December 8, 2006

In This eNewsletter:
• Chinese Whispers Are Now Shouts, by Ken Kessler
• Tower Records R.I.P., by Wes Phillips

Chinese Whispers Are Now Shouts, by Ken Kessler

It had been at least a decade since I'd visited China, during the dragon's first high-end stirrings. The earliest (mid-1990s) Chinese tube electronics being shipped to the US and Europe were, for the most part, reasonable to poor copies of old circuits, built with a level of incompetence not seen since the days before Japanese goods went from the shoddy to the superior. No two tubes stood vertically, no rotary control turned in a circle, you drew blood if you ran a finger along the edge of a faceplate, and you stood back every time you switched on the unit, in case it burst into flames.

But, "What the hell?" thought impoverished music lovers from Los Angeles to Salerno, from Glasgow to Johannesburg. "This 30W single-ended integrated amp, all 60 lbs of it, may be junk, but it cost me less than a pair of 300Bs!" Unsurprisingly, there were stories of canny audiophiles buying Chinese amplifiers just for the tubes and throwing away the chassis. And that was no urban myth: I once reviewed an amp with four 300B tubes—the same ones used by American manufacturers—with a landed cost of under $600.

But there were exceptions, and observers knew back then that all it would take was a little guidance. In early 1995, I wrote, in a column for Audio, "Trying not to discourage these brave innovators, I have to say that the Chinese tube amp makers still have a bit to learn about construction, if less so about aesthetics. But when they do figure out how to drill and mill and assemble to standards acceptable to American, Japanese and European hi-fi consumers, watch out."

Now the watching is over. In no specific order, Quad (among many others) moved its manufacturing to China, and the output since—electronics and electrostatics—is of an order superior to anything that ever came out of Huntingdon. Shanling, Cayin, and others have proven that homegrown Chinese manufacturers have something fresh and interesting to offer the high-end consumer. And PrimaLuna? Talk about a success story! They managed to sew up the entry-level, sub-$1500 amplifier market with a quality that forced one envious rival to tell me, "If they were made anywhere in Europe, they would have to double the price."

I'd known about the Melody brand for a few years, having seen its products at every major hi-fi show. When Mark Schifter of, as sharp an individual as I've ever met, sent me his Melody-made budget tube amp, I got my first taste of Melody manufacture. He suggested I visit Melody, to see firsthand what was going on. Never able to resist dim-sum, I accepted.

A Sino-Australian company, with administration and design in both Australia and Shenzhen and all manufacturing in the latter, Melody is, apparently, the second-largest maker of tube amplifiers in China, after Zhuhai Spark, which makes the Cayin amplifiers. All I know is that there are few tube-amp companies in the West with brand-new, dedicated factories and over 90 employees. And all this since 1999.

Melody is a private company whose owners footed the entire bill for the 3500-square-meter factory themselves. End of story. Then there's the 1500-square-meter housing complex and canteen: Melody feeds and houses all of its staff.

Melody also manufactures its own mains and output transformers. It has a team just for finishing its front panels in-house, and another to test the tubes they use. (The company's CEO, Mr. Wang, told me, "We have to reject at least 30% from every shipment.") It has special rooms for amplifier burn-in, and I counted at least four staff who do nothing but oversee quality control at the final stage before packing. The factory was open and airy, even in the semitropical heat of Shenzhen in October, and with so much free space that you could become mildly agoraphobic. And the factory is so new—it opened just a few weeks before my visit—that only part of the air-conditioning system was up and running, and the road to the premises was still unpaved. Manufacturing was going on simultaneously with the final stages of construction.

Oh, yes—Melody's amps are damned nice pieces of equipment. The drawings I saw at concept stage are frighteningly advanced and wholly original. The guys at Melody expressed open admiration for Italian style, and are eager to break away from the generic topology of Asian amps: transformers at the back, tubes at the front, and little in the way of aesthetically interesting metalwork.

Which reminds me of observations in another field besieged by Chinese manufacturing of a different sort: fakes. I recently interviewed the managing director of one of the largest and most respected pen companies in the world. While he acknowledged the problem of $10 fakes of his $400 pens, he admitted that 1) nobody ever bought a fake when they could afford the real thing, and 2) sales of his products were increasing year on. This was his way of acknowledging that Western luxury goods will retain their authenticity and their value. Chinese hi-fi makers must establish their own legends and reputations.

