Live from Casa Saxon

June 1997

Adventures in South America, Part II

A few weeks ago, your dutiful scribe went to South America on a "busman’s holiday." In Santiago, Chile, I found lanky knock-kneed women, ornery pisco sours, and an audio desert in need of irrigation. I wondered whether neighboring Argentina offered greener pastures.

A round-trip ticket from Santiago to Buenos Aires on Air France cost $150, including stainless silverware, aged cheese and fine wines. Note to pocket steno: Fly Air France at all possible times. After ninety high-flying minutes, I found myself in Buenos Aires where airport limo drivers look French and Visitor Information hostesses look Italian. This is South America? The European "feel" increased when I noticed the Peugeots, Renaults and Fiats on the expressway. The Peugeot 504, in particular, was ubiquitous. How could so many mint condition 20-year old cars exist? Silly boy. Peugeot has licensed a company in Argentina to manufacture the rugged old beast and most road-going models are practically new.

According to my driver, Peugeot’s hyena-shaped 504 is one of the hardiest cars ever made. It is easy to build and and cheap to maintain. The retro-appearance is a symbol of national pride. It is a car Argentinians have chosen to construct, because it serves their needs. To me, this showed a form of national self-assurance. Did a parallel exist in hi-fi? We shall see, but first let’s explore the city.

Unluckily, I arrived three days before the Argentinian Grand Prix and hotels were sold out. The fair-haired girl at Visitor Information finally booked me into a fifty-a-night flea bag, located on the wrong side of Avenida 9 de Julio, the world’s widest street. Ironically, it was in the same district as the "audio" shops of Buenos Aires. Within fifty yards of the hotel was a Savile Row of music stores offering an enormous selection of pro gear including Peavey, JBL Pro, Marshall, Tascam and Mesa Engineering. I went into the Mesa store in search of the Baron, a highly regarded audiophile amplifier. No dice. The store owner, blissfully ignorant of the Mesa Baron, pointed to his sign which read, "Music for Musicians." Jackson Browne may own a Baron, but he can’t get it serviced in Argentina.

Braving the eleven-lane Avenida 9 de Julio was an adventure. Midway across was a demonstration of university students who were outnumbered by the police. I expected machine gun fire at any moment. Resisting all leaflets and verbal entreaties, I pressed onward, relieved when nothing painful penetrated the back of my blazer. Arriving on the the opposite sidewalk, I heard in the background a tune that set the tone for three frustrating days amid the world’s most beautiful women: the Spanish version of Madonna singing "Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina." Yech.

The forty-block district east of July 9th Avenue is home to almost everything that matters in Buenos Aires. It is Broadway, Fifth Avenue, Wall Street, Washington D.C. and Hollywood all squeezed into a tight rectangle. It is also home to the train station, which is where I found myself on Thursday morning, trying to decipher the route to Krell Industrias de Argentina.

That’s right. Krell is listed in the Buenos Aires Yellow Pages. Could this be a case of trademark infringement? Actually, I knew better. At WCES a few years before, Karen Sumner of Transparent Audio had introduced me to Martin Ferrari, whose company, Krell Industrias, is the Transparent Audio distributor in South America. In Paradise, we have a company called Harman Internacional, which imports and sells Harman Kardon products. I figured Martin’s company did the same thing for Krell. Not quite.

In Chile, I had barged in on Edgardo Silva, the Madrigal distributor, unannounced but quickly forgiven. I sensed that the formal atmosphere of Argentina forbade such impulsiveness. At 11 a.m. I called Krell from the train station to alert them to my coming and to ask directions. I was informed that Sr. Ferrari was busy in the factory but would have time for me at 4 p.m. Factory? What factory?

Having five hours to kill and decent walking shoes, I decided to walk to Krell Industrias. The distance from the train station was about eight miles across statue-filled parks, through tree-lined neighborhoods, and past old-world restaurants where people sat reading and drinking coffee. So civilized, I could have seen myself becoming a Porteņo (denizen of Buenos Aires), except for one small problem. Every third woman on the street is good-looking, the other two are drop-dead gorgeous and not one of them will ever look at you. During three leisurely hours on foot, I never once made eye-contact with anyone. By the time I arrived at Krell Industrias, I realized I couldn’t leave Paradise for Argentina. Our pretty women aren’t quite as blonde and model-perfect as the Porteņas, but they are more encouraging of an admiring glance. I’ll take encouragement any day.

