Positive Feedback Logo

PF's Rip Van Winkle Awakens - The Place Formerly Known as Stu's

12-26-2020 | By Stu McCreary | Issue 113


Is He Rip, a Penny, or Moby Dick?

Like the proverbial "bad penny," I keep turning up.

I think our PF world could suffer another grizzled audio old-timer, so I've decided to make an inauspicious return to the fold. My reasons are many—some high-minded and altruistic, some low-minded and selfish. You needn't know which have motivated this rumination, but now that I have resurfaced, I do have a few things to get off my chest, or jettison from my blowhole.

If you are anything like me, you may have been surprised, and perhaps a little amused, with the explosion of "yutes" we now find on social media. Those bright eyed lads waxing not-so-poetic with their not-so-seasoned opinions on all things audio. Heck, I've got dust on my gear that's older than some of these kids! 

Okay, that was a little harsh. The truth is, I'm quite impressed with the work that these youngsters are doing and how they may be fostering a new generation of audiophiles. Even so, I'm struck with some sadness as I watch the visual medium once again displace the graceful art of the written word. Its the 1000 pound YouTube gorilla that is capturing most of the attention from our new crop of audio enthusiasts. It's not that I think there's anything wrong with leveraging this new media. it's that I deeply respect the art of writing, and I don't want to see it go the way of the rotary phone and the party line.

No, wait… that's a terrible analogy. Rotary phones and party lines sucked. The cell phone is a better communication device in every way.

But can the same thing be said for the new media? Perhaps not. The written word can still inspire and communicate information more efficiently and well...."artfully" than a video can. It's also easier to skip to the salient parts of a written review than to fast forward through a video and try to "find" the parts where your pundit displays the information you want to see. Still, I have to admit YouTube is probably the new gateway drug to audiophilia nervosa, and its accessibility and familiarity with the computer and "gamer" crowd likely means more fresh blood for our audiophile ranks. That's something to applaud, not decry.

I may be more than a little odd, but at least I'm consistent. Since the early 90s, I haven't changed my opinion about making high-end audio more accessible and fun for newcomers. I wrote about this mission in a little "dust up" I had with Herb Reichert, appearing in PF's summer 1995 issue, Vol. 5, No. 6. I also re-hashed it in an article I wrote HERE in September of 2015. In light of the title of this current article, you might find that 2015 article to be out of place and an exercise in prevarication…and you would of course be right—this Stu guy doesn't know if he's coming or going! Let's just call it my "mulligan." Oh, and let me just say, it wasn't much of a "dust up" with Herb. It was simply a difference of opinion on how we get from point A to point B, with B being a greater appreciation of the "Audio Arts."

It's All In The Name

As I reflect upon the youthful charm of our current crop of chroniclers, I can't help but ruminate about my own early exploits. Please indulge this old raconteur as I share a few back-in-the-day yarns. Besides being somewhat self-indulgent, it may help you to know who I am, why I have returned, and why it probably doesn't matter.

First, let's deal with the name. Starting back in 1992, I began my ramblings here at PF under the name "Stu's Place." I didn't come up with that incredibly unique and insightful name on my own. Notwithstanding the blinding light and the "eureka" moment, it did have a story and etymology that interweaves some very important people in my audio life.

I had been an avid audiophile and reader of Stereophile and The Absolute Sound since the late 70s, but it was in the early 80s with the writing's of Sam Tellig (aka, Tom Gillet) that I became obsessed with all things audio. Sam had a subject matter and a writing style that appealed to me. It was obvious Sam was having a blast and was happy to acquaint us with his cadre of loveable curmudgeons, such as "Brass Ear" and "Left Ear Louie." I felt as if I were one of the gang—a band of brothers who enjoyed each other's company as much as they enjoyed listening to music and ribbing each other about their equipment.

It was almost a decade later, when I too became an audio journalist / reviewer and got to rub shoulders with the man himself. Through several different industry connections, I was able to contact Tom and have a very amicable chat. After a few more calls, one in particular where Tom called to check up on me (he'd seen weather reports on the news of my hometown getting yet another massive blizzard), I knew Tom had become more than just another industry connection. He'd become a genuine friend. I was a huge fan of Tom's Stereophile column, "Sam's Space." In honor of him, I decided to call my own column, "Stu's Place." As the younger protégé, I was a little uncomfortable with direct comparisons to my master, so the strategic use of "Place" rather than "Space" was designed to give me the proper association with the much needed cover. 

