Ear entry

Apr 4, 2007 at 12:00 am
It's all about the chase.

Eager-faced lawyerly gents with perfectly trimmed gray coifs merge with adrenalized blue-collar dudes with perfectly shaped beer bellies. There're twentysomething music fans in tour T's bobbing heads next to dad-rock types in khaki who're just old enough to remember hi-fi's golden age in the '70s. There are aging hippies, R&B heads, jazz freaks and pimply-faced teens. Women, too, mill about, but they're anomalies. Some have genuine interest in this otherwise dude-heavy high-end culture, while others are here, it appears, to appease their male significant others.

It's Saturday afternoon at the fourth annual Audiokarma Fest '07, and the 12th floor of Southfield's Plaza Hotel is pumping. Pumping with music, kid-at-Christmas excitement, elated ears and audiophile jargon. Each of 31 hotel rooms used is stripped of its bed and equipped with shimmering components that sit on racks, tables, floors; loudspeakers are aligned to best offset wretched room acoustics. And in each room, there's a "sweet spot" where someone can sit to hear the sound integrated perfectly.

The hotel rooms are outfitted with gear able to twist ears (and impulsive desires) into extraordinary shapes. Each room sports a different two-channel playback system (a stereo), and is populated by the curious who share a "journey to audio nirvana." There are audio sales hucksters, some manufacturer exhibitors and DIY types displaying custom-built rigs.

The Audiokarma Fest is a kind of microcosm of high-end audio, whose fans and manufacturers are a mix of misfits and oddballs, the wealthy and financially challenged, the businessmen, the music heads and the nerdy electronics whizzes — some of whom have turned obsessions into careers, many of whom would be ridiculed elsewhere for, say, spending thousands of dollars on a few feet of cable, or six grand or much more on a turntable. As is with most off-the-mainstream groups, it's part geek show, part community, part enlightenment session.

The lovely Jennifer Granstrom could've stepped from a bus-stop Razr ad. The Luna Royal Oak bartender is hawking raffle tickets for audio gear giveaways and, as the organizer's step-daughter, is an unofficial hostess of Audiokarma Fest '07, which was launched four years ago by its audiophile Web site audiokarma.org.

Jolly ex-construction worker Craig Ostby modifies and constructs tube amps (NOS Valves) up in Flint; his up-gut, beery laugh booms down the hallway. Canadian Gilbert Yeung offers his own Blue Circle audio line — his custom amps, preamps, digital to analog converters and phono stages boast a two-month wait. Here's a guy who, while promoting his own line, mocks high-end elitism — he spurts rapid-fire barrages of insulting jokes and jaded asides aimed at high-end clichés and snake-oil sales pitches. ("Have you seen the magic pebbles? Supposed to make your system sound better. Ssssssssssshitt.") He also bemoans the rise of online and print hi-fi journalism where, he says, "If you buy an ad you get good review." His hotel room is festooned with symbolic gags based on his Blue Circle imagery. A tail-wagging dog circles the room; Yeung claims he's more concerned with entertaining the dog than he is with anything going on in high-end. "Most of it awwww buu-shiiit," he says, in his own strain of, as he calls it, "Chinglish."

Beneath a Rickie Lee Jones croon (you'd swear she's performing in one of the rooms) or a Coltrane riff, science-based audio jargon moves like 60 cycles of white-noise hum: The amp uses metal polypropylene capacitors and the highest grade of mono-crystal wire — it has zero distortion levels ...

High-end audio is science-based, and the language applied for its description and review is too-often baffling and off-putting to the average consumer Joe simply looking for better sound. It recalls Don Cheadle's Buck Swope character in Boogie Nights, where, as a porn star working in a high-end shop, he regales a potential buyer with fabricated gibberish to explain the audio experience.

"Sometimes people are too obsessed with gear," says Chris Douray, an all-around employee for California-based Manely amps, one of the few, if only, high-end companies run by a woman. (The company's copyrighted slogan "Tubes Rule" is ubiquitous at the Audiokarma Fest.) Douray shakes his head at some of the overheard conversations. "It's not about the music with some of these guys. ... It's all about the gear. But they forget it's all about moving air around. They forget about the music."

