I was sitting at a surprisingly hip hotel bar in Madison, Wis., enjoying the second of two French martinis, when The Chief texted me with my next assignment. He said to hightail it to Dane County Regional and catch the next flight to the Mile High City: Denver. My confirmation number was the only other thing to appear on my screen — aside from a note to check my email. I downed the rest of the cocktail as I ordered a Lyft, wishing I’d had more time to savor the raspberry concoction.

On the way to the airport, I checked my inbox. This time around, The Chief said I was going to be a mobile DJ in search of better sound. But Denver? With a decent live music scene and some notable clubs to its name, there’s music going on, but I didn’t think that the foot of the Rockies was exactly a hotbed of DJ tech. But I suppose anywhere there’s music, there’s pro audio.

The cover story was simple: I’ve been doing mobile gigs for a while but wasn’t happy with my sound. I didn’t own any subwoofers; I rented them when I needed them. I worked mostly smallish gigs, nothing too fancy — weddings, office parties, that sort of thing. Oh, and I didn’t have a specific budget in mind; I hated shopping online, so I wanted to see how far my wallet would carry me. Easy enough.

He’d sketched out some options for me, from the city center to the south suburbs. With Denver’s population growth and skyrocketing housing prices, I knew getting from Denver International to all the stores wasn’t going to be fun. But I picked up the rental car after the shuttle bus ride from hell, and off I went.

National Speaker
2369 S. Trenton Way, Unit N
Denver, CO 80231

On the southeast side of Denver proper, National Speaker seemed like a logical place to start my trek from Denver International Airport. The place seemed a bit off the beaten path; let’s call it a “destination” retailer, situated in a business park with a strange mix of businesses around it, from a dialysis service to a café to a tax accountant. But I wasn’t here to evaluate the neighbors.

The guy at the counter greeted me immediately with a handshake. Given the standard wall-o-guitars to my left, and no live sound anywhere in sight, I offered my cover story. (I thought I was pretty convincing, too.) He said I needed to talk to another employee. We made some small talk while I waited. National clearly does a decent business on the repair side of the house, and I could see technicians in the back room performing surgery on speakers of various styles and types.

The other employee appeared quickly. I conveyed the cover story again. He asked about my current speakers as he took me around the corner to where the live sound speakers were hiding. National didn’t have a massive amount of stock; the showroom was actually quite compact, but it was well laid out, tidy and inviting in that “there’s a lot here to discover” sort of way.

I told the employee — a pleasant, friendly rocker type of guy — that I currently used a pair of older Peavey self-powered units. He suggested that perhaps the only thing I truly needed to change was to add a decent subwoofer, and skip replacing the top-ends. He offered up a used Mackie SWA1502 that was in surprisingly great shape and was priced at $700, which would be an affordable way to round out my theoretical existing system.

I asked if I was buying new, and wanted to replace my top-ends too, what would he suggest? For that, a trio of Yamaha products was his suggestion: A DXS15 sub and a pair of DXR15 tops — all in the general ballpark of $700-ish each. So, a little north of two grand, and I’d be set. I made some notes, thanked him for his time, collected a business card and off I went to the next stop.

Sound Town
1233 W. Alameda Ave.
Denver, CO 80223

Getting to Sound Town was most of the battle. Between the insane traffic I was expecting, and the random construction backups I wasn’t expecting, I was wishing I’d stopped at a McDonald’s on the way (MI Spy doesn’t always eat lobster thermidor like Batman in the Lego Batman Movie). At least my stomach wouldn’t be growling while my bladder was begging for a pit stop.

Parking was the main issue at Sound Town. The small parking lot seemed to have most of its spaces reserved for the cannabis dispensary next door (oh right, I’m in Colorado, the original home of legalized pot) and the electrical supplier across the way. On-street parking a short walk away would have to suffice.

This cramped, busy little shop appears to have found at least two or three uses for every square inch of the limited space they have. From the small facility, they handle new and used gear, as well as a thriving rental business. Among the piles of gear (literally, piles), it managed to carve out some space for working displays of some Roland DJ controllers, among others, so I knew I was in the right place. (Of course, there was the wall-o-guitars, too.)

A guy was the first to greet me, and he had the hipster musician look. The guy reeked cool, but after wrapping up a transaction, it was clear he knew a thing or two about pro audio, too. He asked what I was looking for; I gave him the story. Despite suggesting that the real expert was not in at the moment, without hesitation, he suggested some new Mackie gear: the SRM1850 sub and a pair of SRM650s for the top-end units. He said he’s done his fair share of DJing, as well, and felt confident that these were a good match.

With the sub running around $900, and the tops running somewhere around $700 a piece, the pricing was a bit higher than National’s recommendation but seemed like a nice fit for my theoretical setup.

