Interview: John Ong, Sound Gallery

John Ong has been an integral part of the Melbourne audio scene for more than twenty years, where he’s worked in audio research and development, and audio design and  manufacturing as well as in the retail sector. His most recent project, Sound Gallery, is about to celebrate its second anniversary, so we thought we’d check on its progress…

Aushifi: When did you first become interested in hi-fi?

John Ong: I guess it would have been when I was 12 years old. I always wondered how things worked… and especially how music could be reproduced from a box! I started pulling them apart—portable radios, cassette players—anything I could get my hands on really. I was really good at taking things apart, but not so good at putting them together… unfortunately!

Aushifi: Was anyone else in your family interested in hi-fi?

John Ong: My uncle loved music and had a really good Sansui system which had an enormous multi-channel graphic equaliser. I remember spending hours with that, adjusting all the controls and trying to work out exactly which ones I’d have to use to have the most effect on particular instruments.  I also had lots of fun, such as arranging the controls into a smiley face just to hear the effect on the sound. The classic ‘V’ EQ could never go wrong… at the time anyway. That’s when I learned about frequency range and frequency response.

Aushifi: What type of music were you listening to back then?

John Ong: Back then it was mostly just pop music or whatever that was on the radio—Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, Def Leopard—the usual music you’d find any teenager living in Malaysia listening to.

Aushifi: When did you get your first hi-fi system?

John Ong: It was when I was at high school. I didn’t have any money to get a decent system so I asked my parents if they’d pay. They said that if I got ten straight As in my exams, I could have the system. Unfortunately I could only get eight As, but they were nice enough to still get me a system, so I bought a pair of Rogers speakers, a Creek integrated amplifier and a Denon cassette deck.

Aushifi: Why a cassette deck rather than a CD player?

John Ong: I was still at high school and I knew I couldn’t afford CDs. So I bought blank tapes and recorded the music I wanted to listen to instead.

Aushifi: The Rogers speakers seem a strange choice for a teenager?

John Ong: When I bought my system, it was the first time I’d ever been into a hi-fi store, and I actually went in planning to buy a pair of JBLs. When I went in there was a bunch of old guys sitting around listening to some music.  When I mentioned JBL, they said: ‘You should listen to this system first.’ They sat me down and started playing the system and to my amazement, for the first five minutes there was no singing… just music, and to be honest I was wondering if they were for real. ‘Is no-one ever going to sing?’ I thought to myself. But then I was blown away by the emotional impact of the music—it was the first time I’d ever heard Pink Floyd (I’ve been a huge fan ever since)—and it was also the first time I realised that there was more to music than just the sound, that it was the emotional experience of music that was the most important. As for the speakers, it was quantity versus quality. The JBLs had more bass and played loud but the small Rogers moved me emotionally.

Aushifi: So that store was in Malaysia?

John Ong: Yes, that is where I was born and first studied.

Aushifi: So after you bought your first hi-fi system, what then?

John Ong: I bought all the Pink Floyd I could of course, plus I discovered Dire Straits, the Eagles, and more. I also started helping out at the store while I was hanging there, which enabled me to upgrade my system, learn how to repair hi-fi components, and also build my own equipment including my own speakers and a valve amplifier.
 It might have been that which gave me my love/hate relationship with valve amplifiers—I love valves yet hate them at the same time. I love the sound, but it’s so much work to continually re-bias as the valves age…

Aushifi: What caused you to leave Malaysia?

John Ong: My tertiary education actually. Like all parents anywhere in the world, mine wanted the best for their son, so they decided I should go to University in Australia.

Aushifi: So how did you become a hi-fi professional?

John Ong: I needed a part-time job while I was studying, so I started working for Surya Moorthy at Absolute High End in Hawthorn. I ended up working with Surya for more than four years. I learned a lot from him.

Aushifi: And where to from there?

John Ong: I went to work for Maya Audio, an R&D company that was developing their own DSP algorithms to achieve surround sound from just two speakers, and eliminate room effects. While I was there I got to work in their recording studio, where we remastered recordings using our algorithms and I learned about psychoacoustics and human hearing, all of which came to good use when I joined local Melbourne loudspeaker manufacturer The Audio Group (TAG), designing and manufacturing speakers for sale throughout Australia.

Aushifi: Then you left to form your own company, Landmark Audio Visual. What type of company was it?

John Ong: Basically it was a consultancy company designing home theatre rooms and sound distribution systems. I was working with architects and builders to design and install high-end audio and video solutions.

Aushifi: But then you got back into retail didn’t you? How did this switch back into hi-fi retailing come about?

John Ong: A very good friend of mine, Aris Giannakis, was one of the owners at Secher Audio Visual and he asked me to join them. Aris is like family to me and he was very persuasive. It was also an attractive offer, because the place was full of people passionate about audio and the company had been around for more than 25 years.
 Two years later the owners decided to restructure the whole company to create a new retail store (Melbourne Hi-Fi) and a new distribution company (National Audio Group), so I helped them with that before leaving in October 2016 to establish Sound Gallery.

