I’ve purchased from Sweetwater a couple of times, but I’m always looking for new businesses to support. When I was looking around for new strings, I came across Zzounds.
Like Sweetwater, they sell new and used various instruments and gear. Their prices are good, and the website looks legit. But I wondered if Zzounds was really better than Sweetwater.
I dug into both brands to discuss the pros and cons of both and also recommended other alternatives that may be a better fit for certain consumers. Continue reading my Sweetwater vs Zzounds guide to know which store is best for your guitar and bass needs.
Bottom Line Upfront
I recommend Sweetwater over Zzounds. As one of the most trusted names in music gear, Sweetwater offers everything that musicians need.
They’re the largest music retail store in the country, and you can access their huge inventory online. Sweetwater frequently hosts sales and promotions and always offers free shipping. This way, Sweetwater tends to be more affordable than corporate chains like Guitar Center.
Main Differences Between Sweetwater vs Zzounds
The main differences between Sweetwater vs Zzounds are:
- Sweetwater has one retail store in Fort Wayne, IN, whereas Zzounds is an online-only retailer
- Zzounds offers a 45-day return policy, whereas Sweetwater’s only averages about 30 days
- Sweetwater offers a two-year warranty, whereas Zzounds’ warranty depends on the product
- Sweetwater has a modern web design, whereas Zzounds’ website looks outdated
- Zzounds is more affordable, whereas Sweetwater prices based on the manufacturer
- Sweetwater partners with manufacturers to produce unique finishes, whereas Zzounds doesn’t
Sweetwater has been in business for over 40 years, but it reached national notoriety when it started selling online. Chuck Surack formed Sweetwater. He’s a musician and engineer who first started a successful recording company. He became a licensed dealer for Kurzweil, and his business grew from there.
- Has many deals and sales
- Great used section
- Large inventory
- Sells instruments, recording gear, and live sound
- Free shipping
- Flexible financing options
- 0% interest rate for their credit card
- Annoying customer service
Retail Store and Website
Sweetwater has one physical store in Fort Wayne, IN. I’ve only ordered from them online and never visited the physical store.
But I have friends who visited their location and said it’s one of the biggest music stores they’re ever visited. It’s the largest music store in the country, and one of my friends said it’s like a shopping mall for musicians–much bigger and grander than even Guitar Center!
That said, Sweetwater is primarily an online business. While I would be curious to visit their physical location, I’m a big fan of their online store. It loads quickly and is simple to use. The navigation is user-friendly, and I find what I need by either using the top menu bar or searching for specific items.
Bottom line: Sweetwater is primarily an online business since they only have one physical store. But both the retail store and website are great and favored by musicians.
New and Used Inventory
Out of all the music retailers I shopped at, Sweetwater has one of the best inventories I’ve ever seen. They have all instruments and gear you can imagine, plus they sell various accessories.
I’ve mainly ordered accessories from Sweetwater and never had a problem with them running low on inventory. I always see big-name brands here, though I wish Sweetwater sold more niche brands. That said, I always see Sweetwater adding new products to its inventory, so I’m sure it will carry more niche brands.
Sweetwater also has a decent selection of used gear for sale. As I said, I wish they carried more niche, rare, and vintage used items like Reverb, Guitar Center, and Musician’s Friend. But if you’re looking for cheap instruments or gear, Sweetwater sells many quality items from reputable brands.
Bottom line: Sweetwater has a huge inventory of big-brand instruments and gear, though I wish they had more niche brands. You can also find plenty of used products for sale at Sweetwater.
Selling Used Gear
As with many music retailers, Sweetwater will buy your used instruments and gear. That said, I have no idea if they will pay you a fair price.
On their website, they explain the amount they pay is based on the instrument’s value, condition, and market demand. Sweetwater will either pay you a check for the item, give you a store credit, or you can use the instrument as a trade-in.
In addition, you can list your used instruments on Sweetwater’s Gear Exchange. This is like Sweetwater’s marketplace, where you can create a listing for free and sell your items. Customers will pay via Sweetwater’s portal, and you can either ship using a provided shipping label or arrange a meet-up in your local area.
My only problem with the marketplace is Sweetwater will take a seller and transaction fee if you want to accept the cash. You can keep 100% of the sale if you choose a Sweetwater gift card.
