Sisters in Sound Rondi D'Agostino
Krell Industries, 45 Connair Road, Orange, CT 06477. Tel: (203) 799-9954. Web: www.krellonline.com.
Steve Guttenberg: Rondi, when did you become an audiophile?
Rondi D'Agostino: I had my first serious case of audio lust when I was 13. I babysat for a couple with a great Fisher system, and it totally blew me away. And then I fell in love with that small KLH rig—you know, the all-in-one system with the turntable on top.
Guttenberg: So you were always into music?
D'Agostino: Oh, sure. I went to the first show Bill Graham put on at the Fillmore Auditorium. It was a benefit to raise bail for the San Francisco Mime Troop, and the original [Jefferson] Airplane [then called The Great Society], Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Dead, all played there. I dropped in on Ken Kesey's acid tests a couple weeks later and I also spent a couple of nights a week at the local jazz clubs. Yeah, it was a crazy time and I was totally immersed in the music.
Guttenberg: By some strange coincidence, you hooked up with Mark Levinson just a few years after that.
D'Agostino: It turns out my parents were old friends of Mark's parents, and that's how we met in 1966. We stayed in touch, and in 1976 Mark offered me a job. This was around the time I was trying to decide whether to continue at Sarah Lawrence [College] full time or get a job. I took the job and moved to New Haven.
Guttenberg: You must have gotten a chuckle out of Levinson's new book, Satisfaction: The Art of the Female Orgasm [co-written with his wife, Sex and the City's Kim Cattrall].
D'Agostino: Oh, that didn't surprise me—Mark is a very creative person. He always had lots and lots of ideas. He's a very good jazz musician, and he loves recording—that's how he got into the audio business. Mark is also the best salesman I've ever known.
Guttenberg: He had to be—his stuff was way more expensive than the other high-end brands of the time.
D'Agostino: Mark was never shy about asking for more money, but as a manufacturer he had no choice but to charge prices that covered his costs to manufacture and market his products. Not long after I started working for him, it was discovered the ML-1 wasn't making a profit! The price had to be raised a couple of times, from something like $1200 to over $2000 in eight months.
Guttenberg: Wow, that's amazing!
D'Agostino: You can't just pull the price out of thin air, or rely on a parts-cost-to-retail-price ratio. No, the price has to be based on how the heck much did it cost to build the product. You've got account for every last thing—parts, labor, factory space, sales expenses, advertising, and the cost of doing shows like CES [the Consumer Electronics Show]. Oh, and parts/price variability can kill your profit if you don't watch out. Let's just say, it's hard to get rich manufacturing high-end electronics.
Guttenberg: So when did Dan D'Agostino come into the picture?
D'Agostino: I first met Dan at a CES while I was working for Mitchell Cotter [a late-1970s turntable tweaker and phono preamp designer—Ed.]. I had mentioned to Dan that I had accidentally killed my old Fisher tube amp, and he wound up giving me a 25W class-A amp as a present. That amp turned out to be the genesis of the first Krell, the KSA-100. It was an ugly little one-off amp, but when I hooked it up to my system, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven! Dan next built a 50W version, which we brought over to my friend, Peter Aczel [then editor of The Audio Critic], to check out. He loved it, and his encouragement gave us the confidence to go ahead with Krell. Actually, it was Dan's idea to start the business, and I was smart to take him on as a partner.
Guttenberg: The name was Dan's idea, right?
D'Agostino: Yes, we decided not to risk using our own names on a new business with uncertain prospects, so Dan suggested Krell. It came from my favorite old sci-fi flick, Forbidden Planet.
Guttenberg: Tell me about Krell's first CES.
D'Agostino: We moved into our factory on December 1, 1980, and on January 3 we hit the road for Las Vegas in our Saab 900 Turbo, loaded down with three KSA-100 amps, a pair of speakers Dan whipped up, a last-second preamp, a Technics turntable, demo records, and our clothes. After two and a half days on the road, we drove over Hoover Dam at 3am and looked down on the lights of Las Vegas. What a sight! Our demonstration/sleeping room at the Jockey Club had reasonably good sound and cost us something like $1700 for the whole show!
Guttenberg: Right from the get-go, you went after Levinson dealers in a big way.
D'Agostino: Absolutely! Our initial marketing plan was to sell Krell as an alternative to Levinson. Mark's ML-2 monoblock 25W class-A amps went for around $4000/pair, and our 100W class-A amp retailed for $2500—so we thought it would be a cost-effective alternative. I knew all those dealers from my time with Levinson, and I met a bunch more when I worked for Cotter. Hey, you go with what's familiar, and it seemed like a reasonable plan, but we didn't understand the politics. MLAS [Mark Levinson Audio Systems] let their dealers know that if they sold Krell they'd lose the Levinson line. It was no contest—we were nobody, and MLAS had a great track record. So we were shut out of all of those dealers.