Founded in 1979, Audio Classics, located in Vestal, New York, is one of the world’s foremost dealers of vintage, used and new audio equipment. They specialize in classic McIntosh components and are experts in repair and restoration. Here we interview Steve Rowell, president of Audio Classics.
All photos by Howard Kneller unless otherwise indicated.
Frank Doris: How did Audio Classics get started?
Steve Rowell: The beginnings of Audio Classics started when I was just a kid. My father loved music. The sound of Mitch Miller, Patsy Cline, Lawrence Welk and others were playing in our house all the time.
He brought home a General Electric stereo system and it sounded great but it didn’t have enough bass for me, so I bought a 12-inch speaker from a local electronics store, built a cabinet for it and had more bass. This was the early 1960s and I became interested in the music of the era like the Beatles, The Kingston Trio, The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. I learned to play guitar, joined a band and my interest in sound reproduction grew.
At college I studied communications and worked as an assistant to the engineer at the college radio and TV station. When I should have been studying my college courses I spent my time reading the Audio Cyclopedia and every audio magazine available, and started building and assembling audio systems.
FD: Tell us about how the company progressed from the early years to today.
SR: The business actually started with the April 1979 Issue of Audio. We ran a small ad in the classifieds promoting the fact that we bought, sold, traded and repaired audio gear. This was our primary form of advertising along with sending out catalogues on newsprint, right up until we went online in 1993. We had one of the first audio websites and it was just a duplicate of our Audio ad.
In 1987 the business moved from the basement of my home to the basement of the US Postal Service building in Walton, NY. Other than the stairs we all learned to hate, because heavy audio equipment had to go up and down them, it was a great location. We had a wonderful landlord, the US government. It was a Federal offense to tamper with our building!
I’ve been lucky to have great people join me along the way. Mike Sastra, now vice president and general manager has been with us for over 30 years. Listening to music is a lifelong passion of Mike’s. At age eight Mike swept the floors and emptied the garbage at the local music store to earn enough to buy his first hi-fi system, an early stereo setup with detachable fold-out speakers. Over the years Mike developed an affinity for panel speakers and has owned several from Magnepan, Acoustat, Sound Lab and MartinLogan. In 1989 Mike began helping out part-time at Audio Classics, eventually joining full time.
In addition to sales, Mike specializes in the physical detailing and mechanical functions of pre-owned equipment. He also evaluates new audio products and performs critical listening trials to match components that work well together.
Ryan Kilpatrick, service manager and sales consultant, joined us when he was just 19 and he’s been with us over 20 years. Ryan began to play guitar at age eight and now plays bass. Ryan has 20-plus years of experience and is one of our most knowledgeable sales consultants. Ryan also manages our service department and personally oversees all work brought into Audio Classics. He acquired service knowledge from working alongside McIntosh technicians and engineers and from manufacturers’ training.
Frank Gow, the son of former McIntosh president Gordon Gow, joined us to fill in one time while my wife and I took a trip to Europe – and he never left. He said he would work for us until the day he died and he was true to his word. He left work around 2:00 pm on June 2, 2011 and passed later that day. Frank was extremely knowledgeable and friendly and took all the time necessary to help customers. He regularly racked up the costliest phone bills in the days when we were charged for long distance service.
Richard Modaferri is an inventor and consultant to Audio Classics. Rich has established himself as one of the world’s foremost authorities on tuner and loudspeaker design. He was a senior engineer at McIntosh Laboratories from 1968 to 1974, and designed the acclaimed MR77 and MR78 tuners and the famous “RIMO” filter used in McIntosh tuners. Rich has been granted US patents for loudspeaker phase shift bass-loading and for the infinite slope crossover.
George Melnyk is an independent service consultant to Audio Classics. He is a retired IBM senior engineer with eight patents and 15 publications to his credit. George headed a group of individuals who restored and rebuilt a Robert Morton pipe organ at the Broome County Forum Theatre in Binghamton. If it’s electrical, mechanical, metal, wood, analog, digital, solid-state or tube, George can make it work.
Kevin Schmalz began playing the French horn when he was 12 and started building audio equipment and speakers while in high school. Considering the improvements in the quality of electronic components that have happened over time, Kevin realized that older equipment could often be tweaked to sound better. He was a member of the Caracas Philharmonic Orchestra during the 1980s. Kevin recently retired from NYSEG (New York State Electric and Gas) and now is having a blast working for Audio Classics. His specialty is restoring vintage tube and solid-state equipment. We also have Chris Bailey, Derek Dranchak and others on our staff including Aaron Race, Audio Classics’ shipping manager. He joined us in 2008 and makes sure your purchase is packed well and shipped safely.
