True audio stories! Do you have any?

Story #1 1976 Milwaukee, WI

I was just out of college looking to buy some audio equipment and went into a store called Wacks Electronics. It was high end for the times. On the outside they claimed they had over 100 tape decks for sale. Well I don’t know about that, but they had lots of stuff I had never seen before.

After chatting with the owner, he knew, I knew, brand name stuff. I said what is your best setup?
He took me to the back of the store, up a flight of stairs, to a locked room. This room was for special customers only! Not the typical “riff-raff” off the street.

In the not too large room were speakers made up of three big 6’ tall flat panels on each side, that I had never seen before (Audio Research Tympani IIIc), an Audio Research SP-3a preamp, and an Audio Research D150 power amp. I do not remember the turntable.

The power amp was huge and weighed almost 200 pounds. Three big meters, a large knob in the center, and many switches. It looked like something out of a 1950s science fiction movie. With this in your listening room, everyone knew you were either dead serious about sound quality, or totally crazy! Only about 125 of these monsters were ever made.

The owner flipped the on off switch and the meters lit up. Then slowly turned the big center knob, which gently turned up the voltage with the built in variac! Cool! Then he played a record. For the first time ever, I heard realistic music coming out of the speakers! Not just sound! I was “blown away”, but could not afford this equipment.

A few months later I bought a pair of Magnepan IIa speakers, Great American Sound (GAS) Thoebe preamp, and GAS Son of Ampzilla power amp. I thrilled many listeners with that setup for many years. Nobody ever said I had less than great sound!

Story #2 1988 Twin Cities, MN

I was talking to an audio friend at work about an ad in the paper for an older pair of Magnepan Tympani speakers. The Tympani line was no longer made. He knew I owned Magnepans, and asked if they were any good. I told him to not think twice, and buy them! Then I told him story #1. He was skeptical, but thought if he did not like them, he could resell without a loss.

The seller said he did not have the boxes, but could deliver. To his amazement, a long stretch limo rolled up to his house with the speakers in the back. The driver who helped move them in said the seller was the recording engineer for the “artist formerly known as prince”!

He temporarily set them up in his bed room, and was unimpressed with the bass. I asked him how far were they were away from the rear wall? He said one foot. I told him, move them four feet away from the wall! The next day, he said the bass was “unbelievable”! I have never heard more realist bass, and “life sized” sound! These were an absolute steal!

Story #3 2004 Plymouth, MN

I was waiting in the Audio Research lobby to pick up a preamp they repaired. The receptionist/secretary/phone operator was sitting at her desk ignoring me. A good looking middle aged brunet. A photograph of a huge M300 mono block amp was hanging on the wall. I asked her if that was a Bill Johnson design? She curtly said, “they are all Johnson’s designs”! Then she turned away.

I started to tell her story #1. She continued to ignore me. When I got to the Tympani part, she turned, and pointed her finger directly at me, and said “Timpani IIIc……..I have those in my living room”! Time seemed to freeze! For what seemed like several seconds, we gazed into each others eyes in silence. We had a “cosmic connection” and my jaw dropped! Wow! A female with Tympani’s in her living room, how rare was that! She looked embarrassed, and immediately turned away, returning to ignore me. Later found out he lady receptionist /secretary / phone operator’s name is Ruth Gustafson, the wife of Leonard the service manager.

The Tympani IIIc was distributed by Audio Research, with “Audio Research” on the connector plate, not Magnepan. After Bill Johnson retired, and sold the company, there was no longer anyone in the lobby.

More Stories:

In the 90’s I met a person that worked for many years at Magnepan. He had fond memories from afternoons listening to speakers for evaluation (like other employees) in the lab. He remembers that Jim Winey had tight control over decisions, and caused lots of delays because he could not be found for sign offs, and was at home studying (not drinking) wine. He recalls the worst ever speakers returned for rebuild, was a set of badly beat up Tympani’s owned by country singer Willie Nelson.

A story from the internet: there was an employee at ARC that had a baby born premature and after insurance, left him with a $30,000 bill. Bill Johnson felt sorry for him, and wrote him a personal check for $30,000. What a kind man! The employee was Jim Smith.

I also met Frank VanAlstine at Macintosh user groups, and the local audio club. He was a little boisterous and opinionated, but nice. He modified Dynaco audio, the ARC SP3a, and Magnepans by putting clay globs on strategic spots, to improve the sound ( LOL). He also was a car racer. Made good audio products for not high dollars.

Met Ralph Karsten of Atma-Sphere also. Posts all over the internet, and is an expert in audio. Has been around a long time, with fanatic followers of his tube amps. A great person.