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Tower Records R.I.P., by Wes Phillips

Like many folks, I'm going to miss Tower Records. But unlike many habitués, with me it was personal—I was a Tower employee. In many ways, Tower was this music lover's graduate school.

When Tower opened its Manhattan store at Fourth St. and Broadway, in the early 1980s, it opened big. The first time I entered its classical section, my nervous system almost shut down: It had what seemed like miles of records, most of which I'd never imagined that I'd ever see, much less be able to buy. Within two years, I was working there.

I'd been working in record stores for what seemed like forever. When I'd first moved to New York, I'd gone to work for a record press, and then for a classical-music label—I was movin' on up. Except I couldn't take the commute to New Jersey, and, truth be told, my organizational skills were, um, suboptimal. So I left my label job as product manager without a safety net, thinking, Well, I can always work for Tower.

It wasn't quite that that easy. Working at Tower was seen, at least by Tower employees, as an extremely cool job, and the person who took my application apparently didn't think me so hip that he should pass it on to the classical manager—who, with Christmas coming and Tower's just-opened Lincoln Center store having drained off the department's most experienced employees, was freaked about how to staff the floor. Once we'd overcome that hurdle, however, I found myself working the classical sales floor at the best serious record store ever.

You think that's hyperbole? Ray Edwards, Tower's national sales manager, worked out of the Fourth St. store, and his knowledge of recorded music was immense. Ray played me mint-condition 78s of obscure early-20th-century pianists that sounded fresh enough to convince me that the piano was in the room. Gregor Benko, cofounder of the International Piano Archive, had established the department before moving on to PolyGram Records, and he'd stocked it with the deepest catalog of pre-stereo musicians I've ever seen. Marcel Möyse, Josef Hofmann, and Edwin Fischer were as common at the Fourth St. Tower as Casals and Horowitz were at other stores.

I worked side by side with musicians like Tim Berne, Melvin Gibbs, and Anthony Coleman, all of whom were already creating waves on the performance scene, but still needed the security of a steady paycheck and, much more important, the then-generous Tower benefits package. We called it "the Tower grant for working musicians."

The Tower customers were world-class, too. I rang up Alfred Brendel on several occasions. Once, when I expressed surprise that he was buying multiple copies of one of his own discs, he explained, "I donate the profits on this one to charity, so I always buy copies to give as thank-you gifts to my friends. That way, the charity gets all of the money."

Another time, Malcolm Bilson was upset that we had everyone's boxed set of complete Mozart piano concertos except his. "Why don't you carry mine?" he demanded. "We do!" I told him. "We sell out of yours, so all we have left are the others." He still seemed unhappy.

I'm writing this over the Thanksgiving weekend, when we've just learned of the death of Broadway lyricist Betty Comden, a regular at the Lincoln Center Tower. I'll never forget the day she and Adolph Green walked into the classical department while we were playing "Conga!," from Wonderful Town. They'd barely cleared the glass doors when Green recognized their song and broke into a spontaneous softshoe—which Comden immediately fell in with. Comden and Green were precisely the way they seemed in their movie and cabaret appearances: witty, classy, and absolutely down to earth.

Vladimir Horowitz, on the other hand, was far from the distinguished concert pianist he appeared to be on stage. Every time I encountered him, he was a mischievous imp. He strode into the Classical Sales Annex one afternoon while one of Bach's English Suites was playing on the store system.

He pointed to the loudspeaker. "Who?"

"Ivo Pogorelich," my fellow employee responded.

Flipping his hand dismissively, the maestro gave a loud Bronx cheer, turned around, and fled.

Pogorelich was the subject of one of the stranger Tower incidents I witnessed. Two nattily attired young-men-about-town walked in one day and demanded every Pogorelich disc we had in stock. We scurried about collecting them, and they proceeded to lay them out on top of the record bins and swoon over the cover portraits. "Oh, Ivo," they sighed. They left without buying anything.

It was the customers who made Tower interesting. One evening, about an hour before closing, two French tourists entered the classical department and, overcome by Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, began to grope one another in the back of the classical department. By the time fellow supervisor Paul Herzman got there, they were rolling on the floor shedding clothes.

