Steve Bennett was a natural-born gadget man. He bought a pair of Philips full-range speaker cones in 1972 and connected them to his amplifier. With no cabinets yet, he fitted them back in their cardboard boxes and then sat back to enjoy glorious stereo. The sound was awful! No bass! He poked holes in the cardboard boxes to ‘let the bass out’, and he was shocked. There was even less bass than before. Right then and there, at 22 years old, Steve Bennett got into hi-fi.
Steve researched how electronics and speakers worked – it turns out cabinets were essential after all! Value-for-money speakers of the early 1970s were kits. You bought a pack of woofers, squawkers(!) and tweeters and fitted them to your own wood-work. Steve built many kits – Philips, Goodmans and Tannoy – for friends and workmates at the Geelong Ford factory. He began Steve Bennett Audio Sales in 1975 in the lounge room of our family home in Grovedale.
Steve Bennett Audio Sales
He quickly outgrew the lounge room. Steve Bennett Audio Sales ‘went legit’ with an after-hours and weekend store in Heyers Road Grovedale. A short time later, Steve ‘came to town’ upstairs at 53 Little Ryrie Street, Geelong. In 1977 he won the Yamaha account to open his first high profile shop in Ryrie Street. Mainstream hi-fi of the day – usually 2 speakers flanking a rack of gear – filled most of the store. Steve’s emphasis, however, was always on separate components rather than the more common 3-in-1 systems. But Steve’s real interest was in speakers. Acoustic Research or Yamaha speakers would be set on steel stands in a triangle with a couch and wired to the best Yamaha electronics he had.
All that changed in 1979, when a travelling salesman brought a Scottish ‘Linn’ turntable into the shop. First impressions count, and Steve was surprised that the salesman iconnected this expensive turntable to a cheap, popular, separate component system. Connected to the Linn, Steve’s little Pioneer Rondo 3000 sounded incredible! Sound leapt from speakers in a musical ‘other-worldly’ sound-stage. It was unlike anything he had heard. Of course, it sounded even better on expensive electronics but the idea, that bigger was not always better, changed Steve Bennett Audio Sales. Going forward, Steve’s priority was ‘sound-quality first’. If he sold equipment that sounded genuinely satisfying, the customer would be thrilled with the result for years! Better and more expensive products were available but it became crucial that everything in stock would produce a pleasing sound. Steve was committed to quality. He never sold anything he wouldn’t buy himself.
Steve Bennett Audio
Yamaha made some of the best hi-fi equipment in the world in the 1980s. Steve rode a crest of the high-end audio wave. Industry focus, by then, was on the listener experience and Steve needed more space for listening rooms – ‘sound lounges’. Steve expanded with two sound lounges, first upstairs; then another next door; then a local vinyl record and electronics store, ‘Sound Spectrum’; and then a specialist shop, with seven sound lounges, in Geelong West. Shannon Sound sold audiophile stereo equipment with Linn and Sota turntables, British CD players and amplifiers and Martin Logan electrostatic speakers. Sound Spectrum, with JVC VHS and Pioneer Laser Disc, saw Steve right at the dawn of ‘home theater’. By 1985 there were four locations around Geelong folks could hear and buy great sound. But, with expansion comes high costs, duplication and waste. And, run off his feet, in 1987, Steve consolidated the four stores into one: Steve Bennett Audio (he dropped the ‘Sales), and a small outlet store, ‘The Electronics Market’ to clear overstocks and used equipment.
And that’s when I started, in earnest: 1987. I’m Ken, by the way, Steve’s son.
I worked with dad since I was a kid. We didn’t play footy – we played records. Together, we set up Linn turntables in the family dining room, we swapped out tweeters and wires and listened to differences – all kinds of equipment – always at home – usually on a Saturday afternoon. I’ve worked in dad’s shops, on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, ever since I can remember. I loved the store-culture, its colorful characters and, of course, the equipment that brought me pleasure and happiness.
In 1987 I took a year off school to mind Shannon Sound and The Electronics Market full time. I pieced together the best sounds I could with cheap and used equipment to produce real hi-fi on a budget. And, at Shannon Sound, I adjusted very expensive turntables and speakers to sound as good as they could for discerning clientele. Always: I sought better sound than any given budget allowed. My approach is no different today.
Steve Bennett Hi-Fi
In 1991 we moved to a modern building opposite a juggernaut hi-fi chain. And, in 1994, the juggernaut shut shop and drove back to Melbourne. Steve Bennett Hi-Fi (I prompted the name-change. I hated answering the phone, “Steve Bennett-Tawdio”) moved to huge premises also in Ryrie Street – just down the road from the picture theater.
