How the other half lives
To Audiophiles, Great Music Is Worth Any Price -- Even $140,000
"There's no going back": Aeronautical engineer Hugh Campbell at home with
his very, very expensive stereo, fine-tuned to a fare-thee-well. (Tracy A
Woodward - The Washington Post)
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 13, 2001; Page C01
By the time he noticed the "refrigerator problem," Hugh Campbell had spent
four years and a fortune building his stereo system, one super-sleek gizmo
at a time. He bought a pair of handcrafted loudspeakers, each more than five
feet tall. He bought a CD player, a preamplifier, two amplifiers, a
digital-analog processor and a tuner -- all gorgeous boxes of brushed steel
and blinking red diodes.
The system cost $140,000. The cables alone -- just the wires that connect
the various components -- set him back a little more than the price of a new
Volkswagen Jetta. Altogether the thing weighed more than 1,000 pounds, much
of it perched on a stand fitted with a special air bladder to reduce
vibrations and improve fidelity. In his modest house in McLean, Campbell
pointed the speakers to a spot in the middle of his living room, then
carefully positioned his favorite leather chair so the music of Bach and
Mahler caromed off at the precise height of his ears.
Great, he thought. But not perfect. Every time the refrigerator kicked on,
it swallowed a little gulp of electricity, which, he believed, degraded the
sound of his stereo ever so slightly.
Ignore it? Unplug the fridge? No way. Campbell headed back to the store and
purchased a pair of power regenerators, which smooth out the electricity
coming from the wall socket, and send it in a steady flow straight to his
stereo system. Price: $4,000.
"As soon as I put them in, it was really noticeable," says Campbell, who is
71 years old, gray-haired and almost always smiling. "I just thought, this
is very much better. There's no going back."
Heed it as a warning: There is no going back. The journey of the high-end
audiophile starts with music, winds through gadget-filled showrooms, and
ends with a lot of hand-wringing about kitchen appliances.
It's a fetish worth about $300 million a year to a handful of hi-fi
companies with names you've never heard, like Conrad-Johnson and Sera. This
planet has its own magazines, its own gurus, its own language, partisans and
proselytizers, heretics and cranks. They listen and spend, then listen and
argue, then listen some more and argue some more. They are experts on
electricity. They think your cell phone is ruining their sound. They're
certain your $950 Toshiba with the six-CD changer is junk.
All of them are chasing a goal set tantalizingly out of reach: to reproduce
the texture and majesty of live music, right in a living room. The catch: It
can't be done. A machine can almost capture the fullness and feel of a
violin, but it will always come up short. So audiophiles re-tweak and
re-upgrade, improving the sound in ever smaller increments that cost ever
By design, the process is never-ending. Once you have the equipment, you
need air bladders to eliminate vibrations. Once you've eliminated
vibrations, you need better equipment. Then you need better air bladders,
and so on until you've spent an ungodly amount.
Until you've spent $140,000. For that money, a local company called the Gene
Donati Orchestras will send a string quartet to your home and play on your
patio once a week for more than a year. Which is why audiophiles spend a lot
of time defending their sanity.
"You never hear anyone who buys a Rolex called a nut case, even though there
are cheaper quartz watches that tell time just as well," says Michael
Fremer, a senior contributing editor at Stereophile magazine.
"We've got a bad rep. People call us snobs. But usually that goes away when
you sit someone in front of a really amazing system. They always respond to
it. They might say 'I hear it and I don't care.' But nobody says, 'My $400
Bose Soundwave system is just as good.' "
Who are these people? Fabio, the hunky romance novel cover boy, is an
audiophile. So is Slash, the former Guns N' Roses guitarist, as well as King
Crimson bass player Tony Levin. So is former Washington Post reporter Carl
Bernstein. Notice a pattern?
All men. Men love stuff with knobs, plugs and lights, and they adore
technical jargon about ohms and impedance. Women spend just as much on CDs
and cassettes, according to industry surveys, but men are typically more
ardent about music, more willing to contend that only an idiot could think
"Imperial Bedroom" is Elvis Costello's finest album. Men are also born
upgraders. Whatever they have is somehow lacking, even if it's superb.
So audiophiles yearn for three-dimensional sound. It's not enough to hear
the kick drum; audiophiles need to feel it. When a guitar is "behind"
another guitar in a recording, the layers should be clear and consistent. If
Ray Davies turned his head slightly while he was singing "Lola," they'd like
to be able to "see" that in the music.
