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Positive Feedback ISSUE11
New Wine From Old: Audio Classics Limited
2003 marks my tenth anniversary as an audiophile. I learned the basics from Joe Harley at Audioquest when he produced a recording of my music. Another friend loaned me his treasured old McIntosh tube amp at that time, as he wanted it to be used. It wasnt until several years later that I took the plunge and bought my first tube amplifier and a set of floorstanding speakers. I loved and lived with that basic system for several years, and it was good enough to prove to friends and relations that vinyl was worth listening tosomething that I continue to enjoy springing on unsuspecting visitors. Along the way, I read my share of audio journalism, and listened to gear at dealers in the big city. However, not being made out of money, the idea of attaining a better system seemed impractical.
Then one day, searching for a place that might have some used 300B amplifiers I could afford, I made a discovery. Living in a rural area, we are far from audio showrooms, with one exception. A company called Audio Classics Limited had a pair of pre-owned Cary 300SE monoblocks in stock, and they were an easy drive down the road in Binghamton, New York. Was I interested? You bet. Armed with my trusty Tannoy monitors, I went in to listen, bringing with me one of my all-time reference recordings, Mighty Sam McClains Give It Up to Love, one of Joe Harleys finest productions for Audioquest Music.
When I arrived at Audio Classics, Brian Smith had warmed up the Carys and had them hooked up to a pair of pre-owned Sonus Faber Concertos. This was the first time I had heard either of these components. I duly swapped in my Tannoys and listened carefully. I got halfway home up the freeway and it hit me like a thunderboltTHATS IT! THATS the sound Ive got to have, and it had to be with those Sonus Fabers! One thing led to another, my amp and speakers were traded in for the Carys and the Concertos, and I lived happily almost forever after. That system brought me a level of musical reproduction I did not think was possible, and also introduced me to the creative design work of Dennis Had at Cary.
Earlier this year, my listening took another big step forward with the arrival in my living room of a pair of Audio Electronic Supply "Sixpac" triode monoblocks designed by Dennis Had, which I have reviewed in PFO. These amps are firecrackers, and capable of driving a wide variety of speakers with ease. Then lo! What do I see on the Audio Classics website but a pair of pre-owned Sonus Faber Grand Pianos, the big brothers of the Concertos. Before you know it, Brian Smith was at my door, unloading them out of his car. This was an auditionif I had not been happy they would have gone back.
We measured and positioned the Grand Pianos for several hours. It is very helpful to have another pair of trusted ears during that process, and it was the first time I had had this benefit. The results were superb! It was just what I had wantednot to lose any of the magic of the Sonus Faber Concertos, but to have more of itand it was accomplished in spades. As an extra bonus, it turned out that Brian, along with friends in Binghamton, makes a number of wines under the "1274 Vineyards" logo. During the installation we sampled not only fine audio, but also an excellent Zinfandel. Thats what I call the real High End!
Not only have I benefited, both ear-wise and budget-wise, from Audio Classics Ltd., but I support the idea of getting more life out of the technology we are surrounded with. We now seem to be going backward rather than forward in this regard. China has more stringent auto fuel standards than the United States. What will those commies think of nextsustainable agriculture?! The high tech industries are particularly egregious. One example: I owned an Epson computer printer which I sent to one of their authorized service centers. I was told that some rubber rollers were worn, but that they would not bother to fix it! They simply refused, and I had to throw the printer into the garbage can. Needless to say, I will never buy another Epson product.
Audio Classics Ltd. is successfully breathing new life into fine audio components that will bring their new owners much musical satisfaction. "New wine from old" is my slogan for this kind of activity, and I think it should be applauded and supported by the kinds of people who read Positive Feedback Online. After purchasing their products and visiting them a number of times over the past several years, I felt it was time to sit down with Steve Rowell, the founder of Audio Classics, and have a conversation on behalf of PFO. I also spoke with Mike Sastra, who is responsible for a lot of the restoration work involved, and a longtime member of the Audio Classics team. I can tell any of you who have looked at McIntosh equipment with an emotion akin to lust, that all those fine-looking Mac units, all tweaked, shiny, and ready to go, is something to behold!
