One of the most interesting and revealing aspects of an audio show is how it forces one to consider their own audio journey. Mine was pretty simple. It started with simply loving music, the Rolling Stones in particular.
My parents had a Fisher solid-state receiver with a Garrard turntable and Shure cartridge in a large green console cabinet. It sounded great. It had large 12- or 15-inch single-driver speakers. We had the speaker surrounds re-foamed at one point. When I left to go to college my mom sold the system for $100, which infuriated me. She wasn’t tired of the stereo, but of the large piece of furniture. For her, the stereo system was indistinguishable from the furniture. It was just the thing that made music. There wasn’t any prestige in owning it, nor did she think of it as particularly valuable. Fortunately, I kept the albums.
One day in junior high school a friend brought over a cheap receiver, made by Craig, and by then I’d been studying up on how stereos worked, and had read that 90 percent of the sound was the result of the speakers. This little Craig sounded just terrible, really lousy, with the speakers at my friend’s house, and I wondered how would it sound if I hooked up to the big speakers in my parents’ console. I crawled inside the console, disconnected the speaker wires and connected them to the Craig receiver. And wham, it went from sounding like tinny junk at his house with the little Craig speakers to sounding kind of great. That was a huge lesson about the importance of speakers. I instantly understood while some of the people I met, felt the single most important part of a system is the speakers.
There were two gathering spots for audiophiles that I knew about. One was Absolute Audio, a store in Tustin, California a few miles away. Mike Moffat (Schiit Audio) was the repair and set-up technician there, and I have faint memories of meeting him. It’s where I heard the strangest speakers I’d ever seen – the Hill Plasmatronics. They had glowing plasma drivers, and tanks of helium gas nearby. They used a plasma arc “seeded” with helium from a tank. The arc did the highs and midrange and the bass was handled by a conventional 10″ cone driver. The guy there joked you could use them in the winter to heat your house. The other meeting place was Henry Radio, in Anaheim, which had lots of parts in the main part of the store, but on the other side was filled with fancy stereo equipment. I ended up thinking I could build a larger speaker cabinet for my small Fender Champ guitar amp, and figured, “how hard can it be?” Just buy a speaker, put it in a box, and hook up some wires. A guy there looked at me and said, “let me show you something,” and took me to the stereo showroom.
It became my first audiophile experience. It was around the time of the first dbx noise reduction system for vinyl, Tandberg cassette decks, and big, powerful Japanese receivers. Most importantly, there were these tall fabric-covered speakers unlike anything I’d seen, four feet tall and a couple of feet square at the base. They were the first speakers that I heard that gave me a clue that I had a lot to learn about electronics, recordings, and music. The guy demonstrated the dbx system (which got rid of vinyl clicks and pops), which I fell instantly in love with.
The sound was amazing. It came from all around, with none of that have-to-sit-in-the-middle feeling that I was used to. What I was hearing was the Thelma Houston I’ve Got the Music in Me Sheffield Lab direct to disc LP played through some first-generation Ohm Acoustics speakers with the original Walsh drivers. I was spellbound. I’d never heard anything like it. The guys in the store, probably after seeing my dad pick me up in a new Lincoln, were surprisingly nice to me, this little curious kid. A friend from the Orange County Amateur Astronomers Association (I really was a geek back then), Mark Merlino, (Qysonic Research), who held a patent for speaker design, and he took me under his wing. He visited Henry Radio with me and explained the Ohm driver technology upon which what I was hearing was based. He also gave me a Dynaco Pat-4 Preamp, which I still have somewhere.
Part of the magic was looking at a brochure for the Ohms, which described inventor Lincoln Walsh’s life and theories. It explained that Bell Laboratories’ theory for the ultimate sound reproducer was a round sphere floating in space. Walsh was trying to apply that idea to a practical speaker design. He surmised that a single driver element would allow audio to travel along a conically-shaped lower portion, with the high frequencies radiating from the narrower top portion and the wider bottom section reproducing the bass frequencies. It also described Walsh, aging and almost blind, bumping around his workshop trying to perfect his design, the brilliant inventor at the end of his life.
