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Positive Feedback ISSUE 73
may/june 2014


Blackbird Audio's Dan Muzquiz
by Jim Merod


[Self-portrait by Jim Merod; cartoon by Bruce Walker]

No Jive

There's not much left of straight ahead old fashion values that marked the terrain where I grew up long ago in St. Louis: Dago Hill, near Forest Park. Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola's hood was the scene of Italians squaring off with Greeks six days a week. On Saturdays dining room tables came out onto sidewalks. Congenital antagonists became pals swapping tales and food from two heritages of classic cuisine. All was forgiven from the week's weary bruises. Late in the wine-soaked night, hugs and dancing frivolity replaced the hard edge abrasion of differences. Fun prevailed. Gus Triandos admitted to Giuseppe Chiarra that he realized he was a stubborn ass. Katerina Dolmos cried on Maria Lucuraba's shoulder. Honesty wobbled into sentimentality, but there was no jive. No BS. No "spin." People found a way to love each other one day a week knowing that, candor shorn of sentiment, they'd have reasons to make up all over again the following Saturday.

The joy of this remembrance exposes the fecklessness of "neomanic" behavior in all phases of contemporary commercial and cultural reality. Global homogeneity pretends to erase human differences by converting all things to the abstraction of exchange value. The outcome is not justice or improved communication, however fleeting, but formalized insincerity. I'll take the honest bumps of disagreement and provisional irritation over such banality. When Dago Hill reconciled longstanding suspicions and misunderstandings each week, the ritual of atonement was rich with feeling. There was nothing phoney in those occasions. One form of straight talk was moved aside awhile for another kind of direct locution, both vulnerable to the mind's caprice, both driven by vivid personal energy. No bullshit either way. Adding personal confession to objective recollection: my first two crushes as a much too green youth were Catherine Chirrara and Teresa Achimakopolis.

So, in the mood of homesick recall, I think of Dan Muzquiz, a man I've learned from and bantered with for more than twenty-five years. I first encountered Dan at a stereo venue in San Diego when, fleeing the doldrums of the day's oblivion as a dean of a school of arts and sciences, I dropped by to distract myself with the bedazzlement of new audio gear. Nothing clears a muddled noggin as well as an hour of music in a welcoming setting. Nothing adds relaxation to enjoyment better than a man like Dan Muzquiz, who knows how to inform and educate such a listener even as he finds a way to remove himself from the center of focus.

No Pain, No Gain

The thing I respect most about Dan Muzquiz is the seamless blending of his musically-obsessed intelligence with his tell-it-like-it-is business demeanor. His Blackbird Audio Gallery is uniquely comfortable and educational. Dan holds regular "music nights," when local musicians accent his well- stocked gallery home studio regaling the many regulars who look upon Dan as a sort of low-keyed music and sonic guru. He is that, in spades, a guru. I believe his dedication to music over gear – and his understanding that the most intriguing gear should complement music: that audio systems are "for the sake" of music listening and not an end in their own right—makes both his business model and his unrestrained enthusiasm about new gear and new music so compelling and mutually reinforcing. I'm aware, also, that the downsizing of the audiophile marketplace over recent years has been more than just a hiccup on a sunny day. Just as longstanding retail camera chain CALUMET went belly up six weeks ago, one also counts a great many audio shops that barely survived at the brink as lucky "victors" in the sadism of periodic capitalist roulette.

It turns out, as I've experienced Blackbird Gallery's astonishing commitment to the old-fashioned values of straight talk and good taste (honesty and audio expertise), that Trenner & Friedl speakers have found a central place in their offerings. I've spent considerable time with their "Ella" and their "Miles" speakers. Both are among the few speakers I've ever heard that are candidates for permanence in my musical reality. I suspect that this remarkable line up of truly "high-end" speakers at what amounts to relatively modest prices has been a genuine triumph for Dan's customers, as well as quite possibly somewhat of a boon for the gallery's ongoing success in a down market. While I realize that the introduction of those music-making devices was crafted by the keen-eared folks at Profundo, in my recognizance Dan Muzquiz gets credit for my awareness of speakers that are a lasting example of truly seductive musicality with an engagingly accurate sonic footprint.