The bottom line is it's about how the sound can make you feel, how the music can move you to emotional levels that you've never felt before. More people listen to more music now than ever before, mostly lousy sound files on crap computer speakers, ring tones, and MP3 players with cheap ear buds. But if more people heard how recorded music can be reproduced — the contrast is as great as between HDTV and, say, static-y color TV with rabbit-ear antennae — they too would be caught up in the chase for a mind-expanding musical experience on killer playback systems.

And southeast Michigan is, it appears, an audio hotspot; there's the Southfield-based headphone audiophile site head-fi.org, which boasts more than 50,000 members worldwide and is growing daily. That site's for those looking to upgrade out of the iPod ear bud technology into higher-end headphones and portable turntables, disc players and the like. Analysis Plus is a cable manufacturer based in Flushing, with a worldwide reputation. Wadia components has its factory in Saline. Groups such as the Southeastern Michigan Audiophile Society get together in various members' homes and listen to systems, as do the local Audiokarma guys.


"You'd think it was a porn site," says David "Grumpy" Goldstein, Audiokarma Fest's chief organizer and head (along with co-administrator Ernie Burke) of Berkley-based audiokarma.org. His site began as a little community forum of folks talking or bitching about their systems and all things high-end, low-end and "vintage." That was a few years ago. Audiokarma now gets, Grumpy says, about 1.2 million hits a day. Vintage audio talk fuels much of Audiokarma's content, but there are forums designed for specific manufacturers, and topics accessible to newbies seeking advice. It's mostly polite, informative, and you can sign up and ask even the most embarrassingly silly audio question and not get laughed at.

Grumpy — a handle coined to reflect his "no bullshit" demeanor — takes certain pleasure in his site's "all audio, no attitude" milieu. Grumpy officially became owner of Audiokarma.org in January after starting as the site's "turntable moderator."

Since its 2002 inception, Audiokarma has grown in leaps and bounds ("It took us two years to do traffic-wise what we do in month now"), which might be a sign, he says, that the high-end audio market is growing. College kids join with regularity: "We get a lot 'edu' e-mails signing up on the site. College kids are getting back into records. And why not? You can buy 'em for buck."

The site's no moneymaker. Grumpy, laid-off from a 21-year printing pressman gig, and whose wife, Nancy, helped organize this year's fest — says he gets a few hundred dollars a month for the banner ads, which "basically goes back into the site, which we try to keep as un-commercial as possible."

Three of Grumpy's six kids are grown and moved out, and he ain't rich. Kiss hipped the 39-year-old to music ("I got my first Kiss record when I was 10") and he caught the hi-fi bug six years ago after a flirtation with drag racing. He says the Audiokarma Fest (and there are a few similar regional fests in the country) rose out of a need to bring audio heads together to "drink beer and listen to music. ... My house is too damn small."

He calls his home system "mid-fi," one worth between $12,000 and $14,000 and put together piecemeal by reselling gear and buying used. While some enthusiasts favor solid-state components and the DIY types have to build everything themselves, he's mostly an "analog guy" — favoring components with tubes to play vinyl discs. But he adds that he doesn't actually "know that much about stereos, I just know what I like." Nancy says she doesn't "want to know" what her husband spends on equipment.


A 1979 Steve Martin chestnut called "Googlephonics" skewers the audiophile's hunt for aural peace. Martin buys a stereo and days later he's not satisfied — the system sounds like shit. He moves up the audio chain to, finally "the Googlephonic," the be-all, end-all of audio systems. After a couple days, that one sounds like shit. Martin continues: So I say, maybe it's the needle? I had the old, typical diamond needle — I searched around and got the Moon Rock needle; cost me $3 million bucks for that. ... So now I have the Googlephonic stereo with a Moon Rock needle — it's OK for a car stereo, but I wouldn't want it in my house. ...

