|Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson|
Where is the center of the high-end-audio universe? This isn't a rhetorical question. For a week each January, it's Las Vegas, the site of the annual Consumer Electronics Show. Denver can make a strong bid for the title based on the sheer number of audio companies in or around it, including Dunlavy, Boulder and Avalon. New York City has Madrigal and Krell nearby as well as Lamm in Brooklyn and now the editorial offices of Stereophile magazine.
But with all due respect to these places, my vote goes to the Twin Cities area -- Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, that is -- land of the Vikings, Friday fish fries and the Mall of America. The first piece of strong evidence in the Twin Cities' favor is the number of audio companies headquartered there. On a recent trip to Minneapolis, Doug Schneider and I visited, on successive days, Magnepan, Atma-Sphere and Audio Research. You'll see and read about our experiences, but it's important to note that Bel Canto and NBS Cables are also located in the Twin Cities area and all of these companies have been around for at least ten years -- with Atma-Sphere pushing 25 years and Magnepan and Audio Research surpassing that.
More evidence. During our visit to ARC, we met Chris Ossanna, Audio Research's field service administrator and treasurer for the Audio Society of Minnesota. Chris kindly invited Doug and me to a Society meeting that was fortuitously being held the night of our visit to ARC. The Audio Society of Minnesota is one of the oldest and most venerable audio societies in existence, and its membership, based on our experiences the night of our visit, is lively, committed and diverse.
We were treated to the society's "science fair," an evening of DIY show and tell that was just plain fun. Various members showed off their speaker and electronic designs as well as restored table radios and even an experiment or two. ASMer Chuck Bottemiller showed his Nelson Pass-designed Zen amp and Bride of Zen preamp (neither looked like a home-brew product), while Don Neal showed a version of the Bob Crump-designed power cord discussed on the Internet. Doug and I stayed until the end, enjoying what we heard and saw and talking with the ASM members about SoundStage!, the Internet and audio reviews. I'll be joining the ASM even though I'm from Packerland and five hours away from the Twin Cities.
Finally, the meeting place for the Society's get-together cemented the Twin Cities' status as audio Mecca: the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting. It's perhaps the single coolest place for audiophiles to visit (poke at Minnesota's frigid winters not intended) because of the collection on display, which includes vintage equipment such as ubiquitous McIntosh tube gear as well as gigantic Western Electric horn speakers, one of which was removed from St. Paul's World Theatre, radio home of Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion.
But more than any of the consumer gear on display, the pieces of historic broadcast and recording equipment are what make the Pavek an important place. Housed there is a German AEG Magnetophon, one of the first tape recorders ever produced, along with a Murdock spark-gap radio transmitter like that used on the Titanic. The Automatic Orthophonic Victrola had no amplifier, instead relying on a single 12' horn-loaded speaker to produce sound. Volume control was ingenious -- adjust the opening of the doors that cover the speaker! Museum associate director Tom Mittelstaedt called it "an early high-end audio system," retailing for $600 in 1927 as it did. The Pavek has a Vitaphone Cutting Lathe, circa 1926, used for cutting the first movie soundtracks as well as a working RCA Theremin, an electronic instrument that must be played to be understood -- somewhat.
Before Doug and I visited the Twin Cities, we knew only that there were more than a few audio companies residing there. After our visit, we gained respect for not only the companies we visited but also the audiophiles we met with at the Pavek -- and especially the Pavek itself. If you get restless this summer and are in the upper Midwest, you need to visit the Twin Cities. You won't be sorry.
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