Southwest Portland lost a legacy business when Vern Wenger Video Audio on Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, in business there since 1966, stopped selling and installing television systems.
But it also gained a world-renowned supplier of systems and equipment that make music sound better than you've ever heard it at home.
Echo Audio, which had been buying and selling audio equipment for the home since 1995 in downtown Portland, took over the 4,000-foot store at 5904 S.W. Beaverton Hillsdale Highway in May. The founder and owner of Echo, Kurt Doslu, who lives in Hillsdale, had to vacate his location downtown by June 30, the same date all the food carts had to leave the nearby pod at Southwest Tenth and Alder.
A client of Doslu's, who is in commercial real estate, suggested he look at the Vern Wenger building. As it turned out, the Doslu family pharmacist at Bowman's in Hillsdale knew Vern Wenger's son, Randy, very well. Doslu and his manager, Matt Kline, looked at the building. Kline wasn't sold.
"Matt's a downtown guy. He looked at me like 'You're not going to ask me to move out here,'" Doslu said.
But he was sold, bought it in May for $800,000 renovated and updated the building and said he loves the location.
It wasn't his choice to move to Beaverton Hillsdale Highway. The building he'd been in on Southwest Tenth since 1995 was being sold.
"It's sad that downtown is losing cool shops like Echo Audio and the mom and pops," Doslu said. "But this opportunity came up. I thought I was too old to buy a building. Now, instead of throwing away our rent every month, it's going into our pocket. I had to pay $200 a month to park downtown," he said.
Not to mention it's just a seven-minute commute to his Hayhurst store from his home in Hillsdale.
"I just fell in love with this mid-century architecture," he said about the structure built in 1957 and occupied by Vern Wenger in 1966.
"You see what we did with the windows," Doslu said, pointing out how they are glazed at street level and clear above that. "We did that so we don't see the traffic, just the trees. It's just great. It makes me just sit here and stare at the trees. I love the vista. It's so much different from seeing buildings and concrete walls downtown. With the new Ritz Carlton Hotel being built, any daylight was going to be gone," he said of his previous location, three blocks south of Powell's City of Books on Burnside.
While Echo Audio looks about the same as Vern Wenger's to the thousands of drivers who fly by at 40 mph, the inside has been transformed into a modern setting for the sale of technology from another era. Headphones, records, big speakers, turntables, amplifiers and receivers are all on display. Those who have only heard recorded music played in a digital format may wonder about the appeal of analog sound. Those who grew up listening to music through the type of equipment seen at Echo Audio get it instantly.
The profile of the typical Echo Audio customer is a male between the ages of 30 and 70. But that's changing these days as vinyl records are seeing nearly double-digit yearly growth in sales.
"It's getting younger and younger," Doslu said. "It used to be just the audiophile with large speakers and dedicated listening rooms. But now, analog has come back. Turntables and cassette decks, you know. Kids who grew up listening to things on their iPods are rediscovering the quality of sound you can get from a turntable or even CD player with a good amplifier. In 50 years they still haven't found a way to make music sound better than a turntable."
Some of these converts to the richer sound that analog provides may not be ready for a big stereo system, so they come to Echo Audio for headphones. "They'll have three different headphone amplifiers and a set of $1,000 headphones. These are 17-year-old kids who save up all summer and come in to see what they can spend it on because they know with really good headphones they'll hear really good audio," Doslu said.
While some brick-and-mortar stores are fighting a battle with online buying alternatives, Doslu has decided to join them. Such is Echo Audio's reputation that when the Wall Street Journal reported on the resurgent market for quality audio equipment, Doslu's store and website was one of just five operations mentioned. Call it the Wall Street Journal Seal of Approval. The article advised, "If possible, buy local."
"I think people in the neighborhood are just starting to find us. What's really fun is to see some of the people who have been buying televisions from Randy (Wenger) here for 20 or 30 years come in to see the store. Randy has told his clients to start coming and his installer, Jason Brown, is with us. Jason's done most of the television hook-ups in this area," Doslu said.
In fact, Brown and one other installer from Vern Wenger's are among his seven full time staffers.
High-quality audio is in the ear of the beholder. Everyone hears differently. Doslu knows that, which is why, "We're not one of those old snooty hi-fi stores. When you come in here, no matter what your capacity (for high-quality audio) if you like audio that's all that matters," he said.
How much Doslu himself likes audio becomes obvious when you spend some time in Echo Audio's new listening room. "It used to be a storage room. We turned it into a state-of-the-art listening room with almost no parallel walls. It's arguably going to be one of the best-sounding rooms on the West Coast just to come and listen to hi-fi," he said. "We might even have enough room for a second listening room."
With that he cued up the first track on Johnny Cash's last album, "Cash," on an exquisite turntable, dropped the needle, sat down in front of two large speakers and just listened.
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