What Price Perfection?

The late Ken Fritz discusses his legendary audio system, from the YouTube video One Man’s Dream

When Ken Fritz died, many people wondered what would become of his stereo system. Fritz's rig was the stuff of legend. The audiophile from Chesterfield, Virginia, had built much of it with his own hands, including line-array speakers too tall to fit in most people's homes. They took 5400 hours to complete and were appraised at more than $200,000. He also designed and built a three-arm turntable that sat on a unique 1500lb antivibration platform. Fritz felt that his "Frankentable" rivaled or bested record players costing well into six figures.

That was just the beginning. In the 1980s, when he started dreaming about building "the best stereo system in the world," Fritz decided he'd need a room to match, so he built that, too, using a celebrated concert hall in Osaka, Japan, as a virtual blueprint. With frequent help from his children and a few friends, he transformed the living room of his family's split-level suburban ranch into a 55' × 30' music space with a ceiling that varied between 12' and 17' tall. 24,000 cubic feet of acoustic splendidness.

Few of us would know about Ken Fritz's single-minded pursuit if it weren't for the 58-minute film his son Scott, an audio engineer in Chicago, made in 2018. One Man's Dream, Scott called it—a title that subtly removed himself and the rest of the family from his dad's obsession. The video racked up two million views on YouTube (footnote 1).

When I watched it a few years back, Fritz's monomaniacal devotion to superb sound impressed me, but I was also struck by his rigid adherence to symmetry, which sometimes seemed to come at the expense of the room acoustics he'd worked so hard to perfect. Against the front wall of his majestic listening space stood two identical grandfather clocks. Like the pair of foot-tall ceramic Nipper dogs, they were carefully placed so that each long side of the room mirrored the other. A telltale fact I noticed was that the ticking clocks' pendulums swung back and forth in unison, the end points of their sweeps perfectly synchronized. This was the room of a man who was no stranger to OCD-like excess.

One Man's Dream also gave viewers an offhand glimpse into Fritz Sr.'s darkening future. He'd just been diagnosed with ALS, an incurable neurodegenerative disease that slowly robs patients of muscle control. By 2020, Fritz had difficulty talking and swallowing. Soon, he no longer had the fine motor skills to handle his 28,000 vinyl records or his multiple tonearms. An iPad with Roon still let him pick music and listen—for a while. In April 2022, shortly after his 80th birthday, Ken Fritz passed away.

I'd love to say, "But his system lives on." Fritz said many times that he wanted it to stay intact. His family tried to find a buyer for the collection of equipment, bundled with the house if need be. No takers emerged. So last fall, an online-auction company catalogued the turntables, the speakers, the many Krell amps and crossovers and various bits and bobs, and sold them all piecemeal (footnote 2). The Frankentable went for just under 20 grand. The speakers fetched $10,100. All day long on November 30, buyers carted off their new possessions in U-Haul trucks after collectively forking over $156,800. Fritz's system, said to have cost a million dollars, scattered to the winds.

It seemed like a sobering enough tale. A friend of mine quoted Ozymandias, Percy Shelley's famous poem about how fate and the ravages of time lay waste to ambition and hubris. ("Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!")

But the complete Fritz saga hadn't been told yet. This past January, the Washington Post published a front-page profile (footnote 3) of the man that set the audiophile world abuzz. Although the article, by Geoff Edgers, one of the paper's best reporters, was far from unsympathetic, some saw it as a hit piece. Fritz's life no longer seemed the stuff of somber 19th century sonnets. Greek tragedy might be more like it.

Edgers, who knew Fritz personally and had taken notes for years, calls the reputed million-dollar price tag of the vaunted stereo system "a number that did not begin to reflect the wear and tear on the household, the hidden costs of his children's unpaid labor."

The article details how Fritz often treated his family as an afterthought—a distant third priority after his successful fiberglass-molds business and his precious listening room. Vacations were a rarity for the Fritz clan. To his credit, he belatedly understood that he'd made some doubtful choices, as he told Edgers. "I was a father pretty much in name. I wasn't a typical father or a typical husband."

Adding to the exposition of family turmoil was the description of a first wife said to drink too much and to be dismissive of her husband's passions. When he played Swan Lake, his favorite piece, she called it "Pig Pond" in front of the kids and cranked up the TV to annoy him. The marriage ended in divorce.

Meanwhile, Ken sometimes dragged his young sons out of bed at 6am to work on the stereo project. "I was basically his slave," Kurt, the oldest child, told Edgers.

Years later, after the ALS diagnosis, Kurt and Ken had a horrible falling out, the Post article said. It focused on a couple of relatively modest family possessions Kurt wanted, including an old Rek-O-Kut turntable. The son also took offense at his dad's reluctance to share the fruits of their collective labor with him when he visited the magnificent room and stereo. Kurt thought Ken was being selfish and miserly. Ken felt Kurt acted arrogant and entitled. After a few drinks, Kurt said something from which neither man could recover. According to the Post, he told his father, "I need you to die slow, motherfucker. Die slow."

