Back Issue Article
Primal Audio Pleasures
As national sales manager for three different audio companies over the years, Ive had my opportunity -- no, make that mandatory job requirement and occasional professional liability -- to visit dealers all across the country. From the great to the merely good to the bad to the ugly, dealers come in many sizes and levels of quality. Ive done a pretty comprehensive tour across the audiophile theater-of-operations, so Im something of a veteran. No medals mind you, but plenty of aural scars to recall my travails and travels. If you spot me on a sidewalk one of these days, begging for great-sounding software handouts that one would actually care to listen to, figure that Ive finally snapped. Put it down to those recurring and cacophonous nightmares. Violent explosions and shoot-outs. Senseless car chases. Careening helicopters. Retaliatory rocket launches. These horrific visions have undermined the last vestige of sanity Ive upheld in public throughout these last few years -- ever since home theater first knocked on our doors, uninvited and stubborn like a Jehovahs witness during dinner.
Anyway, to stay with the caricature of warfare, while hustling my way through numerous trenches and sewers behind aural-enemy lines, Ive occasionally stumbled upon truly outstanding outfits for antediluvian two-channel fossils like yours truly. I refer to the all-too-rare specialty audio dealer who combines excellent and unusual gear selections, superior demonstration facilities, a keen flair for synergy and sincere concern for complete optimization of whatever system is playing. Plus -- to round off the recipe of my dream dealer -- I'd like to find one who possesses the generosity of service and love of music that cause otherwise levelheaded businessmen to abandon reason, evidence and common sense and open a high-end audio outfit to begin with. More often than not, the most vital of these endangered survivors -- at least to these ears and sensibilities -- are not the notorious establishments that national advertising or metropolitan locations would have you predict. You know the smarmy self-assurance of certain pundit-poseurs giving advice. Its usually born of un-reflected preconceptions, the mistaking of certain hallowed brand names for automatic bliss and, most gravely, the absence of any real first-hand experience.
Alas, lets whittle down my personal royal flush of superb audio dealers to one solitary but unbeatable trump card. Id keep it tucked away in hiding, to serve on a need-to-know basis. You know, slip it out like a bribe to shake off tax collectors, speeding-ticket writers and other pesky customers. But, its the new year. Im supposed to straighten out my wretched ways.
So, in recent memory, one dealer stands out like a brightly-lit skyscraper in the night. Heres one audio guy blessed with the very best of facilities. He then went the extra mile to make them work accordingly. Furthermore, he exemplifies the other germane ingredients listed above. Most importantly to this industry -- if were to attract fresh blood and demonstrate succinctly and memorably what all the fuss is about -- he creates the best sound, from any of his setups, that Ive ever witnessed in an audio salon. Unfortunately, theres a very fat chance youve never heard of him -- and a slim one that it wont remain that way. Fortunately, I can put an end to that! Drum roll, please.
The location is Kansas City, Missouri. More precisely, an old brownstone in the heart of downtown, now registered as a historic place and built in 1887 by New England Life corporate insurance brokers who knew all about claims. They didnt erect a building from scratch to find their descendants caught with their pants down embroiled in litigation over gas leaks, preventable fires, collapsing walls or other side effects of modern cost-cutting construction. No, the home of Primus Audio Pleasure is one of those rock-solid ancient affairs that sports 4"-thick doors that wouldnt know a hollow-core from a composite. Add marble and granite fascias and fire escapes sturdy enough to allow all tenants to do jointly synchronized pull-ups from a single rail. Think cavernous hallways that hearken back to times when contractors didnt have to account for every single square foots productiveness. You get the picture -- 112 West Ninth downtown Kansas City is an address you wouldnt be ashamed to call home if you were the CEO of your own company.
Like most things excellent in life, the attraction of Primus -- all of its 5200 square feet -- reveals itself in layers. Or more precisely, floors, the kind you can only get to if you know the right code for the elevator. In fact, there are more floors than most customers realize. But lets starts from the bottom.
can be one and the same thing, sometimes!
To capture the casual downtown strollers attention and also provide an area for discussion of budget, needs and desires, Primus proprietor Al Eckilson had waited on previous tenants for years. They finally relinquished a ground-floor corner space in the next building. Under Als new tenantship, striped awnings like a fashionable Starbucks highlight the new destination. A simple sign in the window proffers its true identity and real purpose. This is the only visible-from-the-street portion of Primus. It houses entry-level displays of both the two- and multichannel variety. That might be all certain customers will ever need to see. But already here, the choice of certain components should alert the astute visitor.