The speakers I heard were made not long after Walsh passed away in 1971. They had a 360-degree radiation pattern of sound that I’d never heard before. The guy at the store also told me they had problems with every amplifier they used with the speakers. Only a few worked without getting fried because the speakers were so difficult to drive. That was another lesson.
Seeing our hero, detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch listen to a pair of Ohms on episodes of Bosch (on Amazon Prime) brought back fond memories.
These memories were brought back by the delight of seeing so many open-baffle speakers at Capital Audiofest, from Arion Audio, Songer Audio, and Treehaus Audiolab among others. The idea of open-baffle speakers has always intrigued me, and companies like Magnepan and MartinLogan have been around for decades. However, I’ve always thought their performance was closely tied to the room they were in. Having said that, I’ve never lived with an open-baffle system and hope to audition some in the future.
I asked Ken Songer of Songer Audio about what led him to create new open-baffle designs, and he replied, “at the outset, it was my hope to produce two loudspeaker designs. The first is the ported bass-reflex enclosure S1 that you included in your CAF Part Two coverage. The goal of that loudspeaker was to showcase the performance that our 10-inch field coil driver can deliver entirely by itself, as a single point source with little or no interstitial electronics between the loudspeaker and the system.
The second design, the S2, was to be an open-baffle two-way loudspeaker that continues further to highlight the visual beauty of the driver itself, as well as the versatility of it applied in both box and open-baffle applications. We also wanted the benefit of appealing to both broad groups of listeners in our two designs – dipole fans, as well as traditional box speaker enthusiasts.” All of which I found fascinating.
For so many years the importance and function of the enclosure has been a semi-staple of speaker design. Look at Wilson Audio speakers, for example; they personify the attention paid to cabinet design and construction. On the other hand, I’ve been hearing all these great-sounding speakers that are essentially drivers in space, floating free. What a cool development. In my early days attempting to build my own speakers, I would listen to drivers that were just strewn about my workbench and room, and while they sounded OK, I always felt that they were just parts and would sound good only after I installed them in their boxes. Maybe I was wrong. Some of these new enclosure-less designs are among the best-sounding speakers I’ve heard, even in the far-from-ideal hotel rooms at audio shows.
Everyone has their own hi-fi audio initiation story, even those who don’t think they do. Maybe it was their first cassette player, car stereo, or Sony Walkman. I do think that loving music – really, really, really loving music – is probably a prerequisite, to becoming an audiophile. That said, there are always folks whose pursuit of “the best” is more aligned with conspicuous consumption and showing off to the neighbors and friends than actually caring about their possessions’ inherent qualities. I think that many of my most important experiences were with lousy systems in cars, played really loud with people I loved. The equipment really didn’t matter, as long as the time, place, and music were right.
I went to college in Humboldt County, California, and my first good stereo was the result of some students botching an exhibition of my photography, damaging it while setting up the exhibit. Thankfully the work was insured, and the State of California surprised me with a check a year later. This happened to coincide with our local stereo store in Eureka having ordered some audio components for a grower…um…agriculture specialist, who had to unexpectedly extend his stay in Mexico, leaving the store with some great gear they wanted to unload.
At the same time, Mark, another friend (a brilliant engineer and audiophile) who worked at Micropolis at the time, noticed on his drive to work in Northridge that electronics manufacturer GAS (Great American Sound) was having a going out of business sale. So, on her next trip to L.A., Nancy, my then-girlfriend (now wife) swung by and picked up a Thalia II preamp, while I used the rest of the money from the great State of California to purchase a Luxman PD-272 turntable, Hafler DH-200 amplifier kit, and a gorgeous pair of B&W DM2 II speakers with stands. Add in a Technics cassette deck and I felt like I finally had a real system. However, shortly after, the midrange drivers on the speakers started to separate from their surrounds, so I called B&W for help. Amazingly, they said to just get some glue and reattach them.