Ken called his lawyer and disinherited his son. Four years later, his daughter Betsy pleaded with her dying father to take a phone call from Kurt that might have eased the men's mutual guilt. Stubborn till the end, Ken refused.

In the 3500+ comments appended to the Post story, many went beyond pointing out that Fritz's passion came at the expense of his family. Some commenters went so far as to claim that Fritz wasted his life. That's a judgment he probably didn't deserve, as we'll see.

The last part of the Ken Fritz chronicle will appear in the June 2024 issue's My Back Pages.


Footnote 1: See youtube.com/@kenfritz3813.

Footnote 2: See shorturl.at/rxJVW.

Footnote 3: See shorturl.at/ilvyJ.

COMMENTS
JohnnyThunder2.0's picture
mcrushing's picture

Just saw this, the auction is now closed and HOLY SMOKES, most of the gear sold for prices that are borderline theft.

Custom 3-way JBL horn speakers for $2,600? The drivers alone are worth $6-8k. All those minty-looking pairs of 2441 compression drivers at $600? YIKES.

I've seen the backstory. Hopefully the gear brings someone else true joy.

mcrushing's picture

Lol, someone's already flipping giant Krell 600s on Reverb

https://reverb.com/item/76534937-krell-fpb-600-full-power-balanced-amplifier-in-excellent-condition-1990-s?utm_source=google&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=18078399966&utm_content=campaignid=18078399966_adgroupid=145854276928_productpartitionid=1726287611010=merchantid=5336450560_productid=76534937_keyword=_device=c_adposition=_matchtype=_creative=617058724078&gad_source=1&gclid=CjwKCAjw_LOwBhBFEiwAmSEQAXD7lTNbVFq9KgvIlMm2MfxySvbqxOyjfbwh5z1KV3NctRGW1fcS5hoCJBUQAvD_BwE

Anton's picture

That puts him in the lower half of the average show report speakers.

ChrisS's picture

...and his family to spend so much time and money just to sit alone and listen to Swan Lake over and over again.

"Rosebud"...

Anton's picture

I admit to wondering if the family would have been happier with him more 'present,' or not!

I guess I fall into the 'it could have been worse' interpretation.

He seems to have had good relations with his kids, except one, which is likely average. ;-D

He seems like a lot of people who have a hobby obsession....model train rooms, hoarding paperbacks, etc.

I really just don't know how to feel about the story, I guess.

When I see him, he reminds me of George Costanza's (I know it is Jerry Stiller, just thinking of the character) dad in Seinfeld, so that colors my view toward unhappy, but that's me stereotyping.

The emotional vibe I get from the story I get, bottom line, is he got what he wished for, but found the result less than expected?

I guess you are likely right.

Edited to add: just chatting in the abstract.

DaveinSM's picture

This is a cautionary tale, not an inspirational one.

bhkat's picture

No material possessions or hobbies are worth alienating family and friends. One should love people and use things, not the other way around.

openlybaffled's picture

This is a terrible story and a cautionary tale, for sure. Our hobby is great because it allows great music to be shared with loved ones and friends new and old. It's a way to channel the male love of gear and 'stuff' into something social and pleasurable for all concerned (yes, that is why audiophiles - myself included- are mostly male, not because women inherently hate beautifully presented song). But Ken Fritz' obsession perverted the very essence of the hobby and substituted a foolish monomania for the love he should have felt for his kids, including the oldest one. Imagine using your own son's labor for hundreds and hundreds of unpaid hours of drudgery, sometimes instead of vacation or rest, only to deny him the use of that system for one evening when he comes back home to visit, after you've turned in for the night. My point is, it only looks like a "million dollar" system; actually it was a dimensional staircase to hell. A staircase he descended one repetitious audition of pig pond after another at a time. Listen to 8 tracks in mono over a single plastic freebie computer speaker instead - beats the hell out of Satan auditioning your well deserved cries of agony for eternity.

Glotz's picture

It really does appear to be a curse. And he did seem like he was just doing it to impress himself and a world that couldn't care less- as there was no joy in any of it.

Nirodha352's picture

I love Shelley ❤️

JohnnyThunder2.0's picture

And to those that don't know, Ozymandias was the name of the 3rd to the last episode of BREAKING BAD and one of the greatest episodes of television ever. That's not just my opinion. Google it for proof.

PeterPani's picture

is hell, to maintain over a longer time.

cognoscente's picture

Life, cultivation, is about control. Knowing when to stop. The art of stopping, knowing when enough is enough. And as I wrote here before, it is about reasonableness, the relationship between things. Is it still proportional? Overdoing it is easy, laziness and ultimately a sign of poverty and insecurity. Spending (too) much money on something is poverty and insecurity.