FD: How did you get so adept at finding and repairing vintage gear? I’ve seen some amazing pieces in your shop – how do you find them?
SR: Since we’ve been in business for over 40 years, sellers find us thru our advertising, word of mouth, our website, Facebook and our weekly e-mail newsletter.
We have invested more than $30,000 in test equipment and use the correct factory-authorized parts and procedures. We also turn work around quickly thanks to our incredible shipping department.
FD: How did you develop such a close relationship with McIntosh?
SR: For years we were the largest unauthorized McIntosh dealer, but Maurice Painchaud, McIntosh’s vice president of operations and Sidney Corderman, vice president of engineering at the time, realized the importance of what we did. We created value for their new products by supporting and promoting their pre-owned products. They would send customers looking for those items to us.
FD: Have you moved over the years?
SR: Yes, to Vestal, NY on November 17th, 1997. We didn’t know better, so we closed the location in Walton on a Friday afternoon and opened in Vestal on Monday morning. Two 50-foot tractor trailers moved on Saturday and Sunday. We’ll never do that again.
FD: What are some of your favorite vintage components?
SR: Well of course the classic McIntosh components: the C11, C20 and C22 preamps, the MC275 and MC240 power amplifiers, and others that have grown in interest as the years have gone by. We can’t keep McIntosh preamps and amps in stock. USA-made Marantz components are great and always in demand, as well as Infinity IRS and Quad ESL loudspeakers.
FD: How about products available today?
SR: We look for components that have enduring excellence and “authority,” outstanding performance, value and reliability, and timeless design. Potential classics are being developed by high-end audio manufacturers today. Time alone will tell which will endure. I could list many companies, among them Mark Levinson, Legacy Audio, Luxman, Bowers & Wilkins, Klipsch, Marantz, Magnepan, Revel, JL Audio, Yamaha, JBL, Audio Research, Ortofon and more.
FD: How much of your vintage gear sales are to the US, and how much goes overseas?
SR: The US market represents the major portion of our business. In the early days there were far more vintage collectors in the Pacific Rim and Europe. That business seems to have dropped off over the years.
FD: How much used versus new equipment do you sell?
SR: Today it’s probably close to 50/50.
FD: I understand that around half of the vintage components in Ken Kessler’s book, McIntosh “…for the love of music…” were photographed from your store. Can you tell us a little bit about that? For those who haven’t seen the book, it’s a gorgeous, in-depth, lovingly-researched work about McIntosh, from the founding days, to first-hand details behind the historic Woodstock sound-reinforcement system, and beyond.
SR: Ken had a professional photographer come up from New York City and they set up a photo studio in one of our listening rooms. They simply pulled items from our museum and inventory shelves, took the components into the room and shot them.
[Audio Classics has an honest-to-goodness vintage gear museum at the front of the store. If you’re into this stuff, your eyes will pop out. – Ed.]
FD: Can you tell us a little about some of the old-guard people you’ve met?
SR: I only met (company founder) Frank McIntosh once. I had made arrangements to interview him in Scottsdale, Arizona once and made it to Scottsdale, but they had just taken him to the hospital and he passed shortly thereafter, before I had a chance to interview him.
Sidney Corderman and Maurice Painchaud were both gentlemen and the true brains behind McIntosh. Sidney could recall things from memory like transformer winding data that would send others scurrying for files. He was a humble giant in the industry, but few know about his engineering accomplishments.
Maurice was the individual that kept the factory running and product going out the door. Again, little is known of his importance to McIntosh except for who worked close to him.
FD: Have you experienced a resurgence in analog equipment sales – turntables, cartridges, even open-reel machines?
SR: Yes; interest in analog seems to be coming back. I think listening to a good record is more engaging, both in the process of playing the record and in having the ability to look at and read the large album cover.
FD: How do you meet the challenges of staying in business when brick and mortar audio stores are having a tough time?
SR: We started out as a mail order company and became a retail store, so we’re well-placed to offer the advantages of “click and mortar” to our customers. It’s easier for many to shop by phone or on the web rather than take the time to physically visit a store. But if you want to audition components in person, we’re set up to do that as well.
Audio Classics is more than just a store. We have a museum of audio equipment spanning the years, right as you walk into the building. We are a group of musicians, music lovers and audiophiles who like making new friends.
3501 Vestal Road
Vestal, NY 13850