Sitting In

An Olympian Experience

Issue 122

I.

It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2016. My phone rang. “Hi, this is Robert. Have you heard of the VOX Olympian?”

Robert started his career working for Mark Levinson (the man). After he returned to Hong Kong in the 1980s, he became a fixture at high-end showrooms around town. He must have worked for every high-end dealer in town at one time or another. Gregarious and loquacious to the extreme, people either love him or find him insufferable. I vacillate between the two extremes depending on the day. He had been a free agent in the past few years, earning commissions by introducing clients to dealers.

“Jonathan wants bring a pair to Hong Kong. He is looking for investors.”

I have known Jonathan for quite a few years. He first set foot in Hong Kong in the 1970s as an adventurous young law school graduate from Manchester. He was hired by an English law firm and worked his way up. With the looks of Richard Gere and double the charm (and wiliness), he eventually became their go-to defense attorney for white collar criminals.

One of his clients was looking at doing at least five years of jail time for fraud, until Jonathan got him off the hook. After the trial ended, he called Jonathan.

A VOX Olympian system with Elysian subwoofers.

“Jonathan, I would like to send you a little something to show my gratitude. You saved my life. I know the Ferrari dealer very well and I can get you any model you want.”

“That’s really very sweet,” replied Jonathan, “but I don’t like driving, especially in Hong Kong. However, I do like music…”

Some days later, a complete Kondo audio system landed at Jonathan’s doorstep. Guilty or not, can’t say the guy didn’t have taste. Jonathan was completely enamored by the little present, and invited many friends and clients to share his enthusiasm. Soon, some of them also wanted one for themselves. Being the helpful chap that he was, Jonathan contacted Kondo-san in Japan, who was more than happy to sell Jonathan what he needed.

After six months, Kondo-san made him an offer. “You’ve bought more equipment in the past six months than my Hong Kong distributor did in the past five years. Would you like to become my distributor instead?“

And thus, Audio Evidence, official distributor for Kondo, was born. With his power of persuasion honed by decades of convincing judges of his clients’ innocence, convincing people that they needed Kondo equipment was child’s play for Jonathan. He managed to sell over US$1 million of gear in his first year with minimal effort.

As his late partner, the brilliant trial lawyer Alex King once told me, lawyers go to work every morning counting the number of days until retirement. (Sadly, Alex never made it to retirement.)

Jonathan realized that working in high-end audio might just be his ticket out of the drudgery. He started to take it more seriously and began attending the important trade shows. It was at one of these shows that he first met Kevin Scott and became the distributor for Living Voice.

Kevin was a mental health professional in his previous career, but his real passion had always been audio. Once he gained enough confidence, he left his job at the National Health Service and started Living Voice. The company became very successful in the UK market, producing beautifully built, reasonably priced and eminently musical mid-priced speakers. However, Kevin’s ultimate goal was to build the best horn speaker possible. He realized at the time that there was little demand in the consumer market for horn speakers, so he started building professional monitors and doing custom installations. The system at the high-end whiskey bar and music venue Spiritland at King’s Cross, London, is one of his masterpieces. When the time was right, he unleashed upon the world his magnum opus, the VOX Olympian.

The VOX Olympian is a fully horn-loaded four-way speaker. The 15-inch bass driver and 3-inch compression midrange are built by the venerable British firm Vitavox. The compression tweeter was made by TAD in Japan specifically for this project. Only 20 pairs were produced, thus making the VOX Olympian a limited edition. The distinctive brass trumpet on the tweeter took more than a year of trial and error to arrive at the perfect balance between loading and dispersion. The super tweeter is the rare and famous TAD ET-703.

The Olympians at the Living Voice workshop, ready to be crated.

The cabinet is the work of a top English furniture maker. The curved surfaces of the bass horn are apparently extremely difficult to make, and it takes seven months to build one pair of speakers. Here is a loudspeaker that looks as good as it sounds; most of the time, it is one or the other. Since the bass horn rolls off below 70 Hz, the speakers are usually mated with the Elysian sub-bass units. The Elysian is a pair of gigantic folded horns, each one driven by two ultrafast 12-inch drivers. The frequency response is flat down to 20 Hz. Each one weighs 500 pounds and is driven by its own solid state amplifier.

The whole system had a list price of £750,000 retail in 2016, and Jonathan wanted to share the financial risk. Besides, selling it wouldn’t be easy and getting more people involved might help.

Robert and Kevin with one Elysian subwoofer.

Hong Kong has the most expensive real estate in the world, which is more than twice as expensive as Singapore, in second place. Most people live in tiny apartments. Bloomberg Businessweek once published an article about a new development where a Tesla model S wouldn’t even fit inside some of the apartments. People call them nano-apartments. We therefore asked ourselves whether it was realistic to try and sell the whole system here, given the space required to do it justice.

I agreed to invest a 20 percent share in the speakers. Robert reassured us that he had clients with lots of spare cash who lived in big houses in mainland China. According to him, these people compete with each other to have the most expensive and exotic audio system, as if their manhood depends on it. Besides, he had already lined up two investors in the US. (As a horn fanatic, I would dearly love to own this system, albeit only 20% of it, but the sum was already more than what I had spent on my entire audio system.)

The next question was, where would we house the system? Most dealer showrooms would be too small, and they might be reluctant to remove their own speakers to make way for the VOX Olympian. Jonathan had a friend who owned an art gallery in an industrial building. The gallery had a private kitchen, run by a chef from Tuscany. Clients of the gallery hire the place for parties from time to time. Jonathan thought that putting the speakers there would generate some buzz in the right circles. The owner was also happy for us to bring people in for demonstrations. The idea was to keep the system for several months, play with it, promote it, sell it, reinvest the profit on the next system and repeat. With all these problems solved, we wired the money to the UK and waited.

