Mentors & Audio Shows

Where do audiophiles come from?

I must have been 11 or 12 when my father took me to my first audio show, at a swank hotel somewhere in San Francisco in the late 1960s. The memories are still vivid: going from room to room, collecting brochures in a white plastic TDK promotional bag, and listening to demos as the salesfolk explained their latest products.

That TDK bag wasn't a safe hiding place for those hi-fi brochures for months afterward, as I shuffled through the pile to read about the H.H. Scott or Harman/Kardon receivers one more time. Experiencing that show and endlessly staring at the color photos of components planted seeds of audio curiosity very deep in me, from where they have since grown to alter the course of my life. It didn't hurt that Dad had built his own audio system and, as soon as I could hold a soldering iron steady, helped me assemble a stereo amplifier and a pair of loudspeakers.

While in high school in the 1970s, I discovered Garland Audio, a small high-end audio shop in San Jose, California, that would let a pesky teenager with hardly a dollar to his name come in and listen to (and touch!) the Magnepans, the Levinson ML-1 preamp with ML-2 monoblocks, and anything else that had just arrived. At the end of the year, they even bought an ad in our high school yearbook.

Then, when I was in college, there was the local audio shop in San Luis Obispo, run by a couple of self-taught audio and music enthusiasts. They hired me part-time and explained in great detail the black audio arts of setting cartridge VTA, soldering pricey audio cables, and proper operation of the Nitty Gritty record-cleaning machine. We eventually became partners, and many employees who subsequently passed through Audio Ecstasy's sound rooms now work in the audio and music industries.

Twenty years after that first audio show in San Francisco, I returned the favor and invited my Dad to the 1989 Stereophile show at the Dunfee Hotel in San Mateo, California. It was the first Stereophile show for both of us, we had a great time taking an amplifier listening test together (remember that one, JA?), and Dad got to see to what a wildly different beast the hi-fi culture had evolved into in just two decades. It was exciting for both of us to see and hear the new MartinLogan Statement loudspeakers, and to speak in person with Madrigal's Jim Shannon about Mark Levinson amplifier design.

That my story is hardly unique was revealed by a poll suggested by reader Arnel Enero and conducted on the Stereophile website a while back. It turns out that most of you, too, got your starts at the hands of audiophiles who generously shared their enthusiasm and advice. Typical is reader David Badner, whose father started him out with his first mono system. "It was a Radio Craftsman amp (triode-wired PP KT66) and tuner, Brocinere preamp, Garrard turntable with a flip ceramic cartridge, and a 12" coaxial EV speaker in a boom-box cabinet. He also gave me access to his extensive collection of classical LPs and 78s. I was in fifth grade when he gave it to me. It was the late '60s, and this equipment was considered obsolete. It was a great start!"

Many of you, like Mike Malinowski, caught the audio spark in your local audio shops: "A few years out of college, while wandering around Philadelphia, I stumbled on a small high-end audio salon: Chestnut Hill Audio. Although poor, I was convinced that my Bose-Panasonic system was the best—Stereo Review told me so! The owner, Jack Rubinson, patiently demo'd several systems that I could never afford at that time. Listening to Quad speakers with a Linn turntable was an epiphany." Another reader: "It was Mr. Michael Kay at Lyric in NYC, when he let a group of five 18-year-olds listen to the Infinity IRSes for several hours after a brutal Calculus 2 exam."

"I was 16 years old," wrote Ken Kirkpatrick. "I went to a store to get a stylus for my grandmother. I noticed they had Klipschorns. I asked for a demo. They used a Belle Klipsch in the center, a Mac tube amp, and a nice turntable. He put on Headeast's 'Never Been Any Reason,' followed by ZZ Top's 'LaGrange.' It was loud. It was clear. I was stunned—I could hardly speak and I was hooked. My system has evolved over the years, and I once had those Klipschorns. But that original memory is still burned into my brain. It was the first time that I realized that a recording could put goosebumps all over you, just like live music. It's all about the music. It is a great hobby."

Quite a few of you were exposed while in school. Reader René Fortier credited his ninth-grade music-appreciation class: "It was a small classroom with sound-enhancement materials all around and two huge horn speakers with monster tube amps. I sat five rows back, in the center. We listened to Prokofiev (Peter and the Wolf). As each instrument was played, my teacher told us what it was, and who and/or what it represented. As the music progressed, I found myself immersed in a fantastic world. At the end of that class, I promised myself that one day I would have that kind of experience in my own home. Thirty-four years later, I am almost there! Thanks to all of you who take the time to teach our young."

The point here is probably obvious. If you are proficient in the arts of cartridge alignment or biasing tube amplifiers, pass your skills on to someone. If you have some used gear that you've just replaced, instead of looking for the highest bidder on eBay, find someone just starting out and give them a better-than-great deal, or at least generous financing terms, to begin their first high-end system.

If you work in an audio shop and have the time, show those curious kids with only pennies in their pockets what their music can sound like. Encourage them to bring in what they like—no music snobbery allowed—so they can hear it in all its glory. To them it will sound good, no matter how it was recorded. And whenever possible, promote music programs at your local schools.

Dad, you probably had no idea how important it was for me that you dragged me from room to room at that hi-fi show more than three decades ago. Thanks. And thanks, Mom—you helped me find and test the ultimate speaker cloth and brought home lots of great music. Thanks, Garland Audio and J. Gordon Holt. Thanks, Jim Moyer and Jim Haigh. Thanks also to all of the audio-equipment manufacturers who took the time to come by our store to tell stories and listen to music, knowing that there is more to this business than taking orders.

I encourage each of you to find someone, or a bunch of someones, preferably young (most Stereophile readers say their interest began when they were between 11 and 16), and become their audio mentor. And take them to the Home Entertainment 2002 show in New York City, at the Manhattan Hilton over the May 30-June 2 weekend. It will probably change their lives forever.