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In Memoriam: The Passing of Brian Hartsell

08-14-2023 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 128

Brian Hartsell in the Atrium at RMAF 2005…back when you could smoke there!

Brian Hartsell has passed away. Another good audio man gone.

Apparently, he died on Friday, August 4, 2023, while in hospice care. My audiobud Nick Despotopoulos got in touch with me earlier this week to let me know. (Thanks, Nick!) His life had been vigorous and wrapped around his passion for music and LPs, but it ended in a hospice care room, reportedly in northern California. The cause was long term failing health plus dementia…a tragic way for him to go.


This is not a standard obituary; I don't do those. And it's not like Brian and I were close over many years; it was a more or less "I'll see you when I see you" sort of relationship that lasted from about 1994-2005, and then petered out. So, unlike many of my memoria articles, it's about a more casual audio friendship. It's a collection of some memories…hearkening back to the days and years that Brian and I had some collegial contact via his writings here at Positive Feedback. For his formal writing with us, we're talking back in 1994 or so until about 1996-1997, when his writings in PF seriously stirred some analog pots that needed serious stirring.

Scott Frankland of Wavestream Kinetics at Vacuum State of the Art Conference (VSAC) 2001:  a moment in dry brush finish

I had met Brian through Scott Frankland, then of MFA. But the genesis of that connection was through my good audiobud George Cardas.

George Cardas with Scott Frankland at VSAC 2001

When George first moved up to Bandon, Oregon, back in 1992, he showed off his MFA MC Reference Preamp in his new listening room. He claimed that its tube-based phono section for low-output moving coils (thus the "MC") was the best thing for MCs that he'd heard to date, and that Scott Frankland was brilliant with tubes. I had to agree, as he demonstrated the remarkable gain of the MC Ref, and its very impressive silence whenever he lifted the stylus. I filed Scott's name away for a possible future connection.

That actually happened pretty soon after hearing the MC Ref. While I don't remember exactly how we crossed paths, Scott and I did get to know one another. Not too long after that, we met face to face, and I was quite taken with Scott's quiet demeanor and extraordinary command of tubes themselves, tube circuitry, and tube history.

But where's Brian Hartsell in all this?

Bloody good question.

Well, while visiting Scott at some point around 1994 - 1995 down in San José, he took me over to an audio store that had recently opened called The Analog Room. It was run by a very good friend of his, Brian. "Store" really isn't the right word here. The Analog Room turned out to be a combination high-end audio hardware place with several listening areas, plus a record collector trove (Brian had the really good stuff!), and a gentlemen's cigar lounge and hangout for various and sundry audiophiles and non-audiophiles.

At The Analog Room (photographs courtesy of The Analog Room)

(I particularly appreciated the Cigar Lounge element, a practice that he would discontinue years later.) The first time that I saw Brian was while he was standing behind his counter, brandishing a cigar, and expounding vigorously upon his point of view about…something. Could be an LP dispute; this vs. that pressing; the idiots who screwed up recordings somewhere along the way; the failures of some of the reissue companies to do it right. (By which he meant his way.) That sort of thing.

Plus whatever else was drifting in with the tide.

Audioman has flown away...  (vintage PF cartoon by Bruce Walker)

He looked like a defensive linebacker in football, and acted like it, too. Large, strong-looking, and able to get pretty intense on an opponent's hindmost parts at need. His smile and laugh, however, were infectious as well, stretching from ear to ear, and rumbling up from deep within. I liked him immediately, and we hit it off well.

As he and Scott and I got to know each other better, we converged on the notion that Scott/Brian should write some articles for Positive Feedback, time allowing. Given what I was learning about what they knew, I was sure from early on that they would benefit from getting some of their ideas out, and equally certain that our readers would benefit immensely.

"Idea." Drawing by Dan Zimmerman

What followed for the next several years was a fruitful period of a handful of articles and essays from Brian/Scott. It didn't last long enough; my files indicate that the period of Brian's activity with us was from 1995 until 1998, some four years.

This is the time that Brian and I got to know each other best. So this memoriam is different in pulling back more distant memories than usual for me. Particularly do I remember Brian, Scott, Dr. Tom Davis (another PF contributor back in the day), and I visiting Peter Evans' place in the Oakland Hills, that museum-like structure that housed some of Scott's finest electronics and (at the time) Cardas's best reference cables. Magnepan MG 20's, with complete Cardas crossover modifications done by George himself. Tubes as cable lifters. Active external crossovers. And a turntable system that I no longer remember. (Given Peter, I'm sure that it was the best that he could find.) 

And Brian with the special teak LP carrying box, and a load of his very best and most collectable records. All of us queued up in listening chairs in a straight line, one directly in front of or behind another. Glasses of primo Chianti shipped directly from Italy, and Cuban cigars for all of us. (Peter's place had very high vaulted ceilings...smoke has to have a place to live too, you see.) A very rare listening experience, and a unique night. Brian was in his element, with album following album, all reference titles, all in impeccable condition, all for sale at the right price. How many albums, if any, Peter purchased that evening is a mystery, but being a person of means helps.

Memories. I wish that there were more of them with Brian. Life's pathways can be strange, and diverge as much...perhaps more...than they converge. 

I think that the best thing that I can do to remember Brian, and to help our readers to do so, would be to re-publish some samples of his work from this period, both with and without Scott Frankland (a very fine wordsmith in his own right). Let the quality of Brian's work speak for itself; you can get to know something about a man by reading his words.

We'll be publishing the first of the Hartsell memorial series from our distant PF archives in our "New Old Stock" section soon. The others will show up from time to time.

It's the best memoriam that I can do for you, Brian.

And I'll surely miss you...