This isnt your garden-variety shop-by-numbers outfit. How about the natty Sugden preamp/headphone amp and top-line Sennheisers? The Acoustic Energy speakers are serious bang-for-the-buck products. So are the Gallos and Arcam electronics. A futuristic Fujitsu flat-panel screen gives great picture, if not exactly at a rock-bottom price. Ground-level Primus is where Al or one of his employees will first greet you. Youd also get a cup of freshly minted cappuccino on the spot had not the espresso machine made tracks for the third floor where the serious audio groupies hang out.
If your credentials pass muster, your wallet is flush, and you desire truly great sound -- as opposed to a quickie buy of some recognizable run-of-the-mill brands -- that old-time elevator mentioned earlier will whisk you upstairs pronto. Just kidding. Not about the elevator or the cuppa coffee! But about being shaken down beforehand. In fact, the proprietors only shortcoming, from a pure business standpoint that equates time with money, is his missionary enthusiasm. It embraces each visitor like royalty. He makes himself available to serve and educate. While he does use qualifying procedures, theyre purely to learn about your needs in order to serve you better. Theyre not crudely fashioned to size up your credit limit in a hurry and max you out on impulse with stuff you dont need. Certain mass merchants do train their staff to do exactly that if you let them. If honest-to-goodness service strikes you as a valid concept whose time has come, again, are you ready for upstairs yet?
The third floor. With its expansive windows overlooking downtown, decorative inlaid floors, remote 12' ceilings, and hallways that beckon for skates, this is where the audiophile rubber seriously hits the dirt. For speakers, you can go cosmopolitan and chose between the Canadian Gershmans, French JMlabs, Dutch Kharmas, American Montanas and M&K subwoofers, British Monitor Audios, Italian Operas, American Shahinians and Soliloquys, Scandinavian System Audios, Canadian Tetra Instruments, French Triangles, and Canadian Verity Audios. For electronics, Arcam, Art Audio, Audio Analogue, Audio Refinement, B&K, Bel Canto Design, Cary, Cambridge Audio, Camelot, Conrad-Johnson, Electrocompaniet, Lamm Industries, Marsh Audio Design, Meridian, Pathos, Primare, Simaudio, Thor Audio, Unison Research, Wadia, Yamaha and YBA are on tap. Regarding on tap, heres the espresso machine weve lusted after. Would monsignor care for one or two cubes of sugar? For cables, Analysis Plus, Harmonic Technologies, Kharma, Magnan, Nordost, Tributaries and XLO will get you wired up should you have built up a nasty inner-city immunity against caffeine. For video, Dwin, Dreamvision, Fujitsu, Princeton, Stewart Toshiba, and Vutech. For analog, Amazon, Camelot, Grado, Lehman Audio, Lyra, Mørch, Music Hall, Nottingham, and Rega. And never mind the tweaks and furniture.
Does this lineup suggest that Mr. Eckilson and cohorts shop with their ears instead of relying on fashionable but fickle mainstream reviews? Of course! One irrefutable reason to visit here in the first place. Whats more, Al doesnt subscribe to Oriental audio racism either. Hence youll spot the Chinese-made Consonance by Opera Audio brand of tube electronics. It promises to give Antique Sound Labs a run for the money once distributor Audio Advancements -- of Earmax fame -- introduces this very established company to US shores at the CES 2001. In fact, based on what Ive heard, I predict a very serious competitor for other homegrown brands as well. Nothing beats Capitalism for choices!
This holds for the rooms as well, a total of three on this landing. The entry-level room, besides the high ceilings, duplicates common living-room dimensions at 13'W x 23'D x10'H as does the 14'W x 18'D x 12'H dedicated home-theater room for those who insist that hearing the chop-chop of a helicopter in room-crossing 3D is necessary and desirable. I admit, it was very impressive as these things go. But frankly, Im the wrong fellow to get too excited over it. Dont get me wrong. Feed me one of Carlos Sauras flamenco dance movies with their phenomenal soundtracks and Id be hooked. But I wouldnt need the rear or center channels for that, would I? As I told you earlier, Im a dinosaur. There you have it. Quite a foot stomp Ive got on me, though, dont I?
