Anyone who has ever set foot in a hi-fi store will know that they are far from being the most fashionable of places. Boxes, expensive boxes, are piled on top of each other in random fashion, with seemingly little attempt to make buying hi-fi or home entertainment kit a pleasurable experience.

But now, one company is trying to change things, working with like-minded retailers to create stunning showrooms across the country that are so unlike the typical hi-fi store that passing shoppers sometime wonder exactly what they are selling.

Take the Audio Venue store in Ealing. Walk through the door and instead of the usual jumble of boxes and cables, you get a clean, beautifully-designed space, with minimal equipment, beautiful furnishings and cool, understated décor. Is it a shop, or have you stumbled into someone’s living room? There are a couple of things that give it away, like the plasma screens hanging on the wall, and the electronics mounted on great-looking furniture that you notice if you look a little more closely. No sign of any speakers however, just some flat panels on the wall that look like chunky pieces of art. These, in fact, are not paintings. They are the speakers, and they are key to the whole concept.

The speakers are made by Danish company Artcoustic. They are that rare thing: a high-performance piece of kit that also looks stunning. The front panel of an Artcoustic speaker (or “grille” if you want to get technical) can be customised with one of hundreds of stock photographs or paintings in Artcoustic’s ever-increasing collection. Or you can use your own artwork or photograph if you prefer. The speakers can all be mounted on the wall, even the subwoofers that deliver the deep bass sounds that are so essential for a home cinema system to sound convincing. In most home cinema systems, these big, ugly boxes are hidden out of the way somewhere, or covered with a cloth by way of disguise. In an Artcoustic system, they hang on the wall like a piece of art.

It is Artcoustic that is the driving force behind this new approach to home entertainment retailing. The company is fiercely protective of the way its products are merchandised, and refuses to supply any retailer who does not give adequate care and attention to the way the speakers are displayed and demonstrated. And it believes that high quality home entertainment kit, plasma screens, good-quality speakers and amplifiers, are generally not sold in a way that is commensurate with the prices they sell for.

“If you look at a top-end system, you might be asking someone to spend well in excess of £10,000, says Artcoustic retail consultant, Paul Cummins. “For that sort of money, there has to be en element of desirability. The showroom has to stop you in your tracks and make you want to come inside. Look at the way that expensive jewellery is sold, or that cars are sold. The wow factor is simply missing in our industry and that’s what we’re trying to bring back.”

In doing so, the company is not seeking to change the world, or even the country, overnight. By the end of 2006, it aims to have 25 retail partners on board, all of whom will have embraced the ‘Showroom as Showhome’ concept. These Artcoustic concept shop displays are scattered around the country. Musical Images in Covent Garden and Beckenham; Ideas in Cardiff; Dawsons in Bournemouth; Rayleigh Hifi in Chelmsford; Definitions in Leeds.

The names sound like regular, run-of-the-mill hi-fi stores. But the stores themselves are anything but. Definitions in Leeds offers its customers Swan Italia sofas to sit on while they audition a system or two. If you like the sofa enough, they can even sell you one. At Ideas in Cardiff, the furniture is by Zanotti, with Poggenpohl kitchen equipment. Yes, as well as home entertainment kit, the company also sells kitchens.

“People are beginning to change the way they live” says Ideas owner David Bullen. “Formal dining has pretty much gone out of the window. People are knocking down walls between the kitchen and the dining area, leaving them with one big open space, which becomes the main entertainment zone of the house. The design-conscious public are out there, they just don’t know where to get what they want, and that’s what we’re looking to address.”

The stores who sell Artcoustic’s products have agreed to follow the design-guidelines drawn up by owner and founder Kim Donvig. Artcoustic offer to design the dedicated Artcoustic areas and delivers a 3D rendering of the new shop design helping the shop owners to visualise what their shop will look like.

As an example take the Audio Venue store in Ealing, this showroom looks like an elegant, beautifully designed sitting room. But look closely, and you see that it houses not one, but three home cinema systems. You just don’t notice them until they are pointed out to you.

At Stratford Hi-Fi in Stratford-upon-Avon the owner says the sumptuous demo room, stops customers in their tracks. At the press of a button on the remote control, the projector screen drops, the equipment fires up, and the room is transformed into a high-tech movie theatre.

“People are staggered, absolutely bowled over” he says. “We’ve gone for a very specific look, made a bold design statement. Because the point is, no matter how much time you spend with clients, explaining what you can do, until they walk in that room and see nothing, and then you press one button and it all just appears, they just don’t get it.”

Cummin adds:

“What these stores are about is selling a lifestyle, not just a system. The great thing is, from the owner’s perspective, it doesn’t actually cost any more to do a store like this. Instead of spending all their money on keeping stock of hundreds of different items, it’s going on the furniture, the décor, the things that we think will make buying hi-fi and home cinema equipment a pleasurable experience again.

Saj Afzal, co-owner of the Audio Venue store in Ealing says it’s noticeable how many women have been in the store since it opened in the summer because of the Artcoustic products and the possibilities. “We have people coming in asking exactly what it is we do” he says. “Now some might see that as a bad thing, but it’s actually good. It gets the dialogue going, and once they are in the store, they can see how you can have a beautiful looking room and yet still have a great hi-fi or a home cinema system in it, accommodated discreetly, without running the look and feel of the room. Artcoustic loudspeakers have become nicknamed “The happy couple product”. The time has come where husband and wife now enjoy their new speakers.”

It’s certainly a very different way of selling hi-fi and home cinema. But among style-conscious shoppers, it could just catch on.

For details of your nearest Artcoustic showroom, visit:

The Danish loudspeaker company Artcoustic is renowned worldwide for setting the highest standards in sonic performance and aesthetic beauty. The unique wall mounting speaker system features Interchangeable screens that allow you to choose from a vast array of fabrics and decorative prints to suit your interior.

Artcoustic loudspeakers are the first and only of its kind, combining a unique mix of art and design with the science of acoustics by offering its customers to become a part of the design process and put their own personal touch to the product.

Drawing from the roots of Danish loudspeaker design Artcoustic has transformed the conventional concept through a modern look, and with a depth of only 2.5 inches the speakers occupy no more space than a picture frame.

Blurring the distinction between loudspeaker and furnishing, the use of the highest quality components ensures that Artcoustic products always deliver the pinnacle of sound reproduction. Combining remarkable dynamic range with a level of efficiency far higher than normally seen in hi-fi products, Artcoustic represents the perfect solution for both high end domestic and commercial applications.