It's a "disease" christened "audiophilia" — or "upgrade-itis" — that's known to take some from a $1,000 start-up system to a $200,000 stereo rig in a dedicated, acoustically sound listening room. It's an obsession with sound reproduction and chasing an invisible musical high. The audiophiles are descendants of the first wave of "hi-fidelity" buffs in the '50s, when accurate music reproduction on home systems became a goal and audio consumers began chasing it, sometimes in the form of home assembly (now called "DIY") tube kits.

It's a trek often fraught with costly trial-and-error pitfalls, but the goal is getting the purest sound from an audio signal, the realism of a recorded performance with the least "coloration." It's about the killer combination of parts. It's about constant experimentation with turntables or digital disc (CD, SACD, DVD-Audio) players or computer music servers (to stream digital music files); it's about fiddling with amps, cables, power supplies, vibration control devices, etc. A well-constructed integrated amp, turntable or CD player (or both) and loudspeakers may be all you need. Or maybe it'll just jumpstart a journey.

In short, everything added or taken away in the audio chain makes a sonic difference. This writer began as a skeptic and spent days, even weeks, comparing not only high-end tube amps versus solid state amps, but also speakers, power cords and cables. The differences in sound weren't subtle. Even the smallest tweaks (such as vibration control devices beneath a turntable) can make a sonic difference, or leave a "sonic signature." But a listener has to sift through so much audio sloganeering and bullshit to find what works and sounds good. You don't buy a car before driving it around the block, and you don't buy audio gear without listening at home first.


Chuck Hinton is a long-haired tech services-sales guy from McIntosh Labs — one of high-end's successful and desired manufacturers, and the Audiokarma Fest's biggest "name" exhibitor. Its hotel room is outfitted with about fifty grand worth of shiny McIntosh pieces including 500-watt amps — one for each of the speakers (which are too large for the tiny hotel room; they're in-your-face loud, but clean and muscular).

Hinton talks of the need for "gigantic, multi-thousand watt" amps. And equipment "built with precision akin to the technology in the Hubble telescope. I half-jokingly tell customers that, just as it takes 10 times the power to double volume, it takes 10 times the money to double sound quality, but this is no joke, as even the finest sound systems in the world, costing a few hundred thousand dollars, still fall just a bit short of the ultimate goal, truly reproducing the sound of live music. So the struggle continues, and the worshipers of high-end audio diligently continue their quest, no matter what it takes, and that, is what high-end really about."

If iTunes and the iPod kicked the album format square in the gut with sheer convenience and ease of single-song downloads, it also gave rise to music fans keen to hear their favorites on hardcopy versions (vinyl, CD) or CD-quality streaming on better playback systems. The number of young, budding audio geeks logging onto various online forums, such as head-fi.org, audionervosa.com and audiokarma.org show this.

McIntosh's Hinton agrees, saying the high-end "industry has seen an increase in interest in two-channel systems (as opposed to home theater) in recent years." (High-end purists, by the way, eschew surround-sound or home theater setups, mainly because they're not about "realism.")

The flipside to McIntosh's success is, for example, Renaissance Audio, one of countless little start-up companies around the world manufacturing their own two-channel audio gear or accessories. Many of these mom-and-pop companies come, hang in the market awhile and then vanish. They're boutique, sure, and they spend years perfecting their products.

Renaissance Audio is Ann Arbor's Bradley Smith, who has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and is the head IT guy at General Motors (and the organist and music director at Southfield's Peace Lutheran church), and his business partner, Dennis Dunseith of Windsor. They're pimping their company's debut: a prototype of their soon-to-be-released, locally manufactured (in Windsor and Detroit) Opus 2 stereo power amp. It features a menu-driven computer setup and a voltage regulator (which keeps the electric current from the wall constant — standard issue electricity doesn't cut it for purists). An audio traditionalist might say that the simplicity rule of tube amps is completely compromised with an on-board computer. How does it sound playing a CD through Escalante speakers? Scarily smooth, detailed, articulate, reflecting both Smith's love of classical music and Dunseith's CKLW rock 'n' roll roots. The amp's price tag? $25,000. Price is all relative in audio; to a person of means, $25,000 is good deal.