The larger two-channel room is very mansion-like and stately in its dimensions, 17'W x 23'D x 12'H. Outstanding sonics and an eye-popping plethora of gear. From the chromilicious Art Audio Diavolo and Jota monoblocks Im so fond of, to C-J monoblocks for thermionic push/pull and a serious preamp in the baby Art, to Simaudio Moon gear for tube-like solid state and the Marsh Design tube-hybrid preamp as another option, to the inductive Pathos Twin Towers that produces ravishing results with the petite but stunning Fidelio speakers in high-gloss lacquered Makore wood -- you might think youd gone to heaven. Taped markers on the floor indicate where to beam up if youre a speaker. Like so many other details, this bespeaks the care in setup protocol that Al and his friends hold themselves to as a matter of professional pride. If you want to swap speakers, dont be surprised if your hosts insist on changing cables. They may also recommend exchanging components. Synergy here isnt a four- but seven-letter word. Its given the proper attention like the Sabbath of old. The Lord overlooketh His creation and findeth it to be good and worthy. How many centuries ago was that? More than I can count. But Primus is open for business today and their system-assembly creations would have the Old Man in the Sky approve even now.
At this point, your visit to Primus might conclude. Armed with healthy chuckles over Als offbeat ads framed for posterity and accompanied by clever line drawings, youd thank me for the referral. Youd go home feeling assured that you had just added a real find to your repertoire of where-to-go-on-a-rainy-day destinations. But as I hinted at earlier, theres more. Theres the inherent security of limited-access elevators. Theres the proprietors solemn status as a single man who enjoys a second income from a parallel job and loves great music and audio toys. Theres the Lyric Theater, home to the Opera Company and the Kansas City Symphony under conductor Ann Manson. Theres the Folly Theater, home to the Friends of Chamber Music and venue of choice for touring jazz musicians. Theres the Music Hall for Broadway shows and the Midland Theater for the Missouri State Ballet. Theres the proximity of all these venues within four city blocks from Primus, never mind numerous clubs and jazz joints. If your musical math is alive and well, and since Ive properly tipped you off to boot, you must conclude that more remains to be seen.
If youre a raving audiomaniac and feel deserving of a real glimpse of the higher aural heavens, ask Al to take you up to the forth floor. Surprisingly, it does get even better.
Not home, but wouldnt it be lovely
Its to here where Id take those Philistines that pity us music lovers for spending the amounts of dough we lavish on our hobby. The obvious trouble -- and heavy ammunition of our detractors -- is that most high-profile demos do not perform in reasonable correlation with the expenditures involved. Sad but true. The more expensive systems turn, the less likelihood remains that youll hear how good so much money can truly sound like. This may appear cynical -- it really doesnt sound good, period! -- but its based on solid experience. A major contributing factor, besides obvious matters of synergy, is the physical space in which such Ûber-systems need to be housed. Just as an eight-cylinder racer requires a secured track to really strut its stuff, a major system requires room to breathe. Ever notice how the best seat of the house is front-row balcony center? Sound, especially bass, needs room to develop and bloom. Dramatic dynamic swings become painful in close-up. Major systems are called "major" primarily because of their increase in bass extension and overall dynamic fortitude -- i.e., the absence of dynamic compression at realistic levels. Part of the package deal of ownership then involves a suitably large and solid room that allows farfield listening as in real life. If you bastardize monolithic speakers into quasi-headphone duty by insisting on studio nearfield proximity, youre better off getting an actual set of AKG 1000s or Stax electrostatic cans! Not only do you save oodles of money, but youre also getting much better performance.
Primus Audio Pleasures upper level turns into Primal Audio Pleasures because of the gargantuan Grand Room that measures an astounding 24'W x 36'D x 11.6'H and is preceded by an anteroom of 17'W x 23'D x 11.6'H. Add proverbial brick-shithouse construction and some of the finest gear money can buy this side of silly and theres massive joy. Interestingly enough, one of Eckilsons motivators for assembling the three systems on this floor was his desire to have sonic references along which he could build affordable downstairs systems by comparison. The unattainable references to which these reference systems themselves have to aspire and align were, and remain of course, live concerts. Eckilson practices conscientious consumption in that regard. In fact, Im sure hes chosen the location of both his shop and two-blocks-removed residence because they remain a literal foot walk removed from the venues mentioned earlier. Cruising through town with Al, he points out two under-construction future sites that will host the local performing-arts bodies. It seems Kansas Citys propensity for attracting major banking and insurance institutions has cultural fringe benefits. Wealthy patrons of the arts have donated millions for upgraded venues. Presumably these contributions include lifetime preferred-seating benefits? If you or I could afford to build our local town a new concert hall, wouldnt we hasten to brass-engrave our names and those of our friends, above the best seats as well?One Grand Room system is built around Kharma Ceramique 1.0 models in piano-gloss lacquer that derive their juice from Thor TPA-30 monoblocks, a Thor TA-1000 preamp and a Wadia 861 digital engine, all cabling compliments of Nordost Quattro-Fil and SPM. Massive Electrocompaniet Nemo monoblocks are in standby for those occasions that require unlimited dynamic headroom, to teleport you directly into those live venues that had the benefit of amplified horn-loaded speaker clusters.