Judging by the sheer number of corrugated cardboard cartons stacked inside the place, all with the “Mackie” name and “SRM” printed on them, it was apparent the salesman’s employer has a soft spot for the brand and certainly appears to move a lot of it as well.

Dodging stuff on the crowded shop floor, he took me over to the piles of rental stock, referring to them in order to offer other options in the Mackie range, but stood by his original suggestions. I took my notes, thanked him for his time and collected his business card.

Music Go Round
8055 W. Bowles Ave.
Littleton, CO 80123

I made my way to the southwest suburbs for my next stop, one of the two local metro Denver franchises of Music Go Round, the national chain. If I was going to be a mobile DJ on a budget, this seemed like a good choice.

This MGR location is in a strip mall storefront. The guys working the counter all seemed to be involved in handling the transaction of a guy trying to unload some gear for quick cash. The musician’s life isn’t an easy one, so it’s nice that places like this exist to monetize unused gear when the rent needs to be paid and the gigs are few. But honestly, the place had more of a pawn shop feel than that of a music store. Getting anyone’s attention seemed to be the first challenge. Seeing the live sound gear, I decided to investigate on my own.

Soon enough, one of the guys up front wandered over to see if I needed any help. I gave him my story, which after three tellings, started to feel more natural.

Unfortunately, this MGR didn’t really have tons to offer me for my particular scenario. Playing off an idea from my first stop, I suggested that perhaps I could get by with just a subwoofer, paired with my existing top-ends. The salesman suggested a Yamaha SW500 they had on-hand; the 15-inch powered sub indeed seemed like a good choice. It was in pretty rough physical condition, but the $250 price tag would have been a particularly attractive entry-point to augment my existing theoretical setup.

In top-end units, the store had only a couple of singletons on the used side; the salesman said he was surprised, since they normally only bring them on in pairs. It did have a pair of new Behringer B112Ws in boxes, which surprised me. I said so, too. The guy told me yeah, 99 percent of its stuff is used, but the new Behringers could be picked-up for about $300 a pop.

I thanked him for his time and browsed the DJ gear briefly on the way out. The selection was pretty light, just like the speakers, and didn’t really have much a pro mobile DJ would seriously consider. But a store specializing in used gear can’t sell what people haven’t brought in to unload. So with nothing else to see, I decided it was time to move to the next stop.

Guitar Center
9647 E. County Line Road
Centennial, CO 80112

The final stop on my Denver mission was one of the several Guitar Center locations in the area. This one in the southeast suburbs was easy enough to get to from the southwest side. Well, “easy” — other than still more road construction and reduced speed limits along C470, the logical corridor between the last two stops.

I’ve been in a lot of Guitar Centers in my day, and I find it interesting how different they can be. Sure, the stock is pretty much standard, but you can see the influence of store management. This GC location was neat, tidy, clean, organized and inviting, and the pro-audio section draws your eye with a nice lighting setup beckoning from the corner. I made a beeline directly there.

On a weekday afternoon, not that many customers were milling around, but the sole employee in the department, Justin, greeted me as soon as he was off the phone. I delivered my polished cover story, and the guy impressed me with his product knowledge and understanding of my needs.

He took me over to the wall-o-speakers (of course, at GC, the wall-o-guitars is in another department). On the way, he said a lot of it is budget-driven in terms of choice; I gave my line about not liking to shop online, and just wanting to check out where my budget would take me.

He didn’t hesitate to steer me to any of the QSC K.2 series if they were in budget; sure enough, they sounded great (the salesman powered everything up with sample tunes), but with top-ends in the $650 to $800 range, and the suggested sub (a KW181) at $1,400, I was pushing for a second option.

That option came in the form of some Electro-Voice choices. The ELX200-18SP delivered some nice low-end punch for roughly $800, while the top-ends, either a ZLX-12P or ZLX-15P ($400 and $500, respectively), rounded out a nice, affordable package that was south of the $2,000 mark that started to seem like a reasonable target.

I thanked the salesman for his suggestions and browsed the nicely-laid-out, well-stocked and tidy section of DJ mixers and controllers before heading to the door.

The Sale

In the end, it was a toss-up. If I were going to follow through with buying new gear all around, I’d probably take a second look at what National Speaker suggested (Yahama) and Guitar Center suggested (Electro-Voice). Pricing is in the same rough ballpark, the gear sounded great and it seemed “right sized” to fit my mobile DJ persona. And all around, the gear was a good fit for someone who said he’d be hefting this stuff in and out of gigs, solo. That said, National Speaker’s suggestion to perhaps just go with a used sub and keep my current top-end units was a financially sensible choice, which tipped me in favor of the little one-off shop.

Regardless, before I head out of town, I need to find a place to shake me up a nice French martini (I’d planned on a couple more back in Madison). Naw… I think I’ll go revisit one of the walls-o-guitars…There’s a sweet used Fender calling my inner rock star. Time to turn off the cell phone before The Chief gets any bright ideas.

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