The amp, Smith and Dunseith agree, is "a luxury item." These two have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars in both personal labor and their own hard cash into the Opus 2 over last four years. They'll travel to various audio shows this year showing it off. They'd be tickled if they sell five in a year. "We approached this with a kid-in-a-candy-store mentality," Smith says.

Dan Perdu, a guy of about 50 and a dedicated music and audio head, overhears this while seated in the Renaissance hotel "listening" room. "Did he say $25,000?" Perdu chuckles. "Yeah, I guess he did. ... I was hoping he was talking Czechoslovakian currency. I've always dreamed of owning something like that."

Because of its prices, inherent minutiae and discerning fan base, the demand for two-channel high-end is small. But it's a niche market in constant motion because audiophiles are rarely, if ever, satisfied, burdened with the idea that there's always some sonic improvement to be made. That perpetual quest for improved sound (and advancing technology) keeps the industry chugging along — and larger international manufacturers (such as PS Audio, NAD, Rotel, B&W, Quad, Rega, McIntosh etc.) in the black. It's an industry that feeds on obsession.

If an upstart DIY manufacturer (such as Renaissance Audio) lands a few favorable reviews of one of its products in any of the myriad high-end online magazines (Tonepublications.com, Stereotimes.com, positivefeedback.com, 6moons.com, etc.) or on various audiophile forums such as Audiokarma or Stevehoffman.tv, it can get a foot in the door.

Ontario's Black Sand Cable is John Cook's one-man company. He constructs power cables (to run between outlet and component) by hand. His range in price from $139 to $519 (for a 6-foot cord), and are considered high-end bargains. Cook's cables are considered good enough in certain audio circles — interestingly, his work is raved about on stevehoffman.tv, but got a ho-hum response on audiokarma.org — for him to carve out a pretty good living with little or zero advertising budget, only Internet word-of-mouth. And he has a wife and two daughters to feed.

"I won't retire a millionaire, but it pays the bills," Cook says in an e-mail interview. "I put a lot back into Black Sand Cable on the research and development side."

Cook, who sells cables to someone in Michigan "about once a week," is a little DIY guy who's making it because about half the people who contact him on any given day are looking for audio nirvana.

"As a manufacturer it can be frustrating at times," Cook says. "I have sold power cords to people who take the time to e-mail me and claim that my cord is the best they have owned, bar none. Three months later they will sell it off. Two months after that they are back buying the same cord all over again. Why? The die-hards are always looking to improve and sometimes they take two steps back to get ahead one."

And because of the Internet, the popularity of home theater surround and that market's commoditization into Best Buy-type mass merchandisers, and Michigan's sour economy — in a specialty industry that depends on customers' disposable income — brick-and-mortar audio shops are all but a thing of the past. Some have launched Internet storefronts and run shops as sideline businesses out of their homes.

David Kasab mans his two-year-old Web site storefront David Michael Audio out of his Royal Oak house; the majority of his sales are generated through countrywide Web site orders. His specializes in English gear — Harbeth and Epos loudspeakers, Chord cables, Rega CD players and turntables, etc. He's a gracious guy — hardly fits any audio "elitist" mold — who knows how difficult it is survive as an audio dealer. Hence his day gig as director of corporate safety at Kelly Services.

Kasab has been "an audio hobbyist for years" since scoring the first CD player on the market as a teen. He's not out to make an audio living, much less a killing; he (and partner Paul Bittinger) began the business "out of passion." "This is a hobby for me, really — if it stops being fun I won't do it." His future plans include opening a small Royal Oak shop "hopefully in a few years." Kasab, who allows customers to borrow gear for private in-home auditions, says if he'd opened a local store two years ago, he says, his business would be dead now.

Harry Francis has weathered audio popularity's ebb and flow since 1975. He opened his Royal Oak mom-and-pop Audio Dimensions in 1984. Business now is down. "I've been selling luxury items for 31 years," he says. "When people start losing their jobs I get scared as hell."