II.

The system finally arrived in the summer, one month before the Hong Kong High End Audio Visual Show, accompanied by Kevin and his wife. The speakers were transported disassembled and needed to be put back together again. The crossover and the positioning of the tweeters and super tweeters all needed to be adjusted to the listening environment, a process that would be expertly performed by Kevin. He had sold his last system in Vietnam, and the two before that in Thailand, so he had been busy flying back and forth to Asia. When a Living Voice system was sold to a client, Kevin would come out to install the system in the client’s home. Kevin and his wife were warm, easygoing and down to earth folks, with a great sense of humor and very passionate about their craft.

The VOX Olympian, fully assembled.

It took almost two days to uncrate everything and install all the drivers. The acoustics of the gallery left a lot to be desired, as it had a bare concrete ceiling, walls and floor. So off went Jonathan’s wife to pick up rugs, acoustic panels and other sundries to try and improve the situation. Then, when Jonathan looked closely at the unbelievably fine finish of the speakers, he was instantly hit with a panic attack. What if some drunken guest decided to get up close and personal?  What if they put their dirty paws all over the lovely finish or, God forbid, placed a drink on top of it? So off went Jonathan’s wife to have covers made for the four units, and stands and ropes to cordon off the area. But Jonathan was still worried. He decided that whenever there would be a party, one of the three of us would stand guard. We would do a demonstration for the guests early in the evening, then cover up the system (including the Kondo electronics) while the guests were having dinner, and then just hang around to make sure nobody went near the system until the end of the evening.

The undercover system; hands off!

I began to feel that I had bitten off more than I could chew. I had never sold hi-fi before, but I guess there is always a first time. Jonathan was also worried that Robert might actually offend some of the guests, but I reassured him that Robert would do just fine – before he could suggest that I should take Robert’s place also.

Fortunately we had little to worry about at first, as business was not brisk for the gallery and there were only a handful of parties over the next three months. However, trying to explain the system to a group of complete strangers (in fact, I was lucky I didn’t run into any patients of mine) who were probably not in the least bit interested in hi-fi was daunting. And trying to do a demonstration while people were eating canapés, drinking champagne and trying to talk over the music was frustrating.

I found out that it is in fact harder to persuade people to buy a million-dollar speaker system than to convince them to have their organs surgically removed. I came closest with a real estate developer. He told me that he was building a house (more like a palace by Hong Kong standards) for himself and his family. I arranged for him to have dinner with my friend James, the acoustic architect who designed my living room (see Issue 121). James managed to convince him that he really needed to have a dedicated listening room in his new home (with the VOX system in it). The developer came back twice to listen to the system, and even met up with James to go over his building plans. At the end, he came back and told us that his wife overruled him. I guess she wanted the room for her ballroom dancing or something.

The author trying to convince someone to part with their cash.

During the Hong Kong High End Show, I spent the days going around the venue looking for mainland Chinese people. And not any mainlander, but mainland Chinese media people. I managed to find several reporters for online magazines – each claiming that his/her site had the largest readership. They seemed enthusiastic and agreed to report on the VOX system.  Unfortunately, nothing came out of it. Jonathan didn’t have much luck either. The closest he came to making a sale was with a client of his who had an ownership interest in a high-end dealership with several showrooms on the mainland. He felt it would bring tremendous prestige to his dealership if he could demo the VOX in his showrooms. Unfortunately, his business partners vetoed his idea.

After three months, the gallery owner decided that he wanted to rearrange his gallery and we had to pack our bags. A dealer friendly with Jonathan agreed to host the VOX Olympian in his showroom. We could just about squeeze them in. As he was the Hong Kong distributor for FM Acoustics, we could not use the Kondo electronics. The powerful FM amplifier, while very fine in its own right, was not the right match for these ultra-sensitive horns. I managed to coax the dealer into setting up his top Lamm Industries tube system for a demonstration for an important prospective buyer. He agreed to let us use the Lamm ML3 Signature single-ended amplifiers and the LL1.1 Signature preamplifier. I must say it was jaw-droppingly good.

At the dealer showroom, with FM Acoustics electronics.

I actually preferred this to Jonathan’s Kondo setup. The Kondo had a lot of finesse and harmonic richness, but the Lamm electronics had massive scale, speed, and at the same time delivered a holographic image. They seemed to be tonally more neutral than the Kondo, and gave a very realistic portrayal of the acoustic space. The sound was alive. Unfortunately, the prospective buyer insisted on spending most of his time listening to a recording of Japanese Kodo drums. Luckily, we didn’t have any recordings of trains, garage doors or pneumatic drills in the showroom.

Look at that finish!

Everyone continued their efforts to find prospective buyers, but the size of the VOX Olympian system was always an issue. It is difficult to find someone with the musical sensibility (which I found to be a rare trait amongst the audiophiles I knew) to appreciate the qualities of the system, the financial means to afford it, and the space to do it justice. Then came the protests and riots of last year, and visitors just evaporated. This was obvious at last year’s Hong Kong High End Show.

After more than two years, we felt we had outlived our host’s hospitality. The Elysians were returned to their crates and put into storage. The Olympians went into Jonathan’s listening room.  He has to look after them for now, bless him. They actually do work rather well in a smaller space, and sound really lovely with the Kondo Kageki 2A3 amp. A perfect partner for Jonathan during the lonely days of COVID-19 confinement. As for me, I still own the best horn speakers in the world (well, 20 percent of them anyway). If anyone is interested in a VOX Olympian system, please let me know!

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