If you’ve been looking for a guitar, amplifier, or any other gear online, you’ve probably come across a few different websites, and you might have found yourself wondering which is the best one to buy from?
Two of the best known music equipment retailers in the US are Zzounds and Sweetwater, but interestingly, neither have a significant presence when it comes to physical retail stores. We’ve had positive experiences with both stores, but ultimately, we consider Sweetwater to be the better of the two.
In this KillerGuitarRigs Guide we’ll be going into depth about both Sweetwater and Zzounds. We’ll be learning about the brand history, their customer service, their product selection, pricing, and much more. Read on to learn all about these two sites.
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With over 40 years in business, Sweetwater is definitely one of the longest established music retail companies in the United States. Chuck Surack founded the company in 1979, and set out to create a store for musicians, by musicians, with both technology and customer service as the guiding principles of the business.
Most of today’s big guitar retailers started off with physical locations and branched into online retail, but Zzounds went about things the other way around. The company was founded in the early 90s with the intent of being an online only business, but wound up opening a retail store in Chicago after making the assumption that nobody would take an online only retailer seriously.
The Zzounds Music Discovery Center, their store on Chicago’s North Side, closed down in 2000, leaving Zzounds as they’d always intended to be – an online only retail business.
Despite being a primarily online business, Sweetwater does run one physical location on their campus in Fort Wayne Indiana. It’s one of the largest music stores in the world, and more closely resembles a whole shopping mall than it does a typical music store.
Zzounds is seriously let down by their antiquated website, which gets a performance grade of C from Pingdom.com. It loads slowly, it’s clunky to navigate, and is not aesthetically pleasing at all.
Sweetwater on the other hand has a very simple, straight forward interface, it loads quickly, and is intuitive to navigate. Sweetwater.com has an A grade on Pingdom.com, and it’s easy to see why.
One of the most important things you can maintain as a business is a good track record of customer service, and unfortunately, this is not something Zzounds have been able to do. With a rating of “poor” on Trustpilot, it can be difficult for potential customers to trust their guitar shopping experience to this brand. They have developed a reputation for slow response to issues, as well as issues with placing orders.
Sweetwater are a glowing example when it comes to proper customer service. They have an overall “good” Trustpilot rating, which is not an easy feat to accomplish. They are renowned for excellent communication and quick resolutions to customer feedback.
Zzounds does have a clearance section on their website, but it isn’t easy to see the exact amount of discount applied to each item unless you click the link. Once again, this comes back to poor website design, which is a shame as their discounts are often quite good. The majority of discounted items are what they call “warehouse resealed”, which is really just another way to say customer returns.
Over at Sweetwater, there are discounts on new items and demo models alike. Demo models are often heavily discounted as they are taken off the shop floor at their megastore. In addition to discounts, Sweetwater also offer “Bonus Bucks” which are store credits against future purchases – this is a great deal for those who shop regularly on this website.
At Sweetwater, there are over 50,000 items for sale at any given time, and they’re often adding new products to their inventory. They carry gear from almost all of the major brands, and are usually well stocked.
Zzounds don’t exactly make it clear how many items they have listed for sale, but they do state that their selection is “about 50 times bigger than a typical musical instrument retail store”. Their website is updated in real time, which means that customers can get an accurate picture of whether the item they’re looking for is actually in stock or not.
Neither Sweetwater or Zzounds have a large selection of used gear for sale. Sweetwater does list a number of pre owned items that have been taken in trade at their store, but this inventory is very limited. In addition, Sweetwater also runs the Sweetwater Marketplace, a classifieds section of the site where Sweetwater customers can list used gear for sale.
Zzounds don’t actually list any pre owned gear on their site. The closest thing they offer is warehouse resealed, which are items may have been purchased and returned, but are still in “like new” condition, or blemished, which are items that have been returned by a customer, but with some “minor cosmetic imperfections”.
Setup and Inspection
One thing that keeps customers coming back to Sweetwater is the excellent 55 point inspection that they put all guitars over $299 through before shipping. These inspections are performed by trained guitar techs, and are a great way to make sure that your guitar is in a ready to play condition right out of the box.
If you like your guitars a certain way and you’re willing to pay for a setup, Sweetwater will also make any adjustments or modifications you’d like to your exact specifications. Your Sales Engineer should be able to provide all the information you’ll need about this at the time of sale.
Zzounds ship stock directly from their warehouse to your door, and don’t provide any kind of inspection service, and nor do they offer setup or upgrade options.
Pricing is fairly consistent on items that are sold by both stores. This is common practice these days as the manufacturers tend to have a lot of influence in the sale price of their items. If the retailer wants to retain their status as an authorized reseller, they are bound to these terms.
Free shipping is available at Zzounds and Sweetwater, which is great news for customers of both stores. At Sweetwater, there is no minimum purchase amount to get the free 3 day shipping offer, although bulky items and items being shipped overseas don’t qualify. If you need your items faster, Sweetwater does also provide expediting shipping options for an additional fee.
Zzounds has an exceptional shipping policy for customers in the Continental US. They ship 7 days a week (except on holidays), so even if you order on a Sunday, your item will ship out the same day provided you order before 4pm EST. There are no exclusions for free 2 day shipping in the lower 48, so even oversize and heavy items have no shipping cost, although some items may have to be sent by standard commercial ground, which can take up to 5 days.
If you’re looking for financing options for your purchase, Sweetwater offers a number of different programs, including a credit card with up to 48 months interest free on select items, as well as payment plans that can be split over 3 or 6 month periods.
Zzounds offers split payment plans on most of the items they sell (over $79), in a program called “Pay as you Play”. With this financing option you can split the cost between 4 to 12 payments, depending on the amount. This is a non-traditional scheme, and does not report out to credit bureaus, so it’s very popular amongst those who aren’t coming in with perfect credit histories.
Warranty and Returns
The return policies of Sweetwater and Zzounds differ slightly. Both offer satisfaction guarantees, allowing customers to return items in like new condition for a no questions asked refund. Sweetwater’s return window is 30 days, while Zzounds offers a 45 day window.
Despite having a shorter return window, Sweetwater goes above and beyond with their free 2 year warranty on almost every product they sell. This is a huge deal and offers excellent protection against manufacturer’s defects. At Zzounds you can add an extended warranty with 3 years of coverage, but it can become quite expensive when covering high end items.
Final Thoughts on zZounds vs. Sweetwater
Both Sweetwater and Zzounds are well established companies, but it’s quite clear that Sweetwater offers much more. From their easy to navigate website, to their exceptional customer service and enormous selection of gear.
Zzounds does occasionally have some great deals, but ultimately struggles to compete with Sweetwater on a day to day basis. It’s for this reason that we’d recommend Sweetwater as the better of the two stores.