I’ve been in the audio biz since 1975. Over the years I’ve gotten to know, or at least brushed shoulders with many of the big names of our biz.
Jim Bongiorno was among the first high powered amp designers. He had worked for Marantz, SAE and Dynaco. By the mid 70s he had opened his own company (we thought) called GAS. I was happy to sell these good sounding preamps and amps. Ampzilla, Son & Grandson were fine products for the time. Theadra, Thoebe & Thalia were fine preamps. Jim provided good sounding gear to drive hungry speakers of the day, Maggies, Dahlquists & Acoustats. Not much else was around then that was up to the task.
Jim had a personality like Buddy Rich. If he liked you, he was funny and eccentric. If he didn’t like you, he was just a jerk. Jim spoke, he didn’t listen. He was a smart guy on many topics. I had a soft spot for Jim because I thought underneath all that bluster, he was a decent guy trying to sell gear and help his dealers. But ultimately, he was his own worst enemy. He just couldn’t help it.
He ran GAS into the ground by burning bridges, and blamed his partners. We discovered he didn’t own the company. He started Sumo soon thereafter, or so we thought. History repeated itself as he ran that into the ground within a few years too. Despite some nice products, Jim couldn’t help but do things to alienate people.
One day two boxes arrived at my door. I already had Sumo’s Power and Gold amps on display. Here were two more. I hadn’t ordered them. They had just been shipped. Instead of being housed in a traditional metal shroud, these were in glass, to show off the guts. With them came a fancy invoice. Jim tried to force these down every dealer’s throat. It’s one thing to want your gear displayed a certain way. It’s another to just send the amps out and demand instant payment.
Jim thought everything he didn’t make was just so much horse poop. When he visited my store he played the famous Malcolm Frager Chopin piano Telarc LP at about 200 dB. The system was distorting like mad. Hercules on steroids couldn’t play a piano that loud. I realized, oh my gosh, the poor man is almost deaf! Everything he played was at jet engine volume.
Why hadn’t we known this about him before? It was because any time you saw Jim, HE always talked, and talked LOUD. When Jim called, the receiver on the phone was gyrating before you even picked it up!
Jim called me many years later when he was at Spread Spectrum. He had a new Ampzilla, Son, and the Ambrosia preamp that he said was the best ever and proved that everything else was just so much junk. Ah Jim… life wasn’t easy for him. I heard him play jazz piano. He wasn’t half bad, but everything was LOUD, even the ballads.
John Bowers was among the most genteel of men. He had pride in his products and was confident, but “understated” as a personality. John spoke in mild terms as you would expect from a nice Englishman.
But John had a little fury under the hood. I was at a show and someone asked if he was going to emulate the Kef 105, which was an early speaker to have separate chambers for the woofer, midrange and tweeter. John clearly had a competitive edge and did not at all like Kef, or the assertion that he was behind in the space race.
The 801 came out soon after. Obviously John and his men had been working on a similar design with separate chambers. Kef just got to the market first with its version.
Jon’s DQ-10 was a true industry classic. He deserves much credit for blending a mad scientist’s array of drivers into a fairly boxless sounding speaker. Jon was not comfortable socially in show settings. He struck me as a designer that would do better with no people “in the way.” He was never satisfied with his products- constantly offer mods and talking about tweaks.
His paternal mentor, Saul Marantz, had invested in DQ and filled the calming social role for the company. They achieved much success but ran out of steam as Saul aged.
Wendell has been Magnepan’s innovative liaison to dealers and the public since the 70s. If you call Maqnepan today, you’re more likely to speak to Wendell than anyone else.
Wendell knows panel design and placement demands as well as anyone. It’s to his credit that somewhere north of 70, he still enjoys chatting the fine nuance of hi-fi with all of us.
Bob Fulton (FMI) cobbled together dynamic drivers with RTR electrostatic tweeter arrays. Pretty esoteric for 1975. He mastered some fine live recordings that he produced on LPs. He was among the first to worry about heavy gauge speaker wire. A devoted tinker-ist.
Roy started, and still runs, Rega. He’s had a terrific history of making wonderful sounding
turntables at affordable prices. Especially in the 70s and 80s, Rega just smoked the competition. He makes better tables/arms/carts- because he knows how things WORK. Rega’s exquisite belt drive tables sound more musical with less rumble than the rest of what’s out here.