Bottom line: Sweetwater offers two ways to sell used gear: directly to the store or to consumers on their Gear Exchange marketplace. Understand that they will take a fee if you keep the cash on the marketplace option. I have no idea if Sweetwater pays you a fair price if you sell or trade-in directly with them.
Pricing and Deals
Sweetwater uses manufacturer’s prices, so they’re pretty consistent with pricing you would find at other competitors.
That said, Sweetwater offers plenty of deals. Most of these deals are exclusive, so taking advantage of these price drops is a great way to save on new models. Sweetwater also regularly hosts demo deals since these are instruments taken off the floor of their physical shop.
I also suggest customers take advantage of Bonus Bucks. Bonus Bucks are points you earn on qualifying purchases, usually promotional items. These points add up with qualifying purchases, and you can use them to save on future instruments and gear.
If you’re looking for a used instrument, I suggest looking elsewhere. While Sweetwater doesn’t control its prices on the Gear Exchange, I see more affordable used instrument prices on Reverb.
Bottom line: Sweetwater offers consistent pricing, and they regularly offer sales and promotions so you can save more. Their Gear Exchange section tends to be pricey, so I suggest looking elsewhere for used instruments and gear.
I swear I’m the only person who can’t stand Sweetwater’s customer service. If you have a question about a purchase or need advice when picking an instrument, Sweetwater’s sales engineers are excellent. I’ve been told the sales engineers will resolve your problems, can be a pain if you need to make a return.
That said, I’ve only purchased small accessories from Sweetwater, and my sales engineer blew up my phone. I finally told him my purchase was fine and to stop contacting me.
Bottom line: I’ve only purchased small items from Sweetwater, like strings and picks, and my sales engineer wouldn’t stop calling me. This annoyed me and made me hesitant to purchase from Sweetwater.
Instruments and gear are expensive, and there’s a chance you can’t afford the upfront costs. Fortunately, Sweetwater offers many financing options. You can choose a 0% interest option for 24 months, paying back the item in monthly installments. You can divide your payment into larger payments over a shorter timeframe, though this comes with a $15 processing fee.
If you’re a regular customer, I also suggest considering the Sweetwater credit card. You get 5% cash back and 0% for up to 48 months. Credit card holders can also receive special promotions for certain brands and products.
Sweetwater offers free shipping for most items, and there’s no minimum purchase amount. I don’t think I spent more than $50 with each purchase, and I always received free shipping (except one time when I had to ship internationally–still, the rates were reasonable). Plus, Sweetwater ships to FPO and APO addresses for free, too.
That said, not all items qualify for the free shipping benefits. Bulky and oversized items don’t qualify. While international shipping is free, neither is shipping to Hawaii nor Alaska.
When you choose the free shipping option, you’ll receive your items in three days. If you need your items quicker, you can choose one of their expedited shipping items for an extra cost.
Bottom line: Sweetwater offers free three-day shipping throughout the continental U.S. and to FPO and APO addresses. There’s no minimum purchase amount for free shipping. You may still have to pay for shipping if you buy bulky items.
Warranty and Returns
Sweetwater offers a two-year warranty, free of charge. Even though most instruments and gear include a manufacturer’s warranty, I like the Sweetwater one because it protects against defects and other issues the brand doesn’t cover.
That said, Sweetwater falls short with its return policy. To initiate a return, you must first contact your sales engineer to get a number. Then, you must go through an entire process to send the item back to Sweetwater. Fortunately, you have about 30 days (depending on the item) to return your gear, and Sweetwater offers a 90-day policy for used items.
There are many reasons why I don’t like Sweetwater’s return policy. Instruments and gear are expensive, especially when you order from high-end brands. Since you must first go through their sales engineer and then package the item the same way a specific way, this doesn’t give me peace of mind to make a large purchase with Sweetwater.
Bottom line: Sweetwater offers a two-year warranty that’s completely free. However, Sweetwater’s return policy is pretty tiresome, though I like how you have 30-90 days to return your item (depending on the product and whether or not it was used).
Entrepreneur Ray Campbell founded Zzounds in the mid-90s. He envisioned the company would be an online-only business.
However, the internet wasn’t as established as today, and few people took his business seriously. Therefore, he opened up a shop in Chicago. Today, Zzounds is an online-only business, satisfying Campbell’s initial goal.
- Free and fast delivery
- 0% interest financing options
- New and used gear
- Lots of clearance options
- Giveaways and price-matching
- Great return policy
- Limited selection
- Outdated website
Retail Store and Website
As stated previously, Zzounds is an online-only business. They opened a physical location in Chicago during the 90s when online businesses were unheard of. However, they closed the physical store in 2000 and have since been an online-only business.