"New rule! " exclaimed Paul. "No more Wagner after 10pm!"

Tower employees were unflappable. We had to be.

There was the customer who wanted Pachelbel's Canon—with real cannon.

In 1983, when CDs were first beginning to appear on the sales floor, a gentleman approached Paul Herzman and requested his help in choosing a classical library. "What do you want?"


Paul began picking discs. The customer kept filling baskets and urging him on. Paul opened a special register to ring up the sale, which totaled over $10,000. The customer reached into his jacket and pulled out a brown paper bag, from which he extracted a large bundle of $100 bills. After he'd paid for his discs, the bundle was not substantially smaller.

My favorite customer was the young man who came in at 9am on a day when Amadeus was still playing in movie theaters. Tower, like every other record store in the country, had sold out of Mozart's Requiem, so I was relieved when he asked me for everything we had in stock by Mozart.

"That's a lot of music," I said. He didn't care. He wanted it all.

"It may be cheating, "I said, "but I'll load you up with boxed sets. Here's the Quartetto Italiano's string quartets, Mitsuko Uchida's piano sonatas, John Eliot Gardiner's symphonies..."

"Wait a minute!" he protested. "These are all by different people!"

"Of course," I replied. "You won't find the quartets and symphonies by the same ensembles."

"But I want them performed by Mozart!" Apparently, he'd missed the part of the movie where Mozart dies and it's still the 18th century.

Not that all of our customers were off. I met many audiophiles who recommended Records To Die For to me. We had one regular who lived, breathed, and bled for Lyrita pressings. Thanks to his advocacy, I discovered Bax, Arnold, Alwyn, and Rubbra.

And at Tower, of course, I met "Analog George" Stanwick, who now owns Stanalog. He told me I had to own a "black dog" pressing of Belafonte at Carnegie Hall. I didn't believe him at the time, but he had waited to tell me until after he'd bought the last in-stock pressings, so the point was moot. On the other hand, as the guy who received and priced all used records that Tower then sold in its Classical Sales Annex, George steered me toward so many great-sounding and cheap vinyl rarities that I have no beef.

It always amazes me how many New York audiophiles I meet who had a personal relationship with Analog George. I can't tell you how many record collectors have said, "Every time I went in, George would say, 'I've got something set aside for you in the back,' and then he'd bring out a disc I'd been looking for forever." He certainly did it for me more times than not.

Another fellow employee, James Hancock, told me about a friend of his who had an Audible Illusions Modulus 2B tube preamplifier that he was, um, de-acquisitioning in order to buy the just-issued Audio Research SP11. I leaped on that Modulus 2B like a duck on a June bug, and within the year had added a Marantz 8B power amp, purchased across the street from Stereo Exchange, and a pair of Quad ESL-57s that Perry Hall, a regular Tower customer, had graciously let me buy on the installment plan.

That was my downfall. Being a record collector and working at the world's greatest record store wasn't bad enough— now I'd discovered that, as my newly favorite magazine put it, "not all audio equipment sounds alike."

Yes, I had discovered Stereophile, and J. Gordon Holt and the newly arrived John Atkinson became my guides to the wild and woolly audio wilderness. But that's a story for another day...

No, I came here to praise Tower, and to bury it. A lot of things led to the chain's demise, including the whole phenomenon of long-tail retail and a pointless bit of reckless over-expansion in the 1990s, but I think Tower took a huge hit when the bean-counters revoked the "Tower grant." Tower had never believed in developing a core staff of career managers, so there was a constant outflow of its most business-savvy employees. The record labels snapped up Tower's ex-employees as fast as Tower could spit them out.

But the exodus of working musicians and knowledgeable lifers really began when Tower stripped its benefits package of health care, dental care, and spousal coverage. Faithful customers no longer had an Analog George holding special finds for them, so why visit regularly? It got harder for jazz fans—or fans of country, or R&B, or reggae—to get informed recommendations from the floor staff. And, let's face it, Amazon not only had better prices and deeper catalog, but that recommendations algorithm was getting awfully darn accurate.

I think Tower died when a competitor's computer program began offering its customers a more personal music connection than its own employees did. Tower, like Soylent Green, was people. For a while, I was one of them.

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