His customer base is devoted — that's how he survives — built through years of personal interaction; Francis has forged lifelong relationships through his store and work. He's old school (doesn't even have a Web site); his career is based on a community idea — a visit with him can turn into a two-hour talkfest of politics, wine, food and the nuances of electricity. Francis has been described time and again as the most knowledgeable audio guy in the greater Detroit area, if not all of Michigan. It's no surprise — the audio guidance he doles out to customers almost daily can double as a college course in the physics and science of sound.

He's not the most organized business owner, he'll tell you, and it's true. His shop isn't a sleek audio emporium dealing cheap surround systems to fat-walleted movie buffs; rather it's a small, hard-to-miss specialty shop on Woodward with nary an inviting window display and whose interior is stacked with some of the finest two-channel stuff available.


When Mike Vallely sold White Stripe Jack White his two-channel system, he didn't know exactly who the dude was. But the rock star stepped into Vallely's then workplace — Almas Hi-Fi in Royal Oak — and dropped about 70 grand for his stereo; a system built around McIntosh tube amps and B&W speakers. Vallely helped White set the system up in White's former Indian Village spread.

"His guitar amps are tube, so he wanted a tube sound," Vallely says. "The first thing he played, I think, was a really rare Loretta Lynn 45. And then maybe a track from Get Behind Me Satan, which wasn't out yet. He said, 'Yeah, this is exactly what I was looking for.' Meg was sitting on the couch, and I said, 'What do you think of all this stuff?' She said, 'It's neat!'" he laughs. "There was some sway in his floors. And he could've used some room treatments. But it sounded good."

Vallely is a bit jaded when talking super high-end — that elitism associated with mortgage-the-house prices. "Some people buy gear and wear it like a badge. They have the name amp — a Levinson or a McIntosh, whatever — and they try to convince everyone their sound is the right sound. It's not. It's the sound you like; it's what works for you.

"Most people with Ferraris don't really know how to drive them," he continues. "I talked to a guy with a Dodge Ram once. This thing had lights everywhere, gigantic tires, a winch — what do you need a winch for? Everything was designed for off-road. I asked this guy if he ever takes it off-road. He said, 'Hell, no.'"

Audio is Vallely's life, a teen obsession turned career — he's now employed at Audio Video System in Novi, mostly selling surround systems for suburban home theaters.

The 27-year-old got into high-end audio at 14, getting issues of Stereophile in the mail. He began experimenting with gear because he "liked music and wanted it to sound better." He shakes his head, laughs, and says, "I had car audio subwoofers in my closet once! I'd put in bass CDs and try to impress my friends with it." Dad gave young Vallely his first real amp.

Vallely lives with his pop — a sprightly, retired Chrysler electronics technician who appreciates good fidelity — in a ranch-style home in Allen Park. Vallely's main stereo dominates the living room — one of three two-channel systems in the house. It's a $50,000 system driven by a 500-watt dualmono solid state amp, a tube preamp, a $4,000 CD player, a $9,000 Linn turntable and older, $15,000 B&W speakers, which stand tall like cubist sentries. The sound is so transparent, each instrument aired-out in the soundstage. A white leather couch faces the stereo; it's about eight feet back, and the cushion is imprinted with an eternal ass-print marking the room's sweet-spot for listening. The Vallelys spend hours a day with music. Stacks of vinyl — hundreds of classical, jazz and rock 'n' roll titles — are neatly separated into genres and propped against walls. There's a CD collection with lots of Zappa, even the Go and the White Stripes.

Mike Vallely's basement bedroom system features a Dynaco tube amp purchased cheap that he rebuilt with Dad. The slim, single-driver loudspeakers were custom built by George Federyszyn, a well-respected gent in local DIY audio circles. The speakers are so detailed it's scary, and the audio components all but vanish. From a Yusef Lateef album to an old Pete Townshend CD, nothing gets in the way of the music.

His stuff's worth a fortune, sure, but Vallely gets manufacturer deals through his work, and he purchases other pieces used. "All this," he says, "is just a road to get to the music." He shakes his head at the ridiculousness of a high-end contradiction, and says, "Some people get into this for the love of music and then it ends up being all about the gear. I used to be like that. They'll compare audiophile CDs back-and-forth," he laughs, "but not really listen to the music." He pauses. "I discover music all the time. And I learned a long time ago not to judge stuff before you take it home and try it out.