Here’s my complaint: as an online-only business, you would think Zzounds would have a better website. The interface is outdated and annoying to navigate. The first time I visited the Zzounds website, I wondered if it was legit. It is, but for some reason, they haven’t updated their interface in some time.
Bottom line: Zzounds is an online-only business, but their website is awful.
New and Used Inventory
Zzounds doesn’t have the biggest inventory, especially compared to Sweetwater. However, they sell nearly all instruments, gear, and accessories any musician needs.
Zzounds is good about updating its inventory, so customers can always see what they have in stock. I don’t see many niche brands on their website, which is a bummer. That said, they do carry many reputable brands.
Zzounds does sell used items, but it can be hard to identify. When searching for your items, you can find different options, such as various finishes. In that same section, you will see a reduced price for used items. This area includes the possible defects the instrument has, such as blemishes.
For example, this Gibson Les Paul is over $2,000, but you can get it for $1,700-$1,900 if you buy it with blemishes or scratches and dents. Zzounds likely got these products from customers who returned their items in less-than-stellar condition.
I’m not including the “Selling Used Gear” section here since I can’t find anything about selling or trading in used instruments to Zzounds.
Bottom line: Zzounds doesn’t have as big of an inventory compared to competitors. That said, they sell all instruments and gear a musician needs, as well as some of the biggest brands. Though they sell used items and instruments with defects at a reduced price.
Pricing and Deals
Like Sweetwater, Zzounds sells items at manufacturer’s prices. Zzounds does have a clearance section. This is also where you will find used instruments, rebates, and any items available at a special offer. The only issue is I noticed some new and full-price items are mixed with the sale items, so it can be difficult to know if you’re getting a good deal or not. Again, Zzounds has pretty poor web design.
The only way to know if anything is lower price is by looking for the “sale” or “price drop” symbol on the product image. It’s a shame that Zzounds isn’t user-friendly since they have better sale prices than Sweetwater. Take a look at this speaker on Zzounds versus Sweetwater.
Bottom line: Zzounds has similar pricing to Sweetwater and other competitors. Even though they have better sale prices than Sweetwater, their clearance section is difficult to navigate.
I’ve never had to contact customer support on Zzounds, but others have told me their experience was less than stellar. This is mainly due to those who had a question shopping for instruments or gear, not necessarily those who had problems with an existing order–though I’ve also been told they’re pretty slow at responding to issues.
Bottom line: Even though I never had to contact Zzounds, I’ve been told their customer service isn’t the best.
Zzounds offers a similar “pay as you play” financing option as Sweetwater. When you find an instrument you want, you have the option to select one of the financing options. However, it’s also difficult to figure this out.
Let’s take this EVH Wolfgang Electric Guitar as an example, which is fitting because I’m listening to Van Halen as I write this article. To the right of the image, you will see various numbers in a blue oval with an “x” symbol and price.
The numbers in the blue ovals represent the number of months your financing will last, and the price is how much you’ll pay per month.
This financing plan comes with 0% interest. Since Zzounds won’t report this to credit bureaus, it won’t affect your credit score. This makes this financing option very popular.
Bottom line: Zzounds offers a financing option where you pay a specific amount every month. You can choose the number of months and monthly payment amount for your gear, and they all come with 0% interest. The only downside is Zzounds doesn’t really explain this on their website.
Zzounds offers free shipping to customers in the U.S. Their shipping is faster than Sweetwater’s since they ship every day (except on holidays). If you order before 4 p.m. EST, your order will be processed the same day. Because of this, every order usually arrives in a day or two.
Zzounds doesn’t have an order minimum for free shipping. Unlike Sweetwater, they also don’t charge shipping for heavy, bulky, and oversized items. Keep in mind that Zzounds may ship these items using commercial ground, so it might take longer to receive those products.
I can’t find much information about shipping to Hawaii and Alaska. Zzounds says they ship there, but they don’t use ground shipping. Not sure if that means customers have to pay for shipping, but I assume that’s the case.
Zzounds doesn’t have the best international shipping policy, but they do ship to Canada (though they said restrictions may apply). There also may be restrictions when shipping to Puerto Rico, APO/FPO addresses, and other U.S. territories.