"The instruments should be positioned and defined," Campbell says. "Not just
left to right, but front to back. They should be consistent and real. On a
mediocre system, a viola and a violin sound the same. But there's a big
The question is whether hearing that difference is worth $139,000. Circuit
City is now carrying some pretty fine gear for less than $1,000, no air
bladder required. With money you didn't spend on a Campbell-quality stereo,
you could buy about 8,300 compact discs. Isn't there something a little
wacko about all this?
"It's an industry based on abuse, greed and arrogance. It takes advantage of
people who love music. Don't glorify this business."
This is Mark Levinson speaking. He is high-end audio's greatest innovator
and salesman. In 1971 he launched a line of equipment that still bears his
name -- most of Hugh Campbell's gear is Mark Levinson -- and is considered
the Rolls-Royce of the market. A former double-bass player who shared a
stage with jazz greats like John Coltrane, Levinson began tinkering with
components in his parents' basement in Connecticut in the late '60s. He
built the mixer used at the Woodstock festival. Eventually, he and some 25
employees were selling a few million dollars' worth of high-end gear each
But in 1980, after a tussle with his partners, he lost control of both the
company and his name, an experience that has left him sounding embittered.
Today he lives in New York City with his wife, the actress Kim Cattrall, a
star of HBO's "Sex and the City." Two years ago, he started a new audio
company, Red Rose, which has a showroom next to the Whitney Museum on
Manhattan's Upper East Side.
Reached by phone, Levinson sounds a little ornery, but sane for this crowd.
"Imagine if a travel agent sold you a ticket to San Francisco and you got on
the plane and suddenly noticed that you were landing in Detroit. You call
your travel agent and say, 'Why am I in Detroit?' And he says, 'You just
need to buy this little supplement and then I can get you a ticket to San
Francisco.' That's high-end audio today. It's just this side of crooked."
The business is moving toward complexity, he says, when simple will do just
fine. "How many people need a nine-foot grand piano to be happy with a
piano? We have a system that when it's fully loaded costs $15,000, which is
inexpensive in this market. It's very compact and very reliable."
All very reasonable. Then he mentions that Red Rose sells a system for
$90,000. And in the middle of the interview, he suddenly announces that CDs
are harmful to people.
Harmful? As in physical harm?
"Yes, they adversely affect humans," he says.
"I can't really go into it," he says. "We'll have a press conference about
The Urge to Upgrade
For the most part, high-end audio's executives believe in their products.
That includes Sidney Harman, CEO of Harman International, a Washington-based
conglomerate with $3.2 billion in annual sales, making it the largest
hi-fi-only company in the world. He is married to Rep. Jane Harman
(D-Calif.), and works in a stylishly decorated headquarters downtown, with
an office overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue.
Harman thinks that Mark Levinson is overdoing it. "He's talking about a
psychological condition that is in no way unique to high-end audio," he
says. "I know lots of people who have the same passion for automobiles. They
have an endless schedule of devices to enhance speed, like turbochargers.
Golfers are the same way about their equipment. The impulse to upgrade is
Of course, people can take it too far and for the wrong reasons. "The fact
that there is this exploitation isn't new to the human race," he adds. "If
you are determined to be the one guy in the building that has the best audio
system, there will be dealers happy to cater to that desire."
That, it turns out, is entirely true.
It takes some hunting to find high-end audio. Circuit City doesn't stock it.
When you can buy a system with a DVD-compatible CD player, a tuner, five
tweeters and "50-watt powered subwoofer" all for $699, it's going to be hard
to move a tuner that retails for $17,000.
So you seek out places like Deja Vu Audio, which sits unobtrusively in a
tiny strip mall in McLean. The place feels more like a bachelor pad than a
showroom. The sofas nearly outnumber the stereo systems, and there are
brightly colored paintings on the windowless walls. Stationed in the rear is
a pair of enormous baby blue horn-shaped speakers, like air-raid sirens in a
Tex Avery cartoon. Nearby is a French turntable that weighs 175 pounds,
built on opposing magnets, which allows the platter to sit on a bed of air,
so LPs float undisturbed by vibrations. It's a $10,000 rig, and it doesn't
include the needle and the tonearm. That's another $5,000.
"It's pretty wild," says Vu Hoang, the store's owner and high-energy
salesman. "I sold two of these this morning."
Hoang, 35, is as cheerful as a motivational speaker. He's selling the
old-school approach to high fidelity -- LPs and vacuum tubes, which, he'll
passionately explain, offer warmer sound than CDs and transistors. Some of
the albums he plays hiss a bit, but he doesn't seem to notice. He's a
missionary, pushing the good news about the beauty of vacuum tubes.