"It gets to the point with the high cost," Vallely continues, "that you're just splitting hairs; there's only so many ways to build an amp. How much money can you spend?"


It's Sunday afternoon back at Audiokarma Fest and Terry Cummins ("Cummins, like the big diesel engines") moves like a proud dad. He's a blue-collar guy, glasses, graying hair, with the kind of inviting laugh that's reserved for barstools, seasoned with hints of hard road. He's been married to the same woman for 35 years and has two grown children. His father and two brothers and are all into audio. And he's so moved by the possibilities in music's tonality and dynamics that he constructed his own system.

Cummins' story is so Detroit too: He got laid off from his auto industry gig (coordinating parts for production lines) four months ago. You'd never tell because the 56-year-old's excitement for both music and his home-built system is kidlike, life-affirming and communicable.

He talks of the rise in popularity of audiophile systems: "It is growing, because kids are starting to recognize vinyl, buying it." A moment later he's chatting tube amp model numbers, his "push-pull monoblocks" and balanced power. He talks about actor James Coburn: "He died listening to his system!" And he finishes with "just don't take the music away from me."

Grumpy says Cummins created this system "with pennies." It's true, Cummins built his stereo over a five-year span with a total cost, he says, including spare parts, of $2,000. It's probably worth 10 times that. His stereo looks as if it was cobbled together in a backyard audio chop shop of leftover parts from a 1950s radio station; there's an antiquated and soft spherical sexiness, as if you're looking at another era's electronics through smudged windows. Glowing tubes are mounted in timber boxes; power outlets and transformers are affixed to two-by-fours; cables and power cords arch like thick, graceful streams of frozen Silly String. The speakers — these giant rectangles that'd make a troublesome fit into a van — intimidate.

The homespun, honey-colored beast — this simple matter of electricity pushing air — is built with precision and care, aside from a borrowed preamp, a lower-end Sony SACD/CD player, and his turntable, this box-mounted silvery gem of a piece from a 1940s radio station: "I'll die with that turntable; it's a piece of my father.

"Most of my listening is done with my eyes closed — that's why I don't care how my system looks," Cummins laughs. But the sound. It's real. "Each person here is on their own journey — their unique characteristics of their audio and emotion. For as many audiophiles that are out there, no two sound alike. It's like a kaleidoscope of systems."

Cummins accomplished the goal of pure audio in that his equipment doesn't impede the music. The sound is transparent and fast (an audio illusion where the music seems to get to your ears quickly). He's here simply to share it. He has nothing to sell.

A bootleg CD-R of McCartney doing "Mother Nature's Son" (straight from the Capitol vaults— no mastering, no compression, just an exact audio copy of the master tape) is inserted into Cummins' player. The acoustic guitar begins it's plucking — and immediately the dynamic quality of each note is felt, that subtle rise and fall that tells us how the notes and chords are played are as important as the note and chord choices themselves — its sound is neither reluctant nor rushed. The five or six people in the room feel the song's musical tension. It's obvious in how their conversations suddenly hush. Every subtle nuance, supple and plucky granule of McCartney's voice washes over — you can almost hear the caffeine and nicotine coating Macca's vocal chords. He's sitting directly in front of you, singing, strumming. The reach-out-and-touch-a-Beatle closeness is frightfully real. There's another unspoken consensus in the room: How can something sound so perfect, so warm, so nuanced, so dynamic and so emotional? All CDs should sound like this.

Cummins takes a chair and leans back, arms crossed at his chest, head askew, eyes shut. As McCartney begins the second refrain, tears well in Cummins' eyes, one makes its way down his cheek. He's found audio nirvana; for him the chase is over, at least for now.

See Also:

The mastering master
Laying it down with Steve Hoffman.

Start me up
Mind-blowing stereos on a budget.

Dig this piece about how loudness in modern mastering kills music.

A short film by Ken Barnes about audiophiles.

Brian Smith is Metro Times features editor. Send comments to [email protected]