Allen Perkins: From Bicycles to Belt Drives Page 2

That January, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Perkins met SOTA's owners and designers. "I said that I had the model that always did this and this and this," he recalled, "and told them that I had fixed mine. There was a dead silence. After a few seconds, the designer said, 'We've been working on that problem for two years and we couldn't solve it.' After I showed them what I did, they came to me the next day and asked if I could fix all the other 'tables they had loaned out at the show."

That spring, Perkins moved to the Bay Area to work with SOTA, at their factory in Oakland, on their new speaker line. Soon he was asked to replace SOTA's designer. In fall 1989, after four-and-a-half increasingly stressful years, he decided to leave SOTA. Perkins then joined Stig Bjorge, Jonathan Carr, and Petr Mares to cofound a company to distribute Lyra cartridges in the US. When that transpacific partnership proved unviable, they agreed to let Perkins continue distributing Lyra in the States.

Searching for a name for his new distribution company, Perkins was determined not to fall back on such audiophile buzzwords as research, audio, and lab. Eventually, he came up with Immedia. "Immedia derives from media and immediate," he explained. "I want people to know that I will remain present and attentive throughout transactions, and strive to deliver my own goods immediately."

Soon after Immedia began distributing Lyra's Clavis cartridge, Perkins teamed up with former SOTA machinist Franz Rolinek to begin manufacturing the RPM turntables. (In this case, "RPM" stood for "Rolinek-Perkins Machine.") Eventually, Rolinek took over manufacturing and Immedia handled distribution. Perkins then added to Immedia's stable of distributed products more lines of cartridges, Finite-Elemente equipment racks, Connoisseur and Lehmann amplification, and, for a while, Burmester, Yamamura, and Audio Physic. But the fact that Immedia was always able to sell more turntables than RPM could make presented an insurmountable problem for a company pledged to immediate delivery.

After RPM revolved no more, Perkins determined to never again have distribution problems with his own products. Thanks to computer-aided design (CAD), Spiral Groove can manufacture its products in large enough quantities to keep up with demand while achieving close tolerances and levels of fit'n'finish undreamed of only a few years ago.

The Angel on the Clif
In 1999, Perkins opened a retail outlet in San Francisco's East Bay. Though the venture was short-lived—two devastating burglaries depleted Immedia's stock and made insurance prohibitively expensive—it connected him with a customer named Lisa Thomas.

"When Lisa came in wanting equipment," he explained, "I got the sense that she was probably dismissed in high-end audio stores, as women usually are. I also felt her enthusiasm. I took time to show her a very nice system, which she purchased.

"After we got to know each other, and I learned that she had cofounded Clif Bar, I asked if she might be open to a loan that would enable me to make a new turntable. [Clif Bar makes the high-energy health bar of that name.—Ed.] She said she'd rather form a partnership in a bigger company that would allow me to make all the cutting-edge products I'd like to make. Close to three years ago, we formed Spiral Groove. Lisa has been very, very supportive and patient ever since."

During the present period of economic slowdown, when so many companies are digging in their heels, retrenching, or calling it a day, Immedia and Spiral Groove are moving forward with new, custom-built headquarters and an expanding product line.

Spiral Groove produces three analog products designed by Perkins: a recently launched tonearm, and two belt-driven turntables: the SG1, winner of Stereo Sound of Japan's Grand Prix award; and the SG2, which the on-line ToneAudio magazine named its Analog Product of the Year for 2008. Perkins has also teamed with electrical engineer Brian Daley to create the Spiral Groove Equinox line of electronics. It includes the E DP1 preamplifier-DAC, and the 60Wpc, class-A, E 60A solid-state power amplifier, whose sound is said to bridge the gap between solid-state and tubes. Perkins designed the chassis and certain mechanical aspects of both electronic components, and worked with Daley to tweak their sound.

"Brian adjusts the sound if I'm not satisfied with something, which is often the case," he said. "Once I give examples as to what I'd like to hear, he's brilliant enough to be able to change the design to address those things."

Spiral Groove has also become the majority holder in and manufacturing facility for Sonics by Joachim Gerhard. Perkins worked on the Amerigo, which performed extraordinarily well in small hotel rooms at the 2008 CES and Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, and has since helped redesign Gerhard's entire line.

"Joachim is such a brilliant designer," said Perkins. "Having a second set of ears and aesthetic sense has motivated him and helped create a better product. We feel the new speakers fill the void created when Joachim ceased to be the designer at Audio Physic, the Virgo II was discontinued, and their new speakers took on a different flavor and characteristics."

Spiral Groove has also introduced a unique line of cables designed by Keith Roberding. Though Roberding had contacted Perkins years before, during the latter's first month at SOTA, his trust in Perkins, and Perkins's long friendship with Daley, impelled him to wait until Spiral Groove could welcome him aboard. Spiral Groove's tonearm and electronics, as well as the Sonics speakers, are wired with Roberding's wire.