Well, spin the femto clock ahead nearly 30 years, and like an audio Rip Van Winkle, I've awakened from my slumber to find that Tom is no longer writing his column at Stereophile. On top of that, I find that PF now has a "newer" guy who uses the name "Jeff's Place." Ha! It's just my luck Jeff Day happens to be a guy with his fingers on the high-end audio pulse AND he's an outstanding, prolific writer with a large, well-deserved following. If I were to call him out at high noon at the PF corral and proclaim, "this town isn't big enough for the two of us," I would surely end up looking up at the sky in a pool of my own literary blood. So, with a quick calculation of these two very salient facts and another epiphany of periphrastic brilliance, I have decided to name my column…wait for it…"Stu's Space." 

And this is for you Tom Gillet, you magnificent raconteur bastard! 

I will now embrace the comparisons to the great Sam Tellig, and God willing, like the Prophet Elijah passing his mantle to Elisha, there will be bestowed upon me a double portion of the "audio cheapskate" spirit. I pledge to search tirelessly for the companies and products that are the champagne overachievers for the beer-swilling audiophiles, and I vow to keep the erudite bloviation to a minimum and the colorful anecdotes to a maximum.

Gather Round the Fire and 'Ole Rip will tell you Some Whoppers

There's no time like the present, so let's get a few more of those yarns out there in the ether. How about the tale of how I was first introduced to PF's own Dr. David Robinson?

I believe it was 1987-88 when I first found out about The Audiophile Network. It was a relay chat group run by Guy Hickey and operated with Phil Becker's TBSS system software. Simply known as "TAN" amongst us users, it was a place where discussions covered everything about Audiophiles and their proclivities. This was back in the day of 600/1200 baud modems, and us old timers will never get that modem connection sound out of our heads. Thankfully, the TAN BBS predated that, "you've got mail," nonsense.

There was quite a cast of characters on TAN back then, and not surprisingly, this merry band spawned some of the most notable editors, writers, company owners, and industry insiders in the audio world. No kidding. The list is like a who's who of audio. Let me drop a few names: Kal Rubinson, Chris Sommovigo, Jeff Joseph, Les Edelberg, Ken Kantor, Steve Eddy, Jud Barber, Myles Astor, J. Gordon Rankin, Barry Kohan, Mary Cardas, Rich Brkich, John Atkinson, Jonathan Scull, Jack English, David Robinson, Doug Schneider, Lonnie Brownell, Rick Rosen, Corey Greenberg, Robert Reina, Jeff Goggin, Steve Rochlin, Clark Johnson, Todd Warnke, Scott Dorsey, Doug Blackburn, Kinluan Nyguyen…whew! I could keep going, but I think you get the idea. Never before, and probably never again, will there be so many smart, friendly, and influential audiophiles gathered together in one place.

This is how much relationships mattered on TAN. One of the greatest and most bonding things you could do with your audio 'mates was to have a "TAN" together. This was the word we used for slathering the Coppertone on each other and copping some rays on a shared beach towel. Ha! just try to get that image out of your head. Actually, it was much less physical and more spiritual. A "TAN" was dialing up your pal on the land line and playing for each other music cuts. You'd share the emotions evoked by the music and the time and events you associated with it.

We didn't give a hoot about the sound quality over the phone. It wasn't about that. It was about bonding. The very personal connection with your TAN brother and the shared message of the music. I had "TAN's" with quite a few members, including Kinluan Nyguyen and Kal Rubinson.

From our TAN interactions, David Robinson knew me and knew I lived in upstate New York. A situation arose where David was contacted by a new speaker manufacturer looking to get a review in PF. The problem was one of logistics. This new loudspeaker was heavy, didn't have a proper shipping crate, and was located in New Hampshire. It also just so happened that the owner of Mach 1 Acoustics, Mark McAlmont, had a pilot's license and his very own Cessna.