"I was going to be a doctor," Hoang says. "I was 25 years old and a
researcher at the National Institutes for Health. I bought a $60,000 stereo
and it sucked. I had read all the magazines and I was so impressed that I
bought it. Put about $45,000 of it on my Gold Card."
Then he heard the system of his girlfriend's father, who owned an old vacuum
tube amplifier. Hoang was so amazed by the sound, and so depressed by the
life of a doctor, that he quit his job.
"I sold my stuff, including my stereo, and lived on it for two years. I
tried a few other jobs, but mostly I just wanted to listen to music. So I
started buying and selling equipment with vacuum tubes and spreading the
word about this. I listened to music five or six hours a day. One of the
guys I had sold some things to came to me and said, 'This is terrific. Let's
open a store that sells just this stuff.' And with $30,000 in start-up
money, we opened Deja Vu."
In the store today, a middle-aged couple from Boston have arrived to buy a
stereo and there are assorted regulars hanging around, eager to listen to
whatever Hoang has handy. The relation between dealer and customer in this
world often looks strangely like that of dealer and junkie. People hang
around these places, searching for their next fix, which is usually their
Hoang heads down to the store's basement, where there is a single chair in
the middle of the room. To the left there is a stereo system studded with
vacuum tubes and a tangle of wires and switches. He grabs an LP -- an old
Dave Brubeck recording -- and lowers the cartridge onto the vinyl. Music
bursts from a set of $18,000 handmade Italian speakers. The tweeters are
floating, thanks again to opposing magnets.
"The vibrations of the woofer would transfer to the tweeter, so it's
isolated from the woofer," Hoang shouts over the music. "Can you hear it?
It's amazing, isn't it? It feels relaxed. People can't believe all that
sound is coming from these speakers."
He's right. The music sounds like it's coming from everywhere. It feels
round, vibrant and alive. The experience sort of tickles and is a little
eerie; it seems like there's a pianist and a drummer in the room and you
can't see them. All this tickling and eeriness, by the way, costs $50,000.
Just Out of Reach
Hugh Campbell can pinpoint the beginning. He was a grade schooler, visiting
Radio City Music Hall with his family and listening to a pianist play
Tchaikovsky. He was transfixed. After that, he learned piano and nurtured a
love for classical music that grew while he earned a master's in
aeronautical engineering from M.I.T. in the '50s. He then spent 30 years as
a Navy pilot, with a few tours of Vietnam, running more than 100 bombing and
ground support missions. Never married and without children, he lives alone
with an exquisite garden, his other passion, and works for a company that
oversees government contracts with the aeronautics industry.
His stereo now sits in an oak library, surrounded by gardening books and
clay curios. He didn't buy this to show off; few of his neighbors even know
about his contraption. Every Saturday, he sets his leather chair in the
middle of his library, by himself. He doesn't read or make calls. He just
"You wouldn't bring a book to the symphony, would you?" he says.
His serious purchases started in 1993. Four years later, he'd scrapped his
entire system and began upgrading anew, trading up for better speakers, then
a better preamp. "I'd go down to the Gifted Listener," the Centreville store
where he bought everything, "thinking I'd buy one thing, and I'd come back
with something else."
To the ungifted listener, the system sounds amazing, but it doesn't deliver
the sort of out-of-body experience that it obviously provides Campbell, who
seems transported while he plays some Mahler for a visitor. The effect is
bright and genuine. The "soundstage," as audiophiles describe the illusion
of physical space that the system seems to re-create, is broad and roomy.
Then again, for $140,000 you can buy a house that feels broad and roomy.
So is this it? Is Campbell done with his buying? Hardly. Having solved the
refrigerator problem, having purchased the finest Mark Levinson out there,
the war against vibrations is just getting started.
"The next thing to do is put the sandboxes under the two power supplies back
there," he says earnestly. "I've been told by people who've done it that
it's really quite a nice improvement."
Here's a question
What does this have to do with DIY Video?
Re: Here's a question
Are you up for your first thread move, Zardoz?
Thanks for the interesting article. It is truly astonishing how much money people are willing to spend... I think I'd rather have a ferrari!
God's Way Of Saying You Have Too Much Money.
For US$140,000 I'd buy a nice bush property and enjoy natural sounds instead.
what was the thing about CDs Mark Levinson was talking about?
he was going to have a news conference about it?
I can see how he's bitter though... loosing the use of your
name like that... ouch!
you can hire a Juliard graduate to surround you with sound, night and day, for 4 years.
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