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Making a living out of tubes? (A little off-topic)

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Every now and again I get fed up with my pointless office job, and wonder what would happen if I started a tube / audio company.

I have built a few hi-fi amps, and built and sold a couple of guitar amps for musicians and the like, and I have repaired various SS and tubed amplifiers that people have given me. I have also sold some tubes on ebay and made a little money that way.

I guess what I want to know is, does anyone here make their living out of tubes or audio, and is it possible to do full-time?

Also when your hobby becomes your job, does it kill the fun? :smash:
i dont have a company or logo i do it for the extra cash and sometimes it does take the fun out of it . when the customer pays u up front and wants it at a certain time;)

i could make a living out of it but it takes money to make money
and the kids spend what i have left:D
I agree. If you want to make money from building the amplifier, surely you would lose all the joys and fun of it.

I have met a guy who intends to market his 300B SE amp which use perm alloy OPT manufactured by his company. He told me we should never get on this audio business. There are just very few people would pay for the price.

I have built 300B, 2A3 and 45 SE amps. Every one got their own character. With use of different components, it would sound quite differently.

Most men would not satisfy with their wife once the honey moon is over.

Well, let me put it this way.

Create and finish as many solid designs as you can, in your spare time. Build several of each model. Now try to sell them.

If you managed to sell all of them (locally, stores, publicity, internet, any way possible), get back to building. Build more, faster. Now sell a hundred.

And that is why most tube amps are modern art pieces.

Joined 2004
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I started an audio business back in 1989, in those days it was known as Kennedy Audio/Kennedy Audio Labs - I did it more or less full time until 1991 when I landed a position with a local hifi company. From about 1992 until 1999 I did it on a part time basis with a few years of relative none activity while I hassled with my employer over breach of contract/ethics issues over my part time business activities. (Despite an agreement at hire that I would be allowed to continue to persue my activities, there was a point where this promise was forgotten and the company hassled me over it. Oddly it was a very senior engineering VP who caught wind of the whole thing, and told the ethics board that he specifically remembered the agreement and that in any case the company would never enter this field and therefore there was no conflict at all in his view and to just leave me alone..)

In the end they agreed that there was no conflict of interest, and the restarted business now know as KTA grew rapidly in the last years of the decade - and I was having fun. During this time I saved dilligently, found some investors amongst my closest friends and planned for liberation day which finally came in July 1999 more or less with the end of my marriage..

I left the nameless monolith and went back into business full time. I had orders, plenty of them, and cash flow, maybe $5K/month which was slim. Sold the house, paid off most of my remaining personal debts and moved to Newburyport, the business took off - or so it seemed. I was busy and happy. Orders poured in during the first months of 2000 and I even grossed $30K one month. I introduced a line of products I designed and had oem'd in China, they were quite competitive and sold with some effort. I hand built a very expensive 300B SE amplifier based on two chassis with regulated supplies and Tamure Amorphous Core outputs. It was a lot of work, and I was growing more tired by the day. I could not make the transition from small artisan to a manufacturer - I did not have the required margin to hire help and grow the business. Late spring early summer of 2000 the stock market turned, and finally a dispute with an idiot who also happened to be my most effective distributor stopped the cashflow dead. The end came very quickly, with fixed costs of roughly $3K month I depleted my remaining cash in under 6 months as the business imploded due to the stock market crash and other factors too numerous to elaborate on.

One of the largest problems with audio is that is extremely difficult to explain to banks and even the SBA what exactly it is you do. Bankers are conservative and business loans for a business such as this can be hard to obtain unless you have assets that a lien can be established against.

I had to get a job and initially I looked for a temp gig and could not find one - with the thought of trying to save my business until things picked up. I started looking 4 months before I ran out of money, but found nothing. Late 2000 I finally ended up taking a design position full time at a small musical instrument electronics sweatshop (I mean manufacturer, oops..) in northern MA.

I officially closed the business in 2002 after a disaster with a shipment of amplifiers from HK that sat in a warehouse beyond the grace period allowed by US customs.. (The broker failed to notify me of their arrival.) The fines added up to over $1K and when received every amplifier had been damaged and had to be completely disassembled and repaired.