He asked David if PF had anyone with the magazine in the Northeast so that he could make a short flight to deliver his Mach 1 speakers personally. David undoubtedly scrolled through his mental Rolodex and remembered that "TAN guy, Stu," lived in the frozen tundra known as Watertown, NY, and was only a short hop from Mark's home. 

I remember well the late afternoon phone call I got from David at my law office. He recounted to me the desperate logistical problem and used all of his charm and influence to convince me to host Mark and his precious cargo for a PF review. It was a tough sell, and I only succumbed after he plied me with both fame and fortune.

My pal, Rich Brkich of Signature Sound in Liverpool, NY, came up to join me. We drove the short distance from my home to the three plane, and four hamster, Watertown Municipal Airport. There we met Air Force pilot, Mark McAlmont. Mark had removed the passenger seat, and his Mach 1 Loudspeakers were literally shoe-horned into the back of his Cessna. We loaded up the gear and the three of us congregated at Stu's Place. We had an all day and evening session, comparing Mark's brain child to the Vortex KRS loudspeakers (designed by the late Albert Von Schweikert).

I wrote my primis magnum opus on the Mach 1's, and I was honestly surprised when David gave it his blessing and didn't change a word.

Shortly thereafter, I formed my own listening crew with local savants, Rich Brkich, Carl Dake, and Dr. Chuck Wascik. They became both my sanity checkers and confidantes. They would keep me honest about what I was hearing, and brought unique perspectives into the conversations. Rich, gave me an electrical engineer's perspective on what we saw, under the lids. Carl brought the HiFi store owner's pragmatic view, and Dr. Chuck brought the musical sensibilities of a Rheumatologist who owned and played his own Steinway.

Only a stone's throw from the Canadian border, I also had a fair number of notable visitors from the People's Republic of Canuckistan. Emelio Dissippio and Doug Schneider of Soundstage immediately come to mind. I loved these visits and the replenishing of my bacon and Molson's stock. 

Here's how Doug used to work it. He'd promise a day of shopping to his significant other, drop her off at our local Salmon Run Mall, and then hightail it to my basement bunker listening room. They always had an appointed time when she would be done with her shopping and expecting Doug to have the Bentley waiting for her. Come to think of it, I never did get to meet the girlfriend.

I'm delighted to see how some of my old audio buddies have grown in knowledge and industry influence, while in my case, the only thing that has grown is my waistline. I'm proud to say that Doug is still my friend, and I don't mind riding on his coattails one bit. I did confirm in a recent conversation that Doug is now married with kids, and no, the one who would rather shop than come to Stu's Place is NOT the one he married. Ladies, I think there might be a lesson in that.

In 1995 I wrote a review of Albert Von Schweikert's new loudspeaker that would later become known as the Von Schweikert Research VR-4. By the spring of 1996, I had written a business plan for Albert, got him financed with the local banks and agencies, and had him moved into the new industrial complex in my hometown. My goal was to build a high-end audio enclave right in my backyard. To that end, I also tried to get Melos Audio to make the move. 

I had become very impressed with Melos' designer, Mark Porzilli, and had written a rave review of his very capable SE-75 amplifier. I set out to woo them just as I had with Von Schweikert and wrote them a kick-ass business plan, which incorporated a move to Watertown. The business plan was great, but apparently the move wasn't. I found out that Melos took my plan and shopped it for a better deal in the warmer climate of Nevada. I might have done the same, so there were no hard feelings. 

Fortunately, that little setback didn't kill our north country momentum. A few short years later, we were joined by Meadowlark Audio, and I had the great pleasure of getting to know its founder, Pat McGinty, and his family. 

I got involved with this side of the industry not to be an "owner" or to make audio my day job, but to help out people I believed in, and to create some high-end audio jobs for my local community. It has given me a perspective that few audio journalists share. I know most everything—and I do mean everything—that goes into manufacturing, marketing, and surviving in the high-end audio world, including the realization that, sometimes, the emperor wears no clothes.

A perk of having a few well known loudspeaker companies in the area was the ease of persuading some of the great personalities in audio to make the pilgrimage to Watertown for a factory tour and stop at Stu's. The most notable of these visits occurred, I believe, in 1999. 

