Confessions of a Setup Man, Part Six: Sinister Stairways

Confessions of a Setup Man, Part Six: Sinister Stairways

Written by Frank Doris

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

When I worked at The Absolute Sound as Harry Pearson’s setup man he had a strict rule: no shoes could be worn in his house. I understood – aside from being a sign of respect, it helped keep those thick red carpets in the first floor listening rooms and the nice wood floors on the upper stories clean.

One disadvantage, of course, was that when you accidentally dropped a heavy box or piece of gear on your foot – ouch! Somehow I never broke any bones but there were days when I limped to work. (Towards the later part of my TAS tenure, I limped in mentally as well, but that’s another story.)

So, when entering Harry’s Sea Cliff house, you had two options – socks or barefoot. I would always wear socks and in fact in the seven years I worked at TAS I never was barefoot. Never. Because my feet were ugly.

I’ve had psoriasis since I was 14. As a result, my toenails looked like the “before” pictures in those TV commercials advertising medications for clear nails. My feet were also red and cracked. I would do anything to hide them.

Ewww, why am I telling you this? Read on…

One of the best parts about working at The Absolute Sound was when we’d get in a fantastic piece of equipment. Around 1991 a pair of Atma-Sphere MA-1 monoblocks arrived. These were somewhat unique in that they were an OTL – output transformerless – design. OTL amps had had their adherents, perhaps most notably the late Harvey “Gizmo” Rosenberg of New York Audio Labs and an acolyte of OTL amp pioneer Julius Futterman. (Rosenberg was quite a character – he would show up at shows wearing kilts and headgear decorated with vacuum tubes. I recommend reading his long out of print book, The Search for Musical Ecstasy Book One: In the Home, if you can find a copy. It’s…different.)

Atma-Sphere MA-1 MK 3.3 amplifiers. The original MA-1 looked different, but you get the idea.

In any case, OTL amps had their devotees, who insisted that this type of amp sounded better because of the elimination of the sonically-degrading output transformer. (Other OTL manufacturers include Linear Tube Audio, Einstein and more.) On the other hand, OTL amplifiers had a reputation for unreliability.

The Atma-Sphere MA-1 amps, designed by Ralph Karsten, were marvelous though. Class A operation, direct-coupled OTL output stage, 14 big 6AS7G output tubes per monoblock, 140 watts into 8 ohms. Sweet, detailed, revealing of every nuance in the music, dynamic, just wonderful all around. And totally dependable (auto-biasing, yay!). They had a tonal purity about them that sounded natural and “right.” (They also weren’t crazily priced for a true high-end amp; $5,800 per pair in 1991.) I could have lived happily ever after with these.

At one point, Harry decided he wanted to take the MA-1s out of the big system I’d initially installed them in and try them in a secondary listening system. I dutifully schlepped the amps up the roughly 20 flights of polished wood stairs.

After a couple of months, he decided he wanted to hear them in the big system again. “Zoid! Get those MA-1s and hook them up to the IRS!” (Zoid was a nickname Harry had given me; the IRS was the Infinity Reference System V speaker system.)

OK…I unhooked one of the big, 36-pound amps, carried it to the foot of the stairs, stepped down the first step…and slipped!

Reminder, I was wearing socks. White slippery socks on polished slippery wood.

I fell on my back. A corner of the amp slammed into the wall, hard enough to gouge the wall. I kept sliding and bouncing down the stairs. A couple of the big power tubes smashed into the wall and shattered. Bounce, bounce, crash, ow, ow, agghhhh! I was doing a bobsled run and I was the bobsled on a course full of sharp bumps. My back and left arm were pounded by the steps. Hard!

Finally I landed.

Holy crap. Let me try to get up. OK, I can move. My back and left elbow are killing me, but I can move.

The amp!

Aside from the smashed tubes it seemed to be OK. In fact, the corner that had gouged the wall looked fine except for a little bit of paint coming off. There was a lot of broken glass, but none of it in me.

Harry checked to see if I was OK. I seemed to be other than needed a Band-Aid for my elbow. But I just wrecked Ralph Karsten’s amp!

Or so I thought, After somewhat composing myself I cleaned up the glass, called Ralph and explained the situation. He asked if I could take the amp apart and look at it. I did, and aside from the broken tubes everything actually looked fine. Ralph said he’d send me some replacement tubes. A couple of days later they arrived, I installed them and, hoping an Eniwetok Atoll explosion wouldn’t erupt, turned the amp on.