I made boards for Dyna ST-70 and MKIII amps, mods for PAS2 and 3. SE amplifiers based on 300B, 2A3, and 45, high powered dual chassis 120W monoblocks, 300B stereo pushpull amplifiers, 300B PP monoblocks. linestages, phonostages. Much of this stuff was built in very limited quantities except the dyna stuff, which unfortunately has been copied by at least one unscrupulous individual.

To sum it up it was something I had to do, but is it possible to make money doing it - yes and no. Primarily this is determined by how long you can hang in there while you build sufficient name recognition to have a sustainable business, and whether or not you have things people want to buy on an ongoing basis.. It is a lot of work and costs have to be closely controlled. Find a cheap place to do it with access via UPS and Fedex. To say in the end it wasn't fun is an understatement.

Dealing with the marketing issues was probably my undoing.. Most dealers who sell the product you make have as much technical education as a medievil alchemist or worse. Capriciousness and superstitution rule the day and I can't believe any solidly engineered product ever makes it to the market place, but it does.

I built a lot of different products over the years and there are few even now who tell me I made a mistake in giving up, but I want to live comfortably, know where my next meal is coming from and not deal with certain personality types at all.

Moments were fun, and I made a lot of friends, and I learned a lot that you cannot find in an engineering text book..

On the whole though I think it was probably a temporary diversion and I will not likely have the opportunity to try again. I now have more than 16 yrs of experience in audio engineering and I love it, but I will do it for someone else now.

They say that 4 out of 5 businesses will fail within 5 years, and in the audio world failure is all but certain for but the very few. Once in a while someone who hangs in there for a long time will make it, but invariably when you talk to them you will learn about a long arduous tale of privation..

It is a lot more fun as a hobby, no commercial concerns or compromises need to be made if it is not your bread and butter.. A part time concern is definitely viable if you have the time and energy to persue it. There are benefits to this approach, some cash flow, losses that can be offset against tax liabilities in bad years, and a relationship with vendors that you cannot have as a retail purchaser. (Save a lot of money.)

Sorry to be a bummer, and as this was written during lunch time at work it isn't as coherent as it could be either. Keep it as a hobby:D
Joined 2004
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Hi SY,
Thanks for your kind words. I so hate to rain on anyone's parade and in truth I believed I could do it, thought I was better at it than most, and had something worthwhile to contribute. I felt it was an intellectual challenge, but I guess there was a fair amount of ego behind it too... ;)

Some one else may succeed where I failed, but I was young, committed, passionate and I loved music and wanted to bring my vision of how it should be reproduced to the masses.. That my vision was not universally embraced is not surprising...

Merit aside it often isn't about merit, but about who you know, how you present yourself, and most importantly perhaps is the level of fit and finish of the wares you are offering - and of course it must sound far better than things that cost 10 times as much. I am deadly serious here, one of my first successful high ticket sales was to someone who owned both a pair of Keegons and an Ongaku. (AN Japan aka Kondo these days) It's hard to pry open the door of opportunity, and once open if you cannot perform miracles it will not remain open for long..

Unfortunately another hurdle the intrepid designer/artisan faces is the predominantly male dominated expensive toy of the moment culture that pervades this market. Many of these guys replace amplifiers and other components as often as every six months and want the highest possible resale value possible and minimal hassle selling, so despite liking what they hear they are not compelled to buy. In many cases they will buy something they like less because it is the current darling of the audiophool community and can be quickly resold when they inevitably get bored with their latest toy.. Children in men's bodies. I know there are woman music lovers out there, but they tend not to be too compulsive about gear, and once happy will hold on to their gear for the most part. (I haven't had many women customers..)

I can say almost without exception that everyone who has supported/supports me over the long term is a true and avid music lover, and the equipment clearly comes second. These people are generally one time buyers and I periodically maintain the equipment I built for them.