The other system is anchored by JMlab Mezzo Utopias and their companion subwoofer and fed from Lamm ML1 90-watt push-pull monos, a Lamm L1 line stage, and either a Cary 306 CD player or an Amazon turntable via an Art Audio Vinyl 1, with Magnan and Kharma cabling and Zoethecus supports.
Both systems are unequivocally state of the art at Als. Theyll behave likewise in your home if and when they remain the beneficiaries of this type of physical environment. Visiting manufacturers reps are on ecstatic record of never having heard "their" components sound better elsewhere. Anthony Chiarella visited recently. Hes heard the Mezzos in numerous environments but never as good as here. I can see why. The Kharma system offers truly holographic, pinpoint accuracy and soundstages like a demon. The overall character is of a slightly "white" neutrality compared to the JMlab system that strikes me as rounder and subjectively fuller, with perhaps a shade of amber glow and ultimately probably less precise but more realistic soundstaging. Both systems sound positively huge and dynamically unleashed. This is as good as audio gets, period. That equates to bloody impressive, inspiring and downright magical. Its still not-and-never exactly like the real thing, which is an impossible hope to begin with.
My personal biases found the Mezzo rig to be my setup of choice. Hand me a blank check, rebuild my house in the process, and Id call my trucking company. Being able to take the central chair and rotate it 180 degrees to compare the intrinsic gestalt of both setups, in the same non-handicapped environment and on the fly, proved very enlightening. Its like taking an Audi Quattro and Porsche Boxer on the road. Both are mature, finely honed and task-calibrated performance machines. Driving each over the same terrain gifts you with a raw and undiluted taste of their caliber and personality. Your personal preference rests assured. No further amount of tweaking can upset the relative balance between both machines. Whichever way your favoritism falls, it is enveloped by a sense of completion. This feels true also for these systems. Each performs to an uncompromised level. It remains transparent not only to the music but also the cost of ownership involved. Im comfortable saying that any unwashed witness new to the audiophile circus would instantly concede that the performance well justifies the price tag. Incidentally, Id also guarantee that such first-time visitors would all gravitate towards the Kharma system! Its virtues are more overt and thus possibly more instantly accessible than those of the Mezzos. Id peg the latter combination as the final rig for a seasoned audiophile. Hes been around the block a few times. He has caught the curable diseases along the road and healed certain compulsions, obsessions and excesses via expulsions through living. He has finally arrived at knowing what the long-term solution, like an intimate mate, needs to look and feel like to remain valid. Its not the high-gloss centerfold perfection that matters. Its something more relaxed and ordinary.
This doesnt diminish the glory of the heavy-kharma vibe whatsoever. In fact, Eckilson confesses that when he returns, still flushed from attending a live gig, he powers up the Ceramiques first. The Mezzos are his relaxing-by-the-fireplace, morning-after choice. Suffice to say that both systems are the stuff that audiophile wet dreams are made of.
Primus Audio Pleasure draws devotees from as far as St. Louis, Omaha, Nebraska, Des Moines and Witchita. Eckilson has customers in Houston, Little Rock, Indianapolis, Laramie and Duluth. He started in 1990 and has achieved this level of market penetration solely by word-of-mouth. A website is planned to help spread the word, but Eckilson strikes one as the sort of gentleman whos wedded to the old values and in no haste to go cyber just because everybody else does.
How to tell?
Finding a great dealer is tantamount to long-term audiophile satisfaction. Synergy isnt so much science as a black art. Thats a fancy way of saying: lots of experience and plenty of dumb luck and mistakes along the way. Unless you have money to blow and dont care that you may never realize how much better your system could have sounded for possibly less, I cant impress upon you strongly enough the important role a specialist dealer plays.
How to tell whether your dealer is any good? Thats easy. How did you know you were in love the first time? Did you go ask your folks?
While some of the ingredients Ive described seem mandatory and readily apparent, the most important part isnt technical at all. Its emotional and intuitive. Theres the psychic link-up you get from the place, its proprietor, the music he chooses to play, the kinds of questions he ask of you. Theres the obviousness -- or lack thereof -- of his caring about what you think and hear. Theres your un-meditated goose bumps response to what his systems sound like. And because good dealers arent that easy to find -- they are easy as hell to recognize once you happen upon them -- Ive devoted this months column to Primus Audio Pleasure.
The name, incidentally, is derived from the Latin Primus entre pares -- First amongst equals. Indeed!
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