Aushifi: Was there a particular reason you chose to situate the store in McKinnon?

John Ong: I wanted a location well away from all the other established hi-fi stores, so I wouldn’t be seen to be competing with them. I also decided to stock brands that were different from what anyone else in Melbourne was offering for the same reason. 
I also wanted a quiet location—important for a hi-fi store—and one with heaps of nearby parking.

Aushifi: How did you decide what brands you would sell?

John Ong: My very first rule was that I would not sell stuff that I don’t personally like. I am also trying not to be a typical retail store: Instead I am trying to offer a solution, tailored to suit different customers with appropriate advice. So getting a system from Sound Gallery is an experience. All my customers will spend a lot of time communicating and listening to music before they actually get their own system. I feel that understanding what you are getting is very important, as a music system is an emotional purchase.

Aushifi: So what does it take for you to like a product enough that you’re happy to sell it?

John Ong: It not only has to sound great, it also has to be totally reliable and the distributor and manufacturer have to offer great support, and by this I mean support for information, upgrades and, if necessary, spare parts and repairs. All my customers get great support from me—I give them all my personal mobile number and tell them to call me any time they want—so I expect the same level of service from distributors… and manufacturers. Service is the key word these days, especially if you are competing with online stores.

Aushifi: How do you demonstrate the equipment you sell?

John Ong: I’m not like any other hi-fi shop most customers will have experienced. Sound Gallery is not a ‘buy this and see you later’ exercise. It’s a long process of listening and experiencing sound. I have several different systems set up in-store, each one of which sounds different. My training in psycho-acoustics made me understand that the sound you like will depend on your upbringing, and how you’ve been trained to listen, due to the necessity of understanding the spoken word. The result is that Asians like their sound to have good treble and extreme clarity; Germans like accuracy; Poms like their sound to be relaxed, while Americans prefer big bass and prominent treble. So I play each customer the same music on five or six different systems that exhibit these attributes and let them choose the sound they’re most attracted to. Once they’ve decided, I then find out about the dimensions and acoustics of the room in which the system will be played, their musical tastes, the sources they plan to use—vinyl, CD, streaming etc—and their budget before I make any recommendations. As I said, it’s a long process and experience.

Aushifi: What music do you play during these demonstrations?

John Ong: I encourage my customers to bring their own music, because that’s obviously the music they like, but it’s also the music they’re most familiar with. But I have most kinds of music available here at the store, and if it’s not in-store on disc or on my server, there’s always Tidal! There are rare cases that some customers have really badly produced recordings that are unbearable to listen to in any system. In that case, I usually will play my recordings to show them what the system can do. You cannot judge a race car tyre by putting it on a truck can you?

Aushifi: Anyone who visits the store without knowing what you sell might be somewhat taken aback by the cost of the components in each of your systems, because there aren’t many retail stores in Australia that have a pair of speakers that cost $75,000 sitting on the floor. What do you tell these customers?

John Ong: The first thing I do is let them listen to all the systems regardless of price, so I can show them how good music can really sound in a good system and how they all can also sound so different with the same music. Ears have to be trained… as do all the other human senses. For example you might say you don’t care much about wine, but once you’ve had good wine you can’t go back. The same with food: Once you’ve had a great meal, that becomes your standard. In other words, once you’ve experienced something wonderful, you can’t go back. It’s for this reason that my dad always told me that the five senses are the biggest evils of all. As I mentioned before, it’s the experience most of us want when pursuing the hi-fi journey. You have to experience it to understand or know the difference.

Aushifi: Do you have a typical customer?

John Ong: I’d have to say that most of my customers—most of whom I regard as my friends now—are successful family men aged 30 and up. I even have a few that are pushing 80. But now that you mention it, I realise that I don’t have any customers who are single… all of them have partners.

Aushifi: When you first opened, how did you tell people in Melbourne that Sound Gallery was open for business?

John Ong: It was very low-key. I sent out a press release that was published in Australian Hi-Fi Magazine and on the website, but basically it was word-of-mouth from people I know personally. I didn’t email anyone at all. I don’t have a newsletter or email address database. I have a website, of course, plus a Facebook page, and I’m on Instagram for promoting the business online, but it’s all low-key because Sound Gallery is a different concept hi-fi store… it’s not a box-mover shop. People who love music will eventually find me.

Aushifi: What days and times are you open?

John Ong: Basically Sound Gallery is open 10.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. every day except Thursdays and Sundays, but we can cater for anyone at any time by appointment.

Aushifi: They seem like rather strange hours?

John Ong: Most mornings and after hours I’m at customers’ houses delivering and setting up systems. Sound Gallery always delivers and installs what we sell—especially high-end systems—unless the customer prefers otherwise. This service is included in the price. Most people don’t realise that system set-up contributes at least 25 per cent to the final result. If you buy a good system but don’t set it up correctly it can sound terrible. Most dealers in Melbourne will deliver gear, but they won’t necessarily install it for you professionally.

