Setting the stage for the digital revolution
“We bet our whole company on compact discs,” said Walt in a 1987 interview. While many audio retailers supported the new format, ListenUp was one of the very few that actually laid the groundwork for the CD market before products ever hit the streets. In 1982, Steven attended the Japan Audio Fair, and while visiting the Sony booth he came across the very first commercially available CD player. (That’s right – the very first CD player!) He put on a pair of headphones and started listening to Miles Davis’ ‘The Man With the Horn’. “About five minutes later somebody started poking me,” Steven recalls. “I had lost all track of time, and my jaw was hanging down.” Immediately smitten with the new format, he brought back several samples of the new discs and technical information for further review.
Around this time Walt’s term expired as president of PARA (Professional Audio Retailers Association), an industry trade group he helped found. He asked to be put on the Compact Disc Group, which was involved in the development and rollout of this burgeoning technology in the U.S. As the partners studied the specifications and determined that manufacturer support seemed to be strong, they gambled that CDs were truly going to be the next big thing.
Walt and Steven went back to Japan and bought multiple copies of every CD they could lay their hands on – enough to fill two suitcases. Their return to the states turned into an episode right out of a sitcom, as the customs agents detained them, highly suspicious of all these strange plastic squares with the silver discs inside. Fortunately, after a lengthy discussion our heroes were finally able to explain that they were just keeping up with Japan’s latest technology. ListenUp forged a partnership with Sony and then cranked up the Denver public relations machine, featuring the first sample CD players in countless radio programs, TV broadcasts and newspaper stories. In fact, Walt personally took CD players to radio stations KBCO, KCFR/KVOD and KBPI and spun the first compact discs ever played on the air in Colorado.
How did an independent dealer in Denver become such an important player in this product introduction?
According to Walt, a lot of the competition didn’t want CDs to succeed. “Record stores definitely didn’t want the format, because they already had two formats – LP and cassette. Audio dealers didn’t want it because a lot of their business was in turntables and cartridges. They thought if they could maintain the status quo they could protect their revenue stream. But we never thought we could protect the status quo – and we didn’t want to. I think that’s been a hallmark of the company: we understand that technology is an unstoppable force, so it’s best to try to get ahead of it a little bit instead of trying to play catch-up.”
In the mid-eighties, besides wearing skinny ties and turning their collars up, a few dealers began exploring the concept of high-end video. Once again ListenUp was in the vanguard, creating a new residential video division and specializing in what was then the crème de la crème of video products – laser discs and stereo VCRs. The convergence of residential audio and video systems was the next logical step, and ListenUp’s early efforts in these areas pre-dated the “home theater” boom by a number of years.
As these new audio/video systems became more complex, ListenUp expanded its home installation efforts, creating a dedicated custom installation department in 1985 and becoming an early member of CEDIA (Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association) in 1989. With the introduction of DVD in 1997 and HDTV in 1998, ListenUp solidified its position as the dealer of choice for early adopters and all those who strive for true high-fidelity, high-definition sight and sound.