I think the key to doing anything like this is to keep it quite small, and find a local following, and help them to find the music they seek.
My most loyal customers love music, and mostly secondarily like tube audio equipment. None of them would ever build anything on their own - several own literally everything I have ever made except the 300B amps which were very expensive. I don't own anything I made commercially except a slightly cost reduced version of the 300B SE two chassis amplifier. (No Tamura Iron)

It worked well as an part time avocation, perhaps I pushed too hard and thought I could have it all and perhaps be the next Dennis Had, Lew Johnson, David Manley.. LOL Guess I was deluded.. hehehe

I have rediscovered the pleasure of a limited level of involvement, my career no longer revolves around audio at all, and I have much more money now to indulge my audio passion. My system sounds better, and is built around better components than anything I had in the heyday of my business - I just couldn't afford it.

As a hobby it is nice, as a business it will scare away just about any nice girl interested in you, including your wife if you are married.. Some of your friends will think you are a nut, your family definitely will, and unfairest of all will be the myriad comments about finding a real job... The lack of comprehension as to why anyone would take these risks, and worse a lack of understanding about the herculean effort required to make a success of such a business.. Most people won't get it. And its impossible to explain as the average person's eyes start to glaze over and they try to escape - worst still when it is your banker acting this way.. :eek:

I guess I should bring this diatribe to an end.. I haven't given up totally, I write periodically for PFO and maintain a badly superannuated website at: www.kta-hifi.net (I let the domain registration expire on the .com site, not realizing that some scum would scoop it up instantly and have been loath to pay to reacquire what was rightly mine in the first place. Now this practice is illegal, but it wasn't a couple of years ago..)

Ciao Kevin

Edit: removed inadvertant period from website url...
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It's a wonderful daydream, and there were moments I truly enjoyed. It is viable as a part time avocation, but I do agree that an interesting day gig is the ticket..

Don't get me wrong, it was something I had to do, a burning passionate desire, that it did not have a happy ending was disappointing, but at least I tried. I have the knowledge that I made an exceedingly good effort at it, and didn't quite succeed. Had I not tried I would probably be regretful.. I lost a lot in the process, but I kept my self respect.. Money can be replaced eventually.

I guess in a sense it is like fanaticism, you have to be unwaveringly committed to what you are doing, and be incredibly thick skinned as well.. Not easy... Not a path I recommend to anyone who is just looking for something more fun to do than what they currently do. It's not about the fun, it's about grueling hard work, a sense of accomplishment, a mission to be fulfilled. Often the last thing it is - is fun.. And it's a lot of effort for something that is fundamentally meaningless to most of the population of the planet - I can't tell you how many times well meaning people suggested I do something I was totally disinterested in.. :D

The last weeks of the business I literally wondered if I was going to be living in a cardboard box within a month as I did not even have the rent money at that point.. Fortunately I did land a job in the nick of time.. I have a propensity for doing that.. LOL Not risk adverse either, although at 47 I am now thinking about the so called"golden years" and want to make sure I have enough to be comfortable on in my retirement such as it will be... :)

Anyway that's my take on the whole thing.. your mileage may vary.. (really..)

:) :)
Joined 2004
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Stumbled upon this old thread some 12 years after commenting extensively on it.

Many things haven't changed, some have including a very small level of success designing and selling really high end gear to a very, very small crowd. And no I still can't make a living doing it, but it does at least allow for some very interesting experiments now and then.

Life has delivered some interesting twists and turns in the intervening years; a serious health issue, remarriage, more job changes than I can count, and a move back to medical electrical engineering design nearly 10 years ago which has proved rewarding. A German car ;) Oddly I find it somewhat enjoyable to make things for others now that there is no economic imperative.

Perhaps the message is if you are not depending on it for your livelihood there could be some fun to be had.

I rather gave my specs and expectations to the tubemakers of today so we get good tubes everytime we need new ones. Wouln't todays techniques superseed those of yesterday? This is more an act of will. Goergeous tubes is at hand if we ask for them. But that might not be the core of this thread.

Please, try harder. No need for massive gains per tube. The gains should not be shared. Factory to consumer directly. Sure, if someone like to take the hit if the factory produces bad quality - today that will spread as wild fire. Risk, sure. But there is a nische sorry to say. I rather have the QA of yesterday in place.

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