Bottom line: Zzounds offers free and fast shipping with no order minimum to the continental U.S. They can ship to Hawaii and Alaska but don’t offer ground shipping to these regions. There are also restrictions when shipping to Canada, Puerto Rico, APO/FPO addresses, and other U.S. territories.
Warranty and Returns
First, I can’t find anything on the Zzounds website about them offering their own warranty. When you Google “Zzounds warranty,” they provide downloadable files to various brands and their warranty policy.
They also mention the item includes the full factory warranty on the Product Conditions page. This is pretty discouraging since not all manufacturers offer decent warranties.
That said, Zzounds has a better return policy than Sweetwater. You have 45 days to return your items for an exchange or full return, with no restocking fees. Zzounds said you can expect to receive your refund in 2-4 business days. You can return products for any reason, though you must fill out a form to receive a return authorization number.
Of course, there are many caveats to this return policy. Zzounds doesn’t include every item in this return policy, such as copyrighted materials. There are limitations if you pay using PayPal, their pay-as-you-play program, and Affirm. You may also be responsible for shipping exchanged products. Customers in Canada and U.S. territories may have some limitations, so I suggest reaching out to Zzounds first before initiating a return.
Bottom line: Zzounds doesn’t offer its own warranty, only uses the manufacturer’s warranty. However, I like their return policy better than Sweetwater. There may be some exceptions, so read Zzounds’ return policy before initiating a return.
Did you read this guide and realize neither Sweetwater nor Zzounds is right for you? Here are a few alternatives I recommend.
Musician’s Friend is the closest alternative to both Sweetwater and Zzounds I can think of. I’ve actually been using their website a lot more and have come to favor this company over Sweetwater for music gear e-commerce.
Since Guitar Center owns Musician’s Friend, they have one of the best inventories around. Like Sweetwater and Zzounds, Musician’s Friend offers free ground shipping with no minimum order amount.
When you contact customer service, you talk to a human who’s knowledgeable about the company and inventory. If you can’t afford your instrument or item, Musician’s Friend offers their own credit card and various financing options.
They have a similar return policy as Zzounds, though customers don’t receive refunds for shipping and handling.
When recommending a music store alternative to Sweetwater, most people will immediately suggest Guitar Center.
However, I recommend choosing Sam Ash. I worked at one of these stores years ago, and I can attest they hire professional musicians who know what they’re talking about. As a corporate chain store, they have a decent inventory. Sam Ash has all instruments and gear you need. They sell all major brands, plus some awesome niche companies.
If you’re looking for an alternative to Sweetwater’s marketplace, I suggest considering Reverb. They have a secure platform where you can communicate and negotiate with buyers and sellers. Reverb handles all payments, so you don’t have to worry about theft.
Since this is a marketplace, there are some downsides. Scammers are prevalent in any marketplace. Each individual seller handles shipping and returns, so policies vary.
That said, I like Reverb because it’s a marketplace for musicians. Most sellers and buyers are knowledgeable, which helps expedite the sales process.
If you ever run into issues with a buyer or seller, you have Reverb’s customer service to back you up. To avoid shipping issues, I suggest finding a local seller and meeting up in a public place.
Question: Does the same company own Sweetwater and Zzounds?
Answer: No, they’re completely separate companies. Providence Equity owns Sweetwater, and American Musical Supply owns Zzounds.
Question: Is Sweetwater an ethical company?
Answer: Sweetwater mentions its ethical responsibility on its website. On Glassdoor, Sweetwater receives a 3.8-star rating, though many employees complain about working long hours.
Question: Why is Sweetwater so popular?
Answer: Their physical store is the biggest musician’s retailer in the entire country. They’re also notorious for their free shipping, free two-year warranty, customer service, and huge inventory with store-specific finishes.
I definitely suggest shopping at Sweetwater over Zzounds. Sweetwater has the biggest music retail store in the entire country, and they’re one of the most trusted names in music gear. This company has been around for over 40 years and was established for musicians by a musician.
They also have a great online shop, so you can access their massive inventory and receive free shipping. You can also use their marketplace if you want to buy or sell used instruments and gear.
Plus, Sweetwater hosts many deals and sales, so you’ll likely save more money than if you were to shop at Guitar Center. I do find their customer service to be annoying, but they’re beneficial if you need help or advice when buying instruments and gear.
It would also be great if Sweetwater sold more niche brands, but they offer the biggest and highest quality brands that all musicians use.
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