At a trade show Roy was holding court and I asked if I could take a photo of him for my catalog. He looked at my little 400 speed disposable camera and said, “Sure. It’ll never turn out though.” Well, it turned out very well and I used it in the AE catalog for years. Just cuz ya know a lot about this, doesn’t mean you know a lot about that.
Sandy Gross of Polk Audio was about the nicest guy you’d ever meet. He was soft spoken yet his marketing was aggressive, had a real streak of humor and was super successful. Most marketing and sales guys have a hard edge. “We’re great- everybody else suxx!”
You could always TALK to Sandy like a real person. Speakers like the Monitor 7, Monitor 10 and RTA 12, were class leaders for their day- and very affordable.
Sandy started Definitive soon after Polk went public. We enjoyed good years together there too. Sandy sold Definitive to retire. But it wasn’t long before he realized he loved the audio biz too much to be “done.” He started GoldenEar and we continue to have a fine relationship to this day. Sandy proves that you can be a nice, reasonable person and do business!
His products use ribbon tweeters, powered subs and a handful of tricks learned over the years that make GE a pleasure to sell.
What a pro. He wasn’t interested in small talk and chatter. He wanted to share the nuts and bolts of his fine sounding, inexpensive gear. He even provided mods for his gear as he was convinced they mattered. Nobody got better sound out of less $ in hardware.
Tom brought out a full featured preamp and impedance solid power amp- before his days with LucasFilms and becoming Mr. THX.
It was a pleasure to deal with Tom as he shared the excitement of his two product line. He was especially proud to offer a full featured preamp when “nobody’ else did.
I met him again as he was developing THX and achieving national acclaim for setting standards for great sound in movies.
Randy Hooker of RH Labs didn’t invent the subwoofer. But he was close behind M&K and a few others. Randy was a very affable guy who pronounced subwoofer as subwuuuuufer just to put a little color into the conversation. Randy made the big boy coffee table subwoofer without apology. When hit with a sledgehammer, the RH1 produced bass like nothing else in the mid 70s!
Randy was among the first to come out with a smaller, powered sub. With the challenge of an on board amp- often with abusive customers, and big freight prices for heavy subs, ultimately RH Labs closed up shop. But Randy was a class guy who deserved a better fate in our biz.
Bill Johnson of ARC looked me right in the eye in 1977 and said ARC would never make another piece of tube gear. He had introduced the analog module solid state line. It sounded very good, clean, quiet and didn’t have the trouble his tube line had. BUTTT, the market didn’t salute. ARC fans wanted tubes and by 1980, Bill was making tube gear again!
Once when he visited, he noticed a nasty scratch on an SP5 preamp’s face plate. He could tell it was something that escaped his QC department. He apologized and said he’d get a replacement face plate for us. I let him know I called some months ago. It would be another several months and phone calls before I got them to come through!
Despite being a religious man, Bill BOILED at the thought of having to share top billing with Threshold at AE. He wanted to be the top dog, period! He called me up and demanded I choose between ARC and Threshold, because he couldn’t live with equal billing or being second fiddle.
I told him Threshold was beating him with more powerful, solid state amps, which I needed. Also, Threshold had the SL-10 preamp with a dead silent MC section. ARC’s MC section was flat out noisy as Hades. My niche for ARC was for tube aficionados. Bill wouldn’t have it. I chose Threshold. Adios amigo.
Kimber Kable started in 1979. All we “knew” then in terms of wire is- the bigger the better. Ray taught us there is a lot more to it. He’s developed a successful company making cables for many applications. Everyone at Kimber is well mannered and a pleasure to deal with. It starts at the top.
In 1985 I flew to Las Vegas for an audio trade show. I go to my seat and who is sitting next to me? Industry icon Henry Kloss. He, of AR, Advent and ultimately Tivoli fame. Of course I knew who he was. He had that more than slightly mad scientist, Einstein hair going on.
When Henry learned I was in the audio biz he lit up and held court for 3.5 hours. A lot of audio hall of famers wouldn’t be interested in giving the time of day to a young guy who owns a modest retail store in Milwaukee.
