Allen Perkins: From Bicycles to Belt Drives

Theodore Roosevelt might have described Allen Perkins as someone who speaks softly and carries a big stick—or two. Before founding Immedia Distribution in 1990, and long before cofounding turntable manufacturer Spiral Groove in 2005, this soft-spoken designer of two award-winning turntables had begun a career as a jazz drummer.

I've known Allen Perkins for more than a decade, ever since the Bay Area Audiophile Society, of which I'm a member, contacted him about demonstrating one of his products. In all those years of talking to Perkins at audio shows, asking him questions, and listening to components together, I have yet to hear him gratuitously toot his own horn. In fact, as I prepared this feature, I discovered that he hadn't bothered to mention that each of his two Spiral Groove turntable models has won a major award. Nor did he offer to supply copies of the positive reviews they'd received. I almost had to pry the information out of him. While it may seem paradoxical that a drummer would prove the epitome of calm and equanimity, Allen Perkins prefers to let the music that flows from his accomplishments speak for itself.

Perkins spent much of his childhood in small towns in Michigan and Wisconsin. There, he got the music bug while listening to his father's Reader's Digest Records collections of big-band music by Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. Equally fascinated by mechanical apparatus, he went from high school to Schwinn Bicycle School, where he learned to build bicycles from raw parts/

At 21, Perkins entered the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire as a music major. There, he spent four or five nights a week performing jazz on drum kit and percussion. The sobering realization that he would either have to teach, become a band director, or risk economic hardship as a professional percussionist led him to major in psychology and minor in Asian Studies. Now 54, he continues to perform weekly with a Bay Area band.

The Fatal Visit
While still an undergraduate, Perkins accompanied a fellow bandmember on an 80-mile drive from Eau Claire to Minneapolis to get some equipment repaired. There he happened into a stereo shop owned by Paul Wakeen (who now owns Stillpoints, makers of footers, stands, and racks for audio equipment). Wakeen recognized Perkins from his drumming activities, and not so innocently asked what his stereo system was like.

Perkins responded that he didn't have money for new gear, and was happy with his current setup of Technics turntable, NAD preamp, Crown amp, and Canton speakers. But a few days later, Wakeen called him. "You know," he said, "I liked talking to you. I got a sense that, with your knowledge of music, your opinions would be valuable to me. Could I send you a preamp so you could tell me what you think of it?"

Perkins repeated that he liked his NAD and couldn't afford a new one. Nonetheless, he took the fatal step and offered to give Wakeen's model a listen. What happened next changed his life.

"I installed the used PS Audio Model 4 that Paul sent me," Perkins told me in the first of several extended interviews and listening sessions. "I thought I wasn't going to hear a difference, when I put on a Pat Metheny record. Probably three notes played, and all I could think was, 'Oh shit, how am I going to pay for this?'"

A week later, Wakeen offered Perkins the PS Audio in exchange for working in his store on weekends. "I think you'll have a good rapport with customers because of your music background," he said.

Perkins accepted, and soon moved to the Twin Cities to work at Wakeen's aptly titled House of High Fidelity. Nearly three decades later, Perkins now has his own house of hi-fi, as it were; it serves as Immedia's distribution center, as well as the manufacturing facility for Spiral Groove products and the Sonics by Joachim Gerhard loudspeakers created by the eponymous former designer for Audio Physic. The 3000-square-foot facility also includes a recording studio in which Perkins's drums get a daily workout.

Putting Things Together
Around 1985, Paul Wakeen began selling SOTA turntables. Perkins, with the same inquisitiveness that had propelled him to fix bikes, dismantled his SOTA vacuum turntable and set about addressing what he thought were its three serious design flaws.