It was fine.

Postscript 1: I recently contacted Ralph Karsten about this and he noted, “That was one of our early MA-1 amps. We built that amp to be pretty durable. We had sorted out how to make OTLs reliable…and to underline that we built the amp to also be physically tough. So the corners on that chassis were welded and ground. It was pretty hard to break it! By the way, that amp got updated a few years ago and is still in the field running right now.”

Postscript 2: My feet look great these days, thanks to a good dermatologist and prescription drugs.

Sufferin’ Stepectomy!

After months of back and forth negotiations with company president John Dunlavy (sadly deceased), Sea Cliff was going to get a pair of the mighty Duntech Sovereign loudspeakers! (It was a couple of years or so after they were introduced.) These loudspeakers were more than 6 feet tall, almost three feet deep, seven time-aligned drivers, 275 pounds each. I was told I’d get a call when they were going to be shipped.

Duntech Sovereign loudspeakers.

Well, I got a call all right – from the trucking company a few days later, completely unexpected, telling me that they had just arrived in Harry’s driveway. I rushed to the house from the office. By the time I got there the delivery guys had dropped off the speakers, in the middle of the driveway. I was about to ask if they could help me get the two huge crates into the house when I noticed…

The house was missing the porch.


I mean literally. The wooden porch, which extended all around the house and was about three feet high, was gone. Including the steps to the front and back doors. Removed by workmen who had arrived that morning and taken it down.

No one had told me this repair was going to be done.

So there I am, with two gargantuan wooden crates weighing more than 300 pounds each – and a roughly three-foot-high gap between the ground and the door to the listening room.

I called to one of the delivery guys. “Can you help me get these crates in the house?” “Oh no, we’re only authorized to deliver to the front door.” No amount of pleading could convince them to bring the crates inside. And the weather forecast wasn’t good so the crates could not stay out overnight.

I’m standing there looking at two immense crates and a chasm between the ground and the front door. What was I supposed to do? Wishing that I had gone into another line of work wasn’t helping.

I called a friend and he was able to come by, but we needed at least four more people. Harry wasn’t around.

I turned to my friend and said, “I’ll go into town and see if I can get some people to help.” I looked in my wallet and had about $40 with which to pay them. Great. I walked down Sea Cliff Ave. and went to Arata’s, the deli where we were regular customers, explained the situation and asked them if anyone there could help. “I can pay you $10 each.” Mercifully, or maybe they just took pity on me, I got a couple of guys and two more random men who happened to be on the street. We paraded back to Harry’s house.

We did a test lift of one of the speakers and it was extremely difficult – but do-able.

Except that the stairs to the house were gone!

So, instead of being able to walk the crates up the stairs we had the immensely more difficult task of lifting each crate using a combination of hand truck (thank goodness one was there) and muscle, then bringing the crate to the front of the house, lifting the end and balancing it on the lip of the doorway. Then push the other end of the crate up, and maneuver the $*&@%! thing into the house, all the while trying not to rub the crate on the floor and gouge the crap out of it.

Why didn’t we take the speakers out of the crates first and make them easier to carry? I didn’t want to damage them. Oh yeah, Harry’s driveway was covered with pebbles, not exactly ideal footing. If we would have slipped and dropped the speakers, well, that was not a phone call I would have wanted to make to John Dunlavy.

Somehow we got the crates in. At least the front doors were big double doors, a small mercy. But it was agony. We all had to strain ourselves to the limit and go through backbreaking contortions to get those things up to the door without dropping them. At many points I thought we surely would drop the crates. I was worried I’d injure my hands. It’s a miracle no one got splinters. Finally we got the crates in and the speakers out. Those other guys couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Was it worth the effort? The speakers were wonderful. Talk about dynamics and scale! The Sovereigns effortlessly reproduced the spread of the orchestra with a wide and deep soundstage and a majestic “you are there” feeling. Their tonal balance in Harry’s room was exactly right, and the speakers delivered deep, articulate bass. The Sovereigns could also “do” intimate; female vocals, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen. But. Although I recall Harry giving them a good review, he never really warmed up to the Duntech Sovereigns the way he did with the IRS Vs. I liked them both equally.

In fact, I’d love to hear the Sovereigns again. Only next time someone else can set them up. I had hernia surgery in 1999.

Back to Copper home page

1 of 2