Consider these intervening "real world" factors of the audio carnival. One, most audio shoppers do not religiously haunt a favorite audio gear emporium since, in the era of cyber-purchases, many if not most rake through the I-net seeking "deals." Everyone wants a bargain (me, too). But the "x factor" here is that good dealers, those that are left in the hurly-burly cut-throat audio sales competition, are loyal to clients who give back their loyalty in turn. In several decades of close attention to the vagaries of the audio universe, I've never encountered an audiophile venue as helpful (downright leaning backward) to educate and assist customers as Dan Muzquiz's Blackbird Audio Gallery.

Doubtless that enormously contributes to its enduring viability and strength. But here's a second factor to consider. The salient virtue of any audio dealership resides with the gear it represents... which, in tandem, elicits confidence from superior audio manufacturers and outstanding audio lines. Or, not. Make no mistake in thinking that all dealers have an equal welcome when soliciting audio gear. Such negotiations amount to a gamble both ways. In long-term relationships a genuine partnership occurs.

Partnership depends on trust. Another element in great audio partnerships is the good fortune of a customer base discerning enough to realize that the incremental learning curve enhanced by an astute dealer is invaluable to them. Add to that, number three, the virtual gift that a loyal customer receives again and again from the willingness of a solid and enlightened dealer to loan gear for extended demo time in the customer's home. Try getting darTZeel or Klipsch or Linn to offer extended loans of equipment at their expense—or under any set of terms.

 My point is blunt. The round robin of gear swapped in and out of the vast majority of audiophile homes is an addictive drudgery motivated by incompetence (not knowing what you want as a listener; not knowing where to find it; not knowing how to put gear together with synergistic rapport); and by a quixotic search for increasingly elusive audio excellence at impossibly depreciated prices.

No Pragmatic Hipness, No Musical Happiness

Why should I care what Bozo Dorkenheimer does with his audio budget and his musical fantasies? I don't. But five decades of being an educator creates the debatable habit of thinking about ideas and values. Consider this a theoretical foray in philosophical possibilities. My intention, in specific, is to nominate an unusually caring and gifted man for inspection as a throwback to the Pleistocene era of pastoral stereo care (a few decades ago). Modest, good hearted, smart and sneaky hip Dan, in my estimation, deserves the rare designation of Audio Guru in extremis.

Perhaps, in the future, I'll share my notes on those few others I've encountered whose professional devotion to musical joy and to the difficult good fortune of advancing such joy also deserve acknowledgment. In our fractious moment here on earth, fewer and fewer people seem motivated by fellow-feeling at a high level of ethical and aesthetic resolve. I'm not intending to demean anyone or to disdain the loss of a once more gentle, considerate human ethos. Perhaps my mood today is nostalgic. That may be the entitlement of long years hanging microphones, hearing the world's greatest big bands, and knowing folks who put others before themselves—or, at least, on an equal footing. Forgive my endearments, if you can.

Dan Muzquiz put together Blackbird Audio Gallery with the sort of tender loving care most often reserved for raising kids or training the family pooch to climb trees or driving oneself to ever-escalating heights of intellectual or artistic accomplishment. That last aim may be in fact the secret element in the mix here because, for a quarter century, I've witnessed Dan's patience with clients, as well as his almost spooky understanding of how to assemble truly great sound systems at prices that defy any audiophile's expectation. He is literally an artist. He has an uncanny knack for choosing audio gear at sub-stratospheric prices that, when cobbled together, over achieve productively in defiance of logic that dominates the audio industry's constant hype.

My nomination of this artistic audio guru's work comes with an explicit belief, amounting to a guarantee, that any reader will have an exceedingly difficult time locating his near-equal. I've not brought forward this flinty-eyed, appreciative suggestion with technical details and pseudo-professional accolades draped with epaulettes. The essential thing about music is that it is the greatest contribution of the human species to itself. The central feature of Dan Muzquiz's honest, down-to-earth Blackbird Audio Gallery is the humanity of the feeling and knowledge, of the caring service, rendered anyone fortunate or discerning enough to enter the circle of such brilliant and compassionate musical elevation.

Blackbird Audio Gallery