It is more creative and I appreciate it more if you manage to put together a very good and musical sounding hi-fi stereo set for 3k than for 300k. Stereophile helps less and less with that. Then I prefer What Hi*Fi?

JohnnyThunder2.0's picture

and other amazing journalistic achievements. If you read Stereophile, you will learn more about music and audio regardless of the price of the equipment they review. Apply it to your own budget and go from there. Not everyone reading a fitness magazine needs to become Mr. Universe.

cognoscente's picture

there is also plenty against Whats Hi*Fi? to say, their revenue model and strong preference (treatment) for equipment from the UK, but their ratio in reviews between affordable and unaffordable equipment is more in proportion to reality. Here it is as if I read reviews of wine above 200 euros a bottle, or clocks above 10k or cars above 250k. That doesn't interest me and I find it arrogant and vulgar. I appreciate Stereophile too much not to say anything about it.

RvB's picture

This notion that Stereophile only or mainly reviews hyper-expensive audio is simply not factual.

In the last few years, strictly off the top of my head, there've been Stereophile reviews of a Topping preamp that cost around $600; multiple headphones (including Bluetooth ones) in the $300-800 range, such as the Focal Bathys; Apple Airpod Pro II earbuds ($249); sub-$2,000 Naim and Sonus Faber all-in-one speakers, SVS Prime Pro active speakers ($800 I think); a $1,299 LSA integrated tube amp; a sub-$2,000 near-state-of-the-art Eversolo DAC/streamer/analog preamp; a Cambridge Audio integrated amp for under a thousand bucks, a $1,500 Leak amp; the $3,695 Hifi Rose RS520 that's an amplifier, preamp, streamer and DAC in one (just add speakers); a NAD C3050 amp for $1,399; plus Benchmark, Q Acoustics, KEF, Naim, and Mofi Sourcepoint gear in the $3,000 vicinity.

In fact, I wrote a good many of these reviews.

Any committed music lover and audiophile who isn't chronically penniless should be able to put a very satisfying system together based on those Stereophile reviews/recommendations alone.

Without apology, we cover the gamut from affordable audio to all-out gear with price tags that only oil sheikhs and hedge fund managers wouldn't blanch at. No different from most serious car magazines that write about the $25,000 Subaru Legacy as well as the million-dollar Bugatti. Even though I personally can't afford the latter by a long shot, I appreciate learning about the technology and what it can do.

Different strokes for different folks, right?

John Atkinson's picture
cognoscente wrote:
It is more creative and I appreciate it more if you manage to put together a very good and musical sounding hi-fi stereo set for 3k than for 300k. Stereophile helps less and less with that.

Noting that my basic reference system comprises a Roon Nucleus+ server ($2259), NAD M10 streaming integrated amplifier ($2499), and KEF LS50 speakers ($1500/pair). Yes, more money buys you bigger, better, louder, and deeper. But this system is still musically satisfying

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

cognoscente's picture

Then I overdone it with my set at home. In my partner's work studio (where we also have dinners and parties) she uses an old iPhone as an iPod, HoloAudio Cyan 2 dac (1,400), a Rega Brio (500 - open-box) amplifier and small Elac BS...( ?) (950 with discount at the time) speakers and what a fun, muscular sound (means control and ease) and therefore musicality. And voices and piano sound realistic. So indeed for 3k you can have a set that gives you a lot of listening pleasure. You can ask yourself "why do I need more (expensive)?".

David Harper's picture

What a strange story. It's interesting that Stereophile chose to feature it here. If it's a true story then this guy had more serious issues than wasting money on stereo. Firstly he did not create "perfection". Far from it. He could have gotten much closer by spending 20K wisely. Instead he spent one million on this bizarre monstrosity of a system. And it probably didn't even sound that good.

JohnnyThunder2.0's picture

I totally agree about that 20k figure too. Apart from the psychopathology of this entire project - and obviously to each their own and how people want to spend their money is their own business- this approach is like bringing a tank to a water balloon fight.

ChrisS's picture

...do anything.

The information provided by Stereophile helps anyone put together an extremely satisfying music system at any price point.

ok's picture

..an artisan with money to spare; a family that never knew poverty or violence; a soon-to-be-divorced wife that didn't like Swan Lake and an estranged son who is our only source for the man's alleged misconduct, while legions of personal friends on youtube swear on his (and his family's) generosity and kindness. And don't forget his old age terminal illness: karma's revenge. Give me a break!

teched58's picture

The big question is, was Ken Fritz a subscriber to Stereophile or to The Absolute Sound? Maybe both?

I can't imagine that a man whose audiophile selection ethos ($$$) aligns so closely with both our beloved SP and its content-challenged though much more modern looking competitor didn't subscribe to both.

X