We discussed all topics audio. Believe me, I listened a lot more than I talked. Henry was a man of business. For ex, Henry wanted to know which speakers I sold. Among them were Magnepan and Dahlquist, which Henry admired. He went on to point out that both had what he considered to be unsustainable business models due to excessive parts and labor cost given their retail price points. He knew if a speaker cost X to build, it had to retail for Y. DQ and Maggie were conspicuously high cost compared to their MSRPs. He said they couldn’t last. Well, he was half right!
Mark Levinson was an artsy guy, whose heart was in the right place, but just couldn’t connect with mere mortals. We had a music night with customers. MLAS had just introduced the ML-11 power amp, and matching preamp. One of my blue collar customers asked Mark how much power it had. (It was 50×2 for about $2000, at the time, not a lot of wattage at a heavy price.) Mark refused to spit it out.
He started bobbing and weaving about how watts don’t matter, sound does. The customer saw this evasive maneuver and really let him have it. Mark was really shaken. He just couldn’t understand how this working man from Milwaukee wouldn’t accept his soft shoe about – power is more than a wattage number. Mark never DID answer the question. I did.
Mark knew what the guy was questioning, few watts at a big price. But he couldn’t face the question straight on. When his various companies crumbled, I remember this exchange.
Steve was the American face of the Oracle turntable line. Ever professional, Steve had to deal with a myriad of mistakes as Oracle tried to find its way. Imagine a football player picking up the ball and dropping it- and chasing after it. That was Oracle in the 80s and Steve was a pro at keeping it together. He never ducked a call or problem. A true professional.
John McIntosh was the American face of B&W in its hey day. AE had a great ride with B&W and John was a big part of that. With thick English accent and affable personality, he basically ran the marketing of the most successful high end speaker company from the early 80s until they went to the dark side in 2010. John retired.
Ever the graceful dancer, I remember John’s deft handling of a customer’s insane question. The consumer asked if B&W developed its Nautilus cabinet tuning tubes after studying the Bose wave radio. John handled it without a hitch- fully in stride. Bongiorno would have attacked the man!
Despite selling Polk for many years, I didn’t know Matt very well. Once on a factory visit he took a group of us out for dinner. He returned a bottle of wine because it didn’t measure up. I thought that a bit peculiar from a guy whose company made nice, but sometimes imperfect speakers.
Julius Siksnius of Audire was not “about the nicest man you’d ever meet,” he WAS the nicest man you will ever meet. Julius made better products than Hafler or NAD. He didn’t get much pub in the magazines because, he wouldn’t toot his own horn or advertise. It would be inaccurate to say Julius had no ego, because he was confident he made some of the best gear on the market. But he didn’t knock his competitors and was always above the fray. Clearly, he couldn’t go into politics!
Jim was working for Magnepan when he first visited in 1977. In short order he rearranged my high end listening room to make Tympanis and Magnepans sound noticeably better.
On top of wanting Magnepans to sound better, he helped with other brands as well. Jim was interested in getting AE to look and sound its best, not just Magnepan.
We connected again when Jim imported Avantgarde in 2001. Nobody knows more rules and tricks to dial in a system to its best performance.
Peter Snell of Snell speaker fame was a passionate guy. He did what a lot of people in the speaker industry do- even today. He bought drivers from vendors and created his own cabinets and crossovers. But he achieved better results with them than anyone else. His Snell Type A for $1800pr in 1980 was a remarkably natural sounding and beautiful speaker- especially considering the nuts and bolts inside were not exceptional. He garnered a sum greater than the total of the parts. Sadly, Peter died in 1984 of a heart attack at only 38. I suspect Peter’s designs would have been innovative and refined as parts improved over the years.
Jim Winey of Magnepan was hitting all the nails on the head with Tympani 1Ds, MG 1s & 2s, and then the venerable MG3 with true ribbon tweeter. Even the Magnepan tonearm- was a wonderfully innovative product! Jim was a guy who would have loved to work on his products and not had to interface with dealers and customers. In fact, as the years paged by, he was less involved with us.
Acoustat was getting lots of press in the 80s with new versions of non amplified electrostatics. Jim didn’t like it one little bit when dealers brought in Acoustats as a panel alternative. Not unlike John Bowers, Jim was extremely civilized, yet competitive.