Be sure to check out the Audio Classics Ltd. website. They rate all their gear for both operating and physical condition, and many have photos. They ship all over the world, and are also available for repair services. I highly recommend their services.
Sasha Interviews Steve Roswell of Audio Classics Ltd.Sasha Matson: Tell us about the evolution of Audio Classics Ltd.
Steve Rowell: We started the business out of a love for music. I grew up loving every kind of music that I could listen to. Whats happened is our industry has turned. Its now an industry that is more skewed towards home theatercrash, bang, boom.
SM: What is your breakdown currently?
SR: A large portion of our business is still two-channel, but I would say the surround-sound portion of the business is climbing all the time. We still deal with the same type of customer. The difference today is that the customers that buy home theater systems do so because theres a much better "wife acceptance" factortheyll buy a system for the whole family rather than just for themselves.
SM: When was Audio Classics founded?
SR: I started the business part-time in 1979, and it became full-time in 1985. I ran it by myself until 1987, when we moved it to the old post office building in Walton [New York]. We rented from the federal governmentwe were in the bottom of the post office. At least it was easy to find, because everybody knows where the post office is!
SM: Now you are located in Binghamton, New York, and have a special relationship with another long-time Binghamton audio company, McIntosh. Are you an alumnus of McIntosh?
SR: Im not, though others at Audio Classics are. Frank Gow, who works with me, is the son of Gordon Gow, the former President of McIntosh. Frank has been with us for over ten years now. Richard Modafferi is another McIntosh alumnushe is the engineer who designed the McIntosh MR78, and holds a patent called "Infinite Slope," currently being used by Joseph Audio.
SM: How many people do you have working for you full time?
SR: About half (laughter). There are now eleven.
SM: How has the market for high quality pre-owned hi-fi evolved? Or has it?
SR: Its evolved, but the theory pretty much remains the same. All of us wanted, back in the 60s and the 70s, to have the best components, but most of us couldnt afford to buy them new. I, like everyone else, wanted those pieces, so I would stop at every shop that I could possibly hit and see if I could find good deals. Thats what grew into a business. I discovered that people really like the experience of buying something that looks new. So when we purchase a product used, we do whatever is needed to bring it back up to its original operating factory specifications. When were done cleaning it, it is as if it is new.
SM: You have a rating system that you include on your website?
SR: Yes, sometimes we see units that look terrible but are in great operating condition, and sometimes its just the opposite. So we include both the physical and the technical condition in our ratings.
SM: Do you fabricate new elements, like those handsome McIntosh faceplates?
SR: In the case of McIntosh, the factory still maintains parts for products made within the last twenty or so years. Products made before that, we make reproduction glass panels for the units ourselves. We dont do it all heresome of it is subcontracted out.
SM: You go back a ways with McIntosh at this point.
SR: Yes, McIntosh sort of got us kicked off. It was recognized even back in the 60s that McIntosh products held their value very well. When we moved to Binghamton, McIntosh didnt have a dealer in the area, so we became that. We buy an awful lot of parts from them, and they do some repair work for us, so it made sense to be closer to the factory.
SM: Do McIntosh dealers around the world know about Audio Classics?
SR: Most of them know we exist. Some of them prefer to sell us their used gear because they can have a clean deal. A lot of individuals with used gear call us when theyre done with something, and well buy it outright. Over the years weve developed many customer relationships, and we routinely have visitors from out of the country who have made the trek to see us.
SM: What are some of your favorite designs? What do you listen to at home?
SR: At home now, Im almost ashamed to admit after my previous discourse, I have a McIntosh surround system. The kids like it (laughter)! Our audio system at home is on twenty-four hours a dayit never gets shut off.
SM: Are you one of those audiophiles who is never satisfied? Are you always swapping things out from the shop?
SR: I was for a long time. As someone said, do you buy records to listen to the equipment, or do you buy the equipment to listen to the records? For a long time I was searching for the holy grail of sonic nirvana. Finally one day I woke up and realized that what I really wanted to do was to just listen to music. I still do enjoy a number of different components. In the winter particularly, when the weather here is not so nice, I typically take different things home and listen to them. Some of my favorites with McIntosh are the C22, a classic tube preamplifier, the MC275, and the MR71. They round out a classic McIntosh audio system. Those were made in the late 60svery nice tube components, very collectible, and worth considerably more now than when they were new. I do prefer tubes, but they are not as practical as solid state if you are using them day and night.