Aushifi: So it’s only you at the store?

John Ong: No, my wife works here at the store as well, plus I have contractors who help me with big installs.

Aushifi: Do you mostly sell complete audio systems, or individual components?

John Ong: It’s really a combination of both. Most of my customers have been hi-fi enthusiasts for some time and come to me because they’re frustrated with the sound they’re getting from their existing system. Many have not heard a different sound and are amazed when I demonstrate the different sounds you can achieve. Plus I have to say that most are under the misconception that they need to use tweaks to improve their sound… cables and interconnects and so on. I tell them that it’s the synergy of the whole system that’s the most important. If the ‘bones’ of a system are not right, tweaks are simply a waste of money.

Aushifi: But you do think cables and interconnects can improve the sound of a system?

John Ong: All cables sound different and can improve the sound of a system: That’s something I demonstrate to my customers all the time. But you need to get the synergy between the various components correct before you start looking at cables and interconnects… or any other type of tweak.

Aushifi: How do you think the availability of audio products via the Internet has affected ‘bricks ‘n mortar’ hi-fi retailers such as Sound Gallery?

John Ong: Buying on-line can be cheaper, but it’s also risky because you can’t be 100 per cent sure of what will be delivered—there are a lot of counterfeits out there. Then you’ll have to install it yourself, and if anything goes wrong you’re usually on your own. Keeping a shop open is an expensive business, but if you have any problems, at least there’s a physical door that you can kick! I always stress service, back-up and expertise. I tell people up front that I’m not the cheapest, but they’ll have my service and can call me for help at any time.

Aushifi: With vinyl making a comeback, what would you recommend for a new customer who already owns a large collection of LPs and wants a turntable?

John Ong: It would depend entirely on his system—everything has to match up. Older customers usually have older systems, with good-quality older components.
 If they already own a good turntable I often recommend that they don’t buy a new one at all, but instead get their old turntable serviced—new bearing fluid, new belt and so on—their tonearm correctly aligned, then fit a new stylus,or a new cartridge.

Aushifi: When you’re at home, do you play vinyl, CDs, from computer or stream?

John Ong: I have two systems —one for music and one for home theatre.
 On the music system I play vinyl when I have the time and I’m listening seriously, but if I’m busy doing something else I stream from my own collection.

Aushifi: What would be your desert island music choice if you could take only three albums… in any format of your choosing?

John Ong: Pink Floyd’s Division Bell, Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert, and anything Teresa Teng ever sang!

Aushifi: What digital format do you usually recommend for your customers?

John Ong: My view is that a good recording will always sound good, no matter what format you’re using, and a bad recording will always sound bad. Customers often ask which hi-res format I’m playing when I play ECM recordings of Keith Jarrett that were recorded back in the 70s and they’re amazed when I tell them it’s standard 16-bit 44.1kHz.

Aushifi: Many hi-fi stores now also import and distribute products. Do you think retailers who are also importers can offer consumers unbiased advice?

John Ong: In an ideal world I’d like to think they’re importing and distributing those brands because they really believe in them. I do bring in one brand (Weiss), but only because I know the designer personally and admire his philosophies and his products.

Aushifi: Are looks becoming as important as sound quality when it comes to hi-fi components?

John Ong: Visual appearance is very important in these modern days, especially when living space is scarce. Gone are the days when you could put four Genesis speaker towers in a room. Customers are still after sound quality, but these days they also look at size, colours, and the type of finish. At the end of the day, they have a family and everyone in the family has to live with the system. It does help if the system looks good. Sometimes there’s compromise involved, but in the end if you can’t live with it, you shouldn’t buy it. Music was once a selfish hobby, but now the whole family has to be involved and enjoy it. They have to like what it looks like, and be able to use it. I think that’s why single component all-in-one units that do everything are becoming more popular, components such as the Bel Canto ACI 600, which is a DAC, and a streamer, and an integrated amplifier… just add speakers.
Aushifi: Is there any one area of modern hi-fi systems that causes the most problems?
John Ong: The biggest problem area is streaming. Few people understand how their home network works, or how to stream music via iPad or smartphone or computer. And when you set it up for them and get it working, some guy from the NBN comes in and changes all the network settings and you have to go back and re-install all over again. Software user interfaces aren’t the friendliest either! Lots of improvement is necessary—and software has to evolve to become more user-friendly so that hopefully anyone who can use a smart phone will be able to stream music!

Aushifi: What do you think differentiates Sound Gallery from other hi-fi retailers in Melbourne?

John Ong: I think it’s the way I approach customer service. I understand that hi-fi is an emotional purchase, so I always listen to customers patiently in order to truly understand what they need, so I can suggest to them how to achieve what they’re after and am also able to demonstrate it. I am still an audiophile at heart… I am just trying to combine my passion with my profession. #