Television and hi-fi had wholly merged and the new Steve Bennett Hi-Fi had nine listening rooms, seven of them dedicated to home theater. Yamaha, literal inventors of domestic surround sound, were at the forefront of the technology. And TV size came into focus. Of course, you could watch ‘M*A*S*H’ on a big TV – and it was okay – but you needed the biggest and best quality TV you could afford to enjoy Hollywood movies and Hi-Fi video tape in the room full of sound that modern hi-fi home theater could provide. Watching film on a big screen – albeit thirty-two-inch(!) was more than okay, it was an absolute necessity.
Steve Bennett Hi-Fi & Home Cinema
In 1995, Steve installed our first video projector: a 3-gun Seleco CRT from Italy which retailed for $$20,000 installed! Steve Bennett Hi-Fi’s step into real home cinema was complete, and our gigantic eighty-four-inch (4:3!) screen played laser discs of True Lies, Aladdin and The Mask on almost constant rotation in a dedicated theater complete with the same wool-drape curtains that wrapped the brand-new Village 11 theaters! TVs got bigger (I remember a thirty-seven-inch weighing 90 kilos!) and projectors got smaller. Point-and-shoot projectors, from Sharp, assembled eighty-four-inch pictures from red, green and blue dots for about the price of a twenty-eight-inch TV so, for around $6,000, you could partner a proper theater sized image with proper theater sound. But, with the projector switched off, a decent stereo system remained for music. That’s still the blueprint for home theater at Steve Bennett Hi-Fi. All our home cinema systems begin with an excellent hi-fi system, and the extra speakers and picture paraphernalia simply added on.
A Disappearing Act
The Noughties saw TV and home cinema come of age. Gigantic rear projection TV cabinets became standard fare in living rooms everywhere. A ‘hi-fi’ system could take up a whole wall! A trend emerged where some customers even built TV systems into their wall. A $500 box could make your remote controls work behind cupboard doors. $5,000 bought a programmed touch-screen that could operate your whole system for you. For $20,000 you could buy a fifty-inch Plasma and literally hang it on a wall! DVD replaced laser-disc with a technology that eventually replaced the VCR, laser disc, tapes, records and compact disc players. Giant racks of equipment made way for systems of just two or three components. Speakers disappeared to be cut directly into ceilings. Steve Bennett Hi-Fi could make a whole system disappear into cupboards and walls for minimal clutter. The perfect home had a gigantic TV with a touch-screen and a sound system you couldn’t see. Stitched seamlessly into a modern lifestyle, over time, music and movies somewhat quieted. What was once special event viewing had become everyday life.
Steve Bennett Hi-Fi – Next Gen
Sadly, we lost Steve in 2008. I figured that, what he’d started – I’ll ‘one-up’ that in his absence – what we’d started, was essential to Geelong. I’d keep the name in homage to my dad. Besides, I thought, I was as much a part of what ‘Steve Bennett Hi-Fi’ had become as Steve.
I closed Ryrie Street in 2010. Mum retired and I took the business to Pakington Street where rent was cheap, and parking spaces were plentiful.
I took on the best-sounding brands we’ve ever stocked, Vienna Acoustics and Paradigm speakers, Luxman amplifiers and turntables and Van den Hul hand-made moving-coil cartridges. And, at the same time, Yamaha galvanized their commitment to high-end audio with a range of two-channel amplifiers and CD players and upped the emphasis on music in their home theater products. They call it their ‘Aventage’ series. I still sell all of those products on a regular basis.
In 2015, after successive rent rises and my glorious wasteland of car-parks all filled up with folks at Pakington Street’s cafes and coffee houses, I hunted out another hi-fi haven with cheap rent and ample car-parking. 52 Little Ryrie Street is Steve Bennett Hi-Fi’s tenth home (!).
Now, my son Matt has become increasingly interested in record collecting (clearly, it’s in his blood) and hi-fi. While it’s all but disappeared in modern decor, music-lovers seeking out excellent hi-fi equipment – sound that enthralls, excites and relaxes all at once – are still thick on the ground.
In forty-three years, we’ve stayed true to our origins: we’re still trying to get more sound out of boxes. We’re still milking better sound out of any price range in our sights. And we’re father-and-son still listening to records together and ‘playing with hi-fi’ on a Saturday afternoon (when we should be playing sport).
P.S. Matt and I assemble systems. Set a budget and play around to get the best sound we can. Here’s our latest muse: a system of all of our favourite tings right now. http://sbhifi.com.au/?product=stereo-system-with-all-my-favorite-things