This kind of shocked me. I’d read the ads from B&W about their sophisticated laser alignment techniques, and here I had these brand new, state-of-the-art speakers that were falling apart. And they wanted me, a 20-year-old kid to reglue them myself. I found out who the president of the company was, called his office and explained myself. I told him I’d be happy to install new drivers, but I wasn’t fixing my own. He complied, and new drivers arrived – but then one of the speakers stopped working altogether. I’d heard something rolling around inside the cabinet, which turned out to be a heavy copper coil from the crossover. Out came the woofer, and with enough finagling, the crossover board. A bit of solder and glue, and the new drivers, and all was well. But it was an important lesson in quality control, holding your own against corporations, and figuring out how to fix things yourself.
The quiet and subdued British-sensibility sound signature of those speakers were wonderful for vocals, and years later turned out to be the perfect match when the first CDs arrived, with their overly harsh, sibilant and headache-inducing high end. Another speaker that worked well for me was the Advent 2. They were a unique and forward-reaching design with two different layers of hard plastic outside (with a white-finish exterior) with softer plastic inside providing acoustic damping inside. They sounded wonderful mated to Nancy’s NAD receiver and Magnavox/Phillips CD player, made in The Netherlands, which you could buy from Adray’s in Southern California for around a hundred bucks. Later, I found a store in San Diego that offered a kit to modify the electronics with new op-amps, caps, and RCA jacks, and voila, a star was born for another 75 bucks. Still have them, and they still sound surprisingly good.
My audio journey has also included a long stretch with my turntable having to go into storage. There was no way I could protect my precious table and Dynavector Ruby cartridge from two energetic, curious boys for whom “don’t go near daddy’s stereo” would never be accepted as anything but a challenge. It was bad enough that I found indentations from a pen in my JBL Creature speakers, which take a bit of doing to damage. But by the time my son Thomas discovered our carefully-packaged boxes of LPs he was old enough to look through them as buried treasure. Eventually we got a home theater setup, which taught me a lot about subwoofer setup and surround sound audio.
I was somewhat hesitant about having friends who were audiophiles, especially because of a friend in Humboldt County who was ever tinkering with his gear. Loosening a hex-head screw on his Yamaha tonearm, he’d marvel at the sound – for half the album, then readjust it for the last half. And I thought, the more I think about the gear, the less I listen to the music. The other thing that worried me was that the pursuit had turned me into more and more of a consumer, when the role I wanted for myself was as the creator, and I found the two were often at cross-purposes. As a photographer, I love my tools. I mean, a Leica in hand is an immensely powerful pocket rocket, so I’m just as absurd about beautiful things as the next gearhead. I can’t claim any Zen-like attitude in that regard.
While I was in grad school, I became really involved in digital audio, and headphones. I had roommates, so I had to keep it quiet, and I’d done mods to my Magnavox/Phillips CD player in the effort to squeeze better sound out of it, and with it’s built-in headphone jack I could embrace the new world of CDs. Years later, when the advent of high-resolution audio hit, it was a perfect storm. With the help of some good headphones, the new generation of DACs and headphone amps, I could hear music with a depth and clarity I’d never imagined, and best of all, Nancy wouldn’t be woken up by my listening. As our boys grew older, I could finally unpack the gear in storage, however, we quickly learned to turn the speakers to the wall so our cats couldn’t use speaker grills as their new scratching posts.
At Capital Audiofest, I enjoyed hearing gear that provoked the same reaction in others: “Wow, I’ve never heard that on that song before!” Among the many rooms where this took place was in one hosted by Dr. Edgar Choueiri, who in addition to being president and chief technology officer of Theoretica Applied Physics is a professor at Princeton University. After listening to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds through his BACCH-SP “adio” digital spatial audio processor, Nancy said she’d never heard that album sound that way before, and we were both knocked out by the irresistible 3-D audio his creations deliver. It was that discovery thing all over again. Amazing.
I like that idea of discovery, and while I still giggle at some of the snake oil schemes that are always trending, attending a show like Capitol Audiofest is great fun, and it’s really gratifying to see the mix of young, old, and everyone in between enjoying themselves. Much like attending your first concert is a rite of passage, so can a show like this be important for budding audiophiles and music lovers.
Here are more photos from Capital Audiofest 2022.
Header image: Devin Bowler (CD Cellar) and Carolyn Albert (Orpheus Music) with a happy customer holding a MoFi pressing of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather. Their booth was constantly filled with folks seeking rare and hard-to-find pressings.