Tone of Music: a New San Francisco Store
In a marked reversal of brick and mortar decline, Tone of Music Audio became the second high-end audio retailer to open its doors in San Francisco within the last year or so. Ideally situated in the heart of trendy Noe Valley, at the busy intersection of Castro and 24th Streets, the store's combination of major brands and personable service bodes well for the future of "high-performance" audio in Northern California.
When Tim Nguyen (above) decided to take the step up from in-home retailer to storefront proprietorship, he attracted a host of impressive designers and manufacturers. Thus did no lesser personages than Alon Wolf and Jon Baker of Magico, Dan D'Agostino of Dan D'Agostino Master Audio Systems, Luke Manley and Bea Lam of VTL, and Richard Schram of Parasound make appearances at a December 14 opening that drew a healthy number of dedicated audiophiles.
Truth be told, Nguyen's before-Christmas opening weekend arrived before construction had drawn to a close. The only lettering on an otherwise bare storefront window was for the location's former nail salon, and the back room of the three-room, railroad space could not be set up in time to welcome visitors. (Not even the store's website had been brought up to date as people entered for groove and nosh rather than trim and polish.)
Hence, while attendees enjoyed music from almost all of the aforementioned brands, with the vital assistance of Air Tight, Simon Yorke, Luxman, and Argento, the sonic signature of Tone of Music Audio's other brandsincluding but in no way limited to Devore Fidelity, Focal, Franco Serblin, Harbeth, Quad, REL, Bricasti, Conrad Johnson, E.A.R., Esoteric, Exposure, Hegel, Soulution, Rega, Triode, Wavelength, Clearaudio, Koetsu, Nottingham Analog, Ortofon, Shelter Analogue, Sumiko, Audience, Cardas, Chord, DNM, Stealth, Stillpoint, Supra, FIM, and Furutechhad to wait for another day.
Despite the work-in-progress setting, what was up and running made an extremely fine impression. Nguyen still had some work to do taming room resonances and counterbalancing his tonearm, but the ability of his all-tube chainVTL TL-7.5 Series III Reference linestage preamplifier ($20,000), VTL TP-6.5 Signature phono stage ($10,500) with transformer step-up option, and VTL S-400 Series II Reference stereo power amp ($33,500)and visually striking solid-state front endDan D'Agostino Momentum preamp ($32,000) and stereo power amp ($29,000)to empower his Simon Yorke S9 turntable ($10,000) outfitted with an Air Tight PC-1 cartridge ($8000) and computer-fed Luxman DA-06 DAC ($5,000) to sing through Argento cabling and Magico Q-3 loudspeakers ($39,000/pair) was beyond question.
Luke Manley, who was struggling valiantly to speak through an intense cold, began by introducing his wife, Bea Lam. A former software engineer for Hewlett-Packard who developed the Dashboard program for Windows, longtime audiophile Lam both runs VTL and serves as the final sound arbiter of all its equipment. She also does a fine job of holding the floor when Manley's voice gives out.
Referencing the "Why Tubes?" page at www.vtl.com, Manley cited the inherent linearity and ample headroom of valve amplification as distinct pluses. He also noted that the fully balanced S-400 Series II class-AB amplifier boasts better insulation technology and far more energy storage than ever before, and maintains VTL's reputation for tube gear "for people who don't like to fiddle with tubes."
Lam noted that she brings to VTL her expertise with ensuring software quality. "Every part gets inspected before we sign off on it, which means that each amplifier can take 23 months to build," she said. She also characterized her listening protocol as an iterative process that gurarantees a family sound among all VTL products.
When Dan D'Agostino (above) took the floor, yours truly, a former owner of D'Agostino-designed Aragon and Krell KSA-50S amplification, realized that he had never before had the pleasure of hearing the fabled designer speak. The wait, although unjustified, was worth it.
D'Agostino began by stating that when he first began designing his new components and marketing them under his own name, he wanted to ensure that no one would have buyer's remorse. "I've heard 1000 times, 'You're not bringing that into my living room!'" he declared. "What woman wants to bring a big box into their living room?"
"I do!" yelled Bay Area Audiophile Society member Leslie Ludin, thereby seconding Lam's implied message that women are not monolithic. After the presentation, this "spouse acceptance factor" proponent noted from personal experience that some audiophiles' spouses are not only male, but also far more particular about appearances than Ludin.
Ten years ago, D'Agostino told Stereophile's David Lander "I always like to do things that I don't normally do, because it gives me experience and a broader base of knowledge." Such is still the norm for a man who says, of his current line, "I wanted to create something that was challenging and beautiful."
D'Agostino first plotted the size of his Momentum amplifier and visualized a cabinet that obviated the need for large heatsinks. He also wanted the amplifier to include a meter, because he thinks they have a romantic look. ("I'm a big watch fan," he confessed.) Then he sought out someone who could build the amp's big linear power supply, and challenged himself to create a unit that would have no surface-mounted componentshe doesn't think they're good for audioperform optimally without feedback, and not clip.
Due to his meticulous attention to detail, D'Agostino's six-person company builds only 20 capacitor-free amplifiers per month, all of which he tests personally before releasing them to the public. "If you buy a product I designed, you want parts I designed," said D'Agostino of his new products. "I've made a million class-A amplifiers, but I had to develop a special driver stage in order to build a class-AB amplifier that sounds like class-A." He also compared the sound of his new amps to all the tube amps he could acquire, as well as every amp he designed at Krell before coming up with a new final design that is "built on music, not distortion."
For his part, Magico's Alon Wolf (above) stated, "I started this endeavor in my garage in the 21st century, and I started with pure science. We can do things today that we couldn't do five years ago. I can simulate everything, including creating the perfect phase alignment and optimal crossover, in a virtual environment. We use tools and technology that other companies do not call into play. Our goal is to move out of the way of the music in products whose potential for sonic losses is the greatest in the audio chain."
Discussing his entry-level "S" series, which was built to an admittedly far from bargain basement price point, Wolf explained that he was able to lower the price compared to his price-no-object "Q" series by building cabinets from a single extrusion of aluminum. The S-3's cabinet, for example, is made on a 20" press that Magico was only able to locate in the last six months. "The S is voiced with a tiny bit more efficiency in the bass," he said. "Its bass has more heft than its comparative Q model, but is not as refined.
Wolf has recently moved his 35-employee operation to a huge facility in Hayward, CA. I haven't been there yet, but I'm told that his new listening room is something else. Hopefully I'll be able to report on it first-hand in the near future. Given what a superb job the Q-3 did of journeying from the massive chaos that opens the final movement of Mahler's Symphony No.1 to its tender center, I can't wait.