SM: How are you able to work on the huge variety of gear that comes in?
SR: We specialize in higher-end U.S.-made components. We do almost no service work on offshore mass-merchandise products. Though the products are different, they are also similar in many ways if you look at the old Marantz, the old McIntosh, and others. There is some interchangeability with parts with the older gear.
SM: Do you get into digital?
SR: Digital repairs are off to the factory that made it. We have not been involved in that much. Our services are pretty much limited to tube and solid state analog devices.
SM: Is there a group or community of people who collect vintage electronics?
SR: Yes. The group is not as large as it used to be. When two-channel was hot, people were buying vintage gear to listen to. Now, its the same storythat was a tough sell on the home front. If they buy home theater systems they can get it by the family. So theres a smaller market than there used to be.
SM: How do you go about pricing older electronics?
SR: At this point weve been at it long enough that, with most of the high end American-made components, we pretty much know what the price should be. In many cases, Id have to say that we are the market makers in that product. People look at us and say "What are they charging?" Sometimes that creates problems in the market because people compare an Audio Classics price to an E-Bay price. Actually, E-Bay has been good for us because we get many units that come here after people have bought them on E-Bay and they dont work!
SM: You have under this one roof almost a complete survey of high end audio over the years. What have you noticed about this quest?
SR: Im almost in agreement with Paul Klipsch on this. All the manufacturers come out with something every six or eight months, and claim that what they have sounds an order of magnitude better than the previous product. But if you compare an older system with quality speakers and source material with current components, you can see how far we havent come!
SM: So you think that real or incremental progress is just not that common?
SR: Its not that common. Reviewers have to say, "This is the best thing Ive heard since whatever." The fact is, if you listen to a Marantz 7 and an 8B with a fine pair of speakers and a good signal source, youd be quite astounded by how good the sound isand that was made forty years ago.
SM: Where do you come down in the analog/digital wars?
SR: Frankly, theres little question in my mind when I set up a turntable and sit down to do serious listening that analog is better. We are not approximating sound here. Vinyl sounds wonderful. Its not as convenient as digital, thats all. We sell a lot of new VPI turntables. We dont get that many older turntables that are worth working on, but if you can find an older Garrard or Thorens, they can be wonderful. Turntable design has improved, but I dont know by how much.
SM: Youve come to know a number of audio designers over the years. Any thoughts?
SR: Well in addition to McIntosh, Audio Research products are amongst the best Ive ever heard. From a technical standpoint, for us doing repairs, they are pretty much a nightmareand you can put that on record (laughter)! DAgostino and Krell came out with a line of Class A products that were just wonderful, and were really hard for most audiophiles to get on the outside of when they first came around, because these lower-powered amplifiers sounded more powerful than higher-powered amplifiers from other companies. Dennis Hads Cary 805C amplifiers sound great.
SM: And what about the future, perhaps computerized audio?
SR: Well Im waiting for the machine that you buy that already has everything in it so you dont have to download anything. You will simply buy a playerIm not going to say CD because Im looking for the day when they do away with moving partswhether its "bubble" memory or whatever they end up using. Id just like to have all the greatest orchestral works in the machine, and theyll say "fine."
SM: There is an environmental aspect to what you dogetting more life out of things so they dont end up like refrigerators on the scrap heap.
SR: It is a throwaway society. Most of the higher-end components that we sell are ones that people tend to hold onto longer. A lot of it has to do with the interest of baby boomers in owning components that they couldnt have when they were younger and now they can. Thats part of the magic here, that we can help people make a dream come true, and they dont have to spend so much money to do it.
SM: And then there are the audiophiles who are never satisfied, and trade things in every two weeks, which is great for you. Im the beneficiary of that. Ive been following this same guy around, inheriting his speakers (laughter)!
SR: We had a customer down in New Orleansa favorite of minehe used to buy a lot of stuff. I talked to his wife at one time, and said: "Youve got to be the most understanding wife on earth. All the stuff he buys, doesnt it bother you?" and she said: "It did in the beginning, then I realized hes home with me every night, hes not out drinking with the boys, hes not out chasing women. And as soon as I realized that, I didnt care what he bought."
