to listen to it all. It’s not like a streaming service where you can quickly skip between artists and genres. With vinyl, you put it on and you’re there for 20 minutes, in the order it was recorded and enjoy it. This is one way of getting to the young market, to keep our industry alive.
What can we do as an industry to entice people back?
The ground work has been done for us. The whole Apple iTunes, etc. has setup a huge pool of people who enjoy music and have access to it. I grew up with ‘Top 40’ radio because that was all you had access to unless you went and bought records. So it was all fairly limited. Today, for free, you have a huge choice of genres and you can cross music boundaries so easily. So we have an enormous audience that have grown up with this sort of access. It’s an expectation. We need to communicate to them that, now, we can make this sound really good. The transition is the trick. And I think it will happen.
Aside from Len Wallis’ obvious and considerable business skills, he also comes across as having an enduring enthusiasm and passion for music and the industry itself. I asked Len how he has maintained that over 40 years?
The passion starts with music. That’s why I started in this industry in the first place. Even as a kid, I was never without a transistor radio. Even at school where they weren’t allowed… I loved and still love music. And although my musical tastes have changed, my love for music hasn’t. And I love music more than the technology. That may or may not be a good thing, in my position. So many people listen to the technology and not the music. That can be a good thing for the industry but in terms of appreciating music…
I think that to get people into the industry you have to create an emotional response through music. Once you can play something for someone and they feel an emotional connection, or involvement, I think that’s the start of getting them involved in what we do. A chap that used to work for me, Doug Isaacs, used to tell me that he knew he was doing his job right when he could bring a listener to tears. And he actually used to do that. We see it here still. We had a young guy here recently… we went into the demo room and he’s sitting there in tears…
Having said that, we need to treat this industry as a business, not just a hobby. We need to be conscious of the different price points, we need to sell product for the right reasons. We’re selling some products because we form alliances with wholesalers which may be price-based where we need to sell the right product for the right reasons and it’s become a survival thing more than anything else. I think that and the ageing client base are the main problems of the industry.
Reaching that 40 year milestone is testament to Len’s business acumen and his skill in assembling a knowledgeable and experienced sales team while providing superb customer service and an extremely wide range of products. Long-term partnerships with the best distributors and manufacturers in the country have also maintained consumers’ impression of Len Wallis Audio being a consistent and reliable retailer – all aspects reinforced by the store’s longevity. So what does the future bring for Len Wallis Audio and the audio industry?
I think we’re at the start of something big. I think people are going back to listening to music. People are getting used to integrating music into their homes now. That’s a given now, especially with new homes. Our growing custom installations division is evidence of that.
And the quality will only rise. For example, we’ve nearly tripled our Krell business. People are coming back… we’re getting a good return back to high-end audio.
Yes, I think we’re on the cusp of something, very, very good.
Indeed Len, I think so too.
… Edgar Kramer