Audio Lab keeps alive the Harvard Square hi-fi tradition, but how long will the sound last?
“I don’t get why you’d play a $35 record on a $99 turntable,” says Mike Volpe, the manager of Audio Lab, a low-key Harvard Square institution which has been selling and repairing hi-fi systems and turntables for decades.
“You’re not getting the vinyl experience at all.”
While vinyl records have made an impressive comeback, the same can’t be said for stereo systems, which struggle to compete in a world where music is now enjoyed through earbuds or tinny phone or computer speakers. On a recent sunny afternoon, Harvard Square itself had plenty of foot traffic, but little of it made its way to the upper level of the Garage mall where Audio Lab can be found. Only one would-be customer popped in—and they wanted earbuds, not any of the new or used speakers, turntables, DJ equipment, and or sound devices on hand.
Even as the pandemic has seen a surge in home entertainment, Volpe says it’s been hard on independent stores like his. Although repair requests still come in, he estimates that walk-in business is down by 75%. Supply chain disruptions mean that many of the UK-made turntables and other new equipment the store sells are on backorder.
Adding to the store’s murky future is a planned redevelopment of the Garage.
“The plan is to knock the garage down in 12 to 18 months and build a brand new, nicer building in this same location,” says Volpe, sitting in one of the pair of chairs where he can often be found chatting with customers. “Whether or not we continue in this location will depend on whether we can find a temporary place, how long the construction takes, and just the general economy—it’s hard to predict where anyone will be in two or three years.”
A sign in the store says “Since 1965,” but Volpe says the store had actually already been in operation when Polish immigrant Henry Niklas started working in the store that year. After an ownership change, the store and its two sister locations went under. Niklas, who had been service manager, opened an entity on Elliot Street called Stereo Lab. When it burned down in the early 90’s, the operation moved to its current digs in the garage and returned to using the Audio Lab moniker. A year later, Volpe started working at the store.
These days, Harvard Square is a destination for few things beyond banks, phone stores, and corporate chain coffee shops, but at the time the neighborhood had so many hi-fi stores it was a destination point for audiophiles. Volpe ticks off the names: Tech Hi-Fi, Nantucket Sound, Ear Drum. And then there was Tweeter, the mid-price home stereo behemoth that grew to 140 stores and owned the naming rights for the large concert shed in Mansfield. The entire chain crashed and burned in 2008. There are still a few other independent stereo shops like Q Audio in Central Square and Goodwin’s High End in Waltham. The one home audio sector that is still doing well, says Volpe, is the ultra-premium market, where one percenters snatch up $100,000 stereo systems.
Volpe says he offers a middle ground between that kind of luxury equipment and the entry-level turntables being offered at chain stores.
“Someone will own that $99 all-in-one record player/speaker for a year or two, then it breaks, so they’ll come in and want something better for the second time around, and they might spend $500 on a turntable/receiver/bookshelf speaker combination. If you have a smart phone with streaming you can get reasonably good sound with a pair of bluetooth speakers for $300-$400, and then gradually expand on it.”
Volpe’s direct style isn’t for everyone, as some of the store’s more critical online reviews prove, but the shop’s fans are loyal to the core. This winter, Volpe’s home burned down, just as he was recovering from leukemia. A GoFundMe raised close to $10,000 to help him relocate.
“I was very thankful, and I was able to move into a new apartment,” he says. “And I’m healthy. The cancer is in remission and I have an excellent team of doctors and nutritionists.”
Whatever technological trends and business challenges may be around the corner, Volpe is certain there will always be a music fan who wants to upgrade their listening experience.
“When someone comes in, and they’re 25 years old and have never heard a good stereo, just what they hear on headphones or tiny bluetooth speakers, and then they walk in the room when a good stereo is playing here, they’re pretty amazed.
“They didn’t know that type of sound existed.”
Audio Lab, 36 John F. Kennedy Street, Cambridge, 617-864-9810.
Noah is an award-winning Boston-based writer and editor who covers music for the Arts Fuse. He has produced radio documentaries for @afropopww and researched and co-wrote the liner notes of "Take Us Home: Boston Roots Reggae 1979 - 1987."