SM: I dont know what the guy thing and audio is. Maybe its what Frank Zappa used to say, that "guys like to turn knobs."
SR: I think it goes back to the reason people like tubes, which is mans ancient urge to sit around an open fire.
SM: What floats your boat musically?
SR: I play guitar in a folk band. And I love big band music.
Sasha Interviews Mike Sastra of Audio Classics Ltd.
Sasha Matson: What is the first step when you get a piece of pre-owned equipment in the shop?
Mike Sastra: When it comes in the door it goes to Ryan in service, and hell hook it up to the bench and check it for specifications. Hell read the harmonic distortion and wattage output on an amp. On a preamp hell check the knobs to see if theyre clean, put it on a oscilloscope to see what it looks like.
SM: Are there some pieces that are just too rusted out to bother?
MS: Yes, if something is not a viable product that we can put back into good condition and under our warranty, we wont buy it. It does happen occasionallysomeone will send us something they say is perfect and when we get it, its a long time gone from perfect.
SM: You do a certain amount of cleaning?
MS: Oh sure. We get small bugs, cat hair, you name it. Well open it up and vacuum and clean it out.
SM: How do you go about getting parts for some of the older equipment?
MS: Some of the parts you make yourself. If you research it and the manufacturer doesnt have it and you cant find someone that has got it stashed away, well go ahead and make it ourselves. Tubes are easy. Capacitors can be substituted. A transformer, if it is bad, well pull it out and send it to be rewired, to the "transformer doctor"thats all he does.
SM: You are McIntosh specialists. What are some of your favorites?
MS: The MC2255 was the pride of the fleet. If you owned one of those and a matching C33 preamp and this tuner, the MR80, you were in "hobs knob"you were top of the heap, there was nothing better.
SM: What do you listen to at home these days?
MS: Ive got three McIntosh systemsa tube one, a transistor one, and a home theater one. The tube is my favorite.
SM: Will you work on anything?
MS: Weve become more selective over the years. You do what youre good at, and let someone else do the other stuff. Were still analog guyswe dont have a digital lover. Were all aging, its true. But the analog stuff sounds better. We leave the digital stuff for the guys that do that.
SM: Audio Classics does accept outside repair work?
MS: Well do most anything analog McIntosh. Well do the old Marantz tube gear. And there are probably a dozen other brands that we do on a regular basis. Youre looking at $80 an hour plus parts.
SM: For individuals out there, what advice can you give about what is worth buying that can be restored?
MS: Most anything that says "McIntosh" you buy. Most anything Marantz pre-1973. There are a few other brands, but those are the top two. A 60s tube amp is going to have some rust and corrosionthe thing already has forty years on it, its going to happen. But dont take it home and plug it in, take it to a technician first and have him check it.
SM: In this internet age, you get inquiries from all over?
MS: Yes, worldwide. And before that, all I used to do here was answer the phone all day.
SM: What about speakers?
MS: Standard dynamics, most anyone who does speaker repair can take care of those. There are a couple of specialists that we send those out to. Electrostatics are touchy, not too many people like to mess with them. Ribbons are a real specialty, you are kind of at the mercy of the ribbon manufacturer.
SM: How many McIntosh units are in this place at this moment?
MS: Nobody knows (laughter)! Only our inventory control knows, and I dont know if theyre so sure about it.
SM: What about high end solid state gear? Do some components age better than others?
MS: The guys that push the design envelope have now figured out that some of those are not lasting as long as they would have liked. Generally, its heat that is taking them out. Earlier Class-A designs are cooking themselves. The manufacturers are changing the designs now. Nowadays, the way McIntosh is designed, they are A/B designs and they run stone cold from the day theyre new, and that product will last for a long time.
SM: How do you relate the technology to the music?
MS: I listen to a large variety of stuff. Im into acoustic instruments. Ive been here almost fourteen years now, and Steve and I have always loved guitars. Weve always traded and bought and sold guitars, so because of that we recently decided to make that another division of the business. It kind of goes hand in handyou make music, and you make music.