I'd chatted on the phone many times with Clement Perry of StereoTimes, but had yet to meet this amazing guy face to face. Clement had called in the fall of that year, saying he intended to make the six hour trek from New York City to Watertown for a personal visit and a VSR tour. I was thrilled to finally have a chance to meet my audio soul mate, and as a bonus, he said he'd bring along some special guests. When they arrived at my place on a late Saturday afternoon, I was introduced to none other than Bill "Brass Ear" Brassington and Lou "Left Channel" Lanese. I felt as if I already knew these guys from their adventures with Sam Tellig, and now, holy cow, they were sitting in my listening room, vying for the sweet spot, and treating me like we were long lost pals! 

The boys had brought some of their favorite tunes. We had a blast listening to cuts and telling tales about the characters in audio land we call friends. They mentioned Harvey "Gizmo" Rosenburg and I lamented my missing out on a gathering of the "Knights of the Triode Guild" at Harvey's place just a few months before. I told them how I sent Harvey a small gift box as tribute for my absence and included in that box a copy of Junior Brown's album, Guit with It. I had been turned on to Junior with a mix tape sent to me by none other than Lonnie Brownell, the court jester of the TAN Clan. Imagine for a moment seeing the reaction of the assembled audio-cognoscenti when Junior Brown's "Highway Patrol" sang out from Harvey's Tannoy Westminsters... We howled in laughter over the thought, and apparently so did Harvey! He had called me a few days after his event and told me that Junior was the hit of the gathering. 

I learned from the New York City boys, to be really cool, you have to have a good audio nickname. Some like "Brass Ear" and "Left Channel" are plays on words and alliteration. Others speak more to the core of your being, like "Gizmo," and then there are others , like "Snow Crab" that pay tribute to a particular exhibition of gastric endurance. 

After several hours of camaraderie roasting our anecdotes over the glowing fire of 300Bs, Clement, Bill, Lou and I went for dinner at the local China Buffet where, much to Clement's delight, snow crab legs were on the all-you-could-eat buffet. Clement made the staff reload the crab four times. As the owner sat behind the counter frowning and shaking his head, Clement proceeded to eat up their entire week's profits. I've called him Clement "Snow Crab" Perry ever since. Incidentally, the buffet went out of business a few months later. The owner, who actually was a client and friend of mine, teased me that my "big bwack fwend" had put him out of business. 

Socks Eye View

The Sleeper has Awakened

I don 't think it's a stretch to call me the Rip Van Winkle of Audio. I fell asleep under a tree somewhere around 2003, and I wake up in 2020 to a brave new audio world. Well, to be honest, I awoke from my hibernation for a short period in 2014 when I got the notion that I would try out headphone audio. That lasted only a year or two because, quite frankly, I wasn't made for headphones. After a frustrating period of recalibration, where I tried to adjust to a soundstage that only existed between my ears, I just threw in the towel. It's not that I didn't enjoy the gear and the band of brothers I formed over at headfi.org (we were the "Swabbies" on the good ship Gustard, and I was dubbed Cap'n Guinea Pig for my willingness to try out anything associated with my Gustard DAC and headphone amp.) I just missed the big rig and a true holographic soundstage.

I had established some Chinese Audio connections, mainly through a relationship with Mr. Huang at Gustard, but my re-awakening in 2020 has shown me a brave new world where our Sinitic friends have truly taken their places at the high-end round table. My goodness, they have acquired even more venerable names from our audiophile history, and they are shaking things up at the cutting edge of DACs and everything digital. When I disappeared in 2003, class D amplifiers were just starting to make inroads into high-end, including my cherished Bel Canto Evo 200.2s (using the Tri-path, class "T" variant). I rub my eyes, and when the world comes back into focus, I see class D everywhere, including some new gurus like, Bruno Putzeys, offering modules to the masses. What was once only a dream—creating a near state of the art amplifier with off-the-shelf power supplies and modules, is now a reality.