Also talked to James Bongiorno over the phone several times, when I bought a Son of Ampzilla 2000 in 2006. Liked his designs (Great American Sound (GAS), Sumo Electric, and Spread Spectrum Technologies). At times he was abrasive and opinionated. Tried to order another Son of Ampzilla 2000, and he said he was having tests for a lung transplant, and had not sold anything for months. I had sent a check for $3500 (he cut me a deal). Two days later he called, and told me he would change my order, and hold my money for a new amp, to be called Ampzilla Forever. I was suspicious, and figured he would be dead, and it would be forever before I received it. The next day I called the bank and put a BLOCK on the check! Several days later, he left me a voicemail with many swear words. A few weeks later he died.

My all time favorite store was The Audiophile Sound Studio in Middleton, WI, several miles west of Madison. The store was a large house with seven listening rooms. They had many, many, super audio products around the late 70's early 80's.

I heard the full blown official Mark Levinson HQD system. Stacked Quads, Decca tweeter, 30" Hartly bass, eight Levinson JC2 Class A amps, Levinson crossovers, and driven by a giant John Curl modified Studer tape deck. The tape deck used 2" wide, two track tape, running at 30 in per second, and they played second generation Mark Levinson Jazz recordings made by Mark.

They also had the giant Dayton -Wright X10 gas filled electrostatics, and Harold Beverage 8’ tall coffin electrostatics, with tube amp in the bottom, speakers.

The store went under in the 80's

Back in the mid-70's, I was hanging out one evening with my friend Tom Tutay, who now does a lot of tube amp work.  He'd just gotten in a Dyna ST150 solid state amp, and as was his practice back then, he went about beefing up the power supply.  He put in much larger caps.  I came over to his place to check it out and he had the cover off so I could see his work.  He flipped the power switch on and walked away.   A few minutes later flames, about 15 inches high as I recall, came shooting out of the top!  Tom quickly rushed over and powered it off.  

As it turned out, one of the caps was labeled backwards and got wired in backwards, which was a dead short.  As it turned out all it did was burn out some resistors.  The output devices were unharmed.  A new cap and replacement resistors went in and the amp worked fine.

So THIS is what they mean by the "smoke test"!
A lo-fi tale:  In the fall of 1982, as a college student, I got a part-time job at Lafayette Radio on 45th St. in Manhattan (which was wholly owned by Circuit City at the time).  These were the days of cheaply made mid-fi from Sansui, Technics, JVC and others.  On one particularly busy day, a familiar face motioned me over to a stereo receiver on display.  There was no doubt, it was the actor Jack Warden.  He pointed to the entry level Technics receiver, priced at $109.95, and asked if it was the one that had been on sales for $99.95 the prior week.  Indeed it was, I replied, but the sale was over.  "That's okay," he said, "I'll wait until it goes on sale again."  He then turned and left the store.  I thought it was pretty funny.
I have LOTS of stories, but here is one:

It was the 2003 Stereophile Show in San Francisco. I had voiced the system as I always did. However, this time I needed to meet a certain technical requirement (we had a particularly nasty bass problem in the room), but I was ultimately unsatisfied with its musical impact.

This was initially addressed by bringing in a friend/technical expert (Richard Rives-Bird) who proceeded to equalize the bass system with his Rives PARC so that it was exceptionally flat – no more peak at 50 Hz. Unfortunately, that’s how I felt after listening to this amazing technical achievement – flat.

After deciding that I had to make sure that I properly addressed both aspects (technical & musical – meaning that I had some listening and adjusting to do), we went on to receive a level of universal acclaim that – honestly speaking - I didn’t expect.

Two well-known reviewers (Robert Harley of TAS and Srajan Ebaen of commented in their publications about this acclaim. They were amazed to see the audience stand up and applaud (!) at the end of each demo session, something that they had never seen.

Twelve years later (!), Robert again wrote of this phenomenon, in a recent issue of TAS: The same system at a San Francisco show elicited a standing ovation with wild applause at the conclusion of Pink Floyd’s The Wall—the only instance of such a reaction to a show demo in memory. —RH]

If I had simply settled for technically excellent sound, we would still have had a good show. But we had lines of expectant listeners down the hall, waiting to hear our demo, because it was the musical impact that brought the listeners to their feet with applause.

The implication for me was/is that it’s not enough to achieve technical excellence when voicing a system to a room - we shouldn’t leave it at that. We then need to apply the technical excellence to achieve musical involvement, IMO.