Which is not to say Argentinians are cold fish. They are quite friendly after an introduction. Martin Ferrari’s secretary was hospitable and solicitous. While I sipped espresso, she told me about her son’s baseball playing abilities. Apparently, baseball is a coming sport in soccer-crazy Argentina. Maybe one day soccer will come to the United States. (Juussst kidding.)

Martin Ferrari was also quite cordial, despite being extremely busy. This 39 year-old dynamo was in the midst of rebuilding his company’s main listening room, as well as overseeing the construction of Krell amplifiers. Yes, Martin builds 220volt Krell products in Argentina with the blessing and encouragement of Krell Industries of Connecticut. Not all products are built locally, Martin was quick to point out; mostly a/v components, the KRC-3 preamp and the smaller of the FPB amplifier line. The objective of Krell Industrias is to serve the domestic market, as well as the markets of South American countries such as Brazil, which have costly, even prohibitive, barriers to trade except with continental neighbors. Presently, Krell has distribution in Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and soon, Chile. Krell Industries president Dan D’Agostino visits from time to time, as photo op examples showed.

During a factory tour Martin explained that his company also imports and sells Wilson Audio loudspeakers, Runco projectors, Transparent Audio cables and Jadis and Valve Amplification Company tube gear. While demoing the Wilson Grand Slamms, Martin discovered that the building’s foundation was not strong enough to handle the speaker’s prodigious bass. The whole building vibrated as if it were about to crumble. Consequently, he was forced to build concrete de-coupling slabs in the main listening room to support the Grand Slamms and the WHOW subwoofer. The slabs rest on metal springs embedded in the floor. Martin Ferrari is a fanatical audiophile. He also has tons of money invested in the well-being of high end audio in South America.

Although comparing Krell to Peugeot is insulting to Krell, I think the self-assurance it takes to build the products locally and to judge that they are the right products for the market are similar. With the exception of Brazil, I’m not sure there’s another nation in South America with the technical skill and resources to build high end components, nor the confidence to go ahead. The amazing thing is that Krell Industrias isn’t the only hi-fi manufacturer in Argentina.

The day after my enlightening meeting with Martin Ferrari, I tracked down the local Madrigal distributor, Alex Kligman of the Holimar company. Mr. Kligman’s father began building amplifiers in 1948. Over the years, Holimar evolved into an importer of high end North American products, but Alex Kligman never abandoned the manufacturing side of the business. He showed me a line up of products he and his son have designed and built on-site. The products were extremely well-finished with no hint of the prototype in a bread box some small manufacturers are forced to show.

We auditioned the Holimar integrated amplifier with Holimar monitor loudspeakers, which use Dynaudio drivers. The sound was entry-level high end. Then Alex switched to a tube preamp driving a 200-watt mosfet amplifier into large floor-standing speakers. Wow, another level altogether. The sound was dimensional and well-paced. Holimar’s products seemed ready for prime time. I asked Alex Kligman if he had ever shown Holimar in Las Vegas. He said he was ready to consider it, since he was a prophet without honor in his own country, i.e. local audiophiles preferred Mark Levinson to Holimar amplifiers. Under the circumstances, I did not ask to compare the Holimar amps to Mark Levinson, but I admire anyone who chooses to design a tube preamp to go with a solid-state amplifier. Some of the best systems I have ever heard used such a set-up but very few manufacturers will take that approach. Here’s to Alex Kligman.

There may be other high end companies in Argentina but I only had time left to attend a tango show at La Ventana Tourist Trap Restaurant. Dinner, wine, and transportation to La Ventana was $60. My fellow guests made it worthwhile. A boxcar load of well-heeled Brazilian couples chose my night to attend the tango. What a fun group of people, talkative and inclusive of the gringo in their midst. Next time, it’s Brazil.

The tango music and dancing were terrific, but I would never return to La Ventana. First, the show’s big tourist number was the Spanish version of "Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina", for which I led a small chorus of boos. Secondly, the restaurant manager sold me a compact disc of "show" music, which was recorded in a phone booth, times out at 21 minutes and cost twenty bucks.

Don’t cry for me, Argentina. I’ll do it myself.

Jim Saxon