So what does 'ole Rip decide to do? He gets the notion to restore the Space of Stu, and do a thorough cleaning of the cobwebs, which includes the creation of a new listening room and establishing a new base system—my reviewer's tool, Swiss army knife, reference system. This would require some pull, real juice, to get the job done. I knew I couldn't be a player on the audio mean streets without having my audio punditry passport re-stamped by the "Kingpin." That would be our editor in chief, Dr. David Robinson. Some call him "Kingpin," but I call him my brother and "Mr. Motel 6." Yes, throughout these noticeably absent years, Brother David has always "kept the light on for me." After a righteous and long over-do chat, my punditry passport was restored (that is, "senior associate editor" status), along with my literary license to kill. A license that comes in very handy when you're murdering mixed metaphors and assassinating alluring alliteration. In no time at all, I was back to my old self, reconnecting with my old cohorts and contacts in the industry.

Man, it is good to be back.

If you can stand hearing the voices in my head, or being that "fly on the wall," then you just might enjoy reading about what's happening at Stu's Space. "Space, the final frontier"- I just had to say that. We might not be discovering strange new worlds, or seeking out new life and civilizations, but we will be acoustically optimizing a new listening room and establishing a new, affordable reference system. I'll be sharing these exploits and writing some featured reviews, if, and when, I get sufficiently titillated.

Here's what's on deck.

Rear walls are for rock climbing AND diffusion

The Usher Audio Dancer Mini-X Diamond

Front End Sources

The Oppo 203 gets fully tricked out by www.oppomod.com, including an I2S board that enables SACD output to DAC. Alvin Chee of Vinshine Audio turns me on to Soundaware and I end up buying the D280 for playing my high-res files on SD cards (HERE). The Marantz NA6006 turns out to be an outstanding Heos device for streaming Amazon HD Music, that is, when you add an all glass optical cable from Lifatec (www.lifatec.com) running through the superb iFi SPDIF ipurifier2.


I go full Sinitic with DAC offerings from Gustard, Holo Audio, and Denafrips. When the digital haze clears, it's the Denafrips Pontus DAC that ends up with my 2020 Writer's Choice Award.


I'm on the hunt for the Swiss Army Knife of line preamps, but end up with the Polish Sausage of preamps instead. I have a formidable gathering of preamps each outstanding in their own right (and price point): the uber-affordable Gustard P26, the Alexus Audio Passive Preamp (HERE), the bulletproof, Benchmark Audio LA4, but it was the Hattor Ultimate Passive Pre with optional opamp gain stage, from the mind and hands of Arek Kallas of Warsaw, Poland, that ended up being everything I needed and more (HERE).


My cherished Bel Canto Evo's go head to head with the Benchmark AHB2, the PS Audio M1200 monoblocks and the VTV Purifi Audio 1ET400A Tube buffer Monoblock amplifiers. I end up keeping the M1200's because, well, they sound spectacular and are the perfect reviewer's tool amplifier, but I give my 2020 Writer's Choice Award to the VTV amplifier because of its unique combination of price, performance and tuning options.


I shed my predilection for big floor standers and learn the joys of stand mounts and stereo subwoofers. In the process, I take a look at KEF, am mightily impressed with the Quad Z-1's and their gorgeous ribbon tweeters and then out of nowhere comes a Sinitic masterpiece (I'm sensing a trend developing), this time from Taiwan. I discover in Usher Audio, what might be the most overlooked and unheralded loudspeaker company in all of audiodom. Their Dancer Min-X with dedicated stands are incredibly well built works of art that are so modestly priced for their ridiculously high performance, that after wetting myself, I seriously consider giving them my coveted "Stupid Good" loudspeaker award, and yes, this is what "sufficiently titillated" reads like.


Yes, opamps, dammit. The discreet kind from Sparcos Labs, Sonic Imagery, Weiss, Dexa, and Burson. I drive myself bonkers "rolling" singles and duals in the VTV amp and the Hattor Preamp. Why?—so you don't have to. I'm trying to come up with descriptions of the various flavors and it's a nightmare on Elm Street of Baskin Robbins proportions.

Other Stuff

My power predicament gets completely solved by the PS Audio P12 regenerator, and the unexpected soundstage enhancements leave me awestruck. I get wowed by the accuracy and transparency of the affordable Morrow Audio Speaker cables and decide to try out their more top-end offerings.

So much bloviation.

So little time.