Summer in Southern California is beaches, BBQs, sun and fun, outdoor symphony concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, and a lot of freeway driving. It’s not as well known for audio, though manufacturers, distributors, and legendary dealerships abound in the area. I recently dropped in on two SoCal distributors: Philip O’Hanlon’s On a Higher Note, in San Juan Capistrano, and Dan Meinwald’s EAR USA/Sound Advice, in Long Beach. On a Higher Note distributes Brinkmann Audio, Luxman, Vivid Audio, and (soon) Audio Aero, while EAR USA/Sound Advice distributes EAR, Mårten Design, Townshend Audio, and Jorma Design.
Philip O’Hanlon lives in the foothills above San Juan Capistrano. I drove up through swank suburban roads to O’Hanlon’s large, two-story, Mediterranean-style home. O’Hanlon greeted me at the door and waved me quickly inside; he was busy making up playlists on an iPad, for later burning to CD. He spoke with the distinctive Gaelic lilt and precise pronunciation of the Irish; he’s from Cork, in the south of Ireland.
He led me into an incredible space. A long spiral staircase descended to a spacious (40’ x 31’ x 23’) master room with a cathedral ceiling, skylights, floor-to-ceiling rear windows, French doors at one end, large artworks on the walls, and, in a pot in one corner, a living tree. The staircase curled toward a long bar with a huge mirror behind it, then to a living-room space with couches and chairs on one side, and on the other a listening space with Vivid Audio’s distinctively shaped G1Giya speakers (91dB/6 ohms, $65,000/pair), a leather couch, assorted electronics, and other audio gear. Tucked under the staircase was a collection of LPs and CDs.
O’Hanlon gave me a quick tour of the room’s audio side, pointing out various components. On silent display on the bar was the new Brinkmann Bardo turntable ($8000) with a 10.5" Brinkmann tonearm ($6300). Against the inside wall was a large rack with his reference system: Brinkmann’s 25th Anniversary Balance turntable on a custom Harmonic Resolution Systems (HRS) platform, with 12.1" Brinkmann arm and Brinkmann EMT Titanium cartridge ($43,900 package price); and a Luxman DU-80 SACD/CD player ($10,500), C-800f preamp ($19,000), and E-1 phono stage ($4000). Off to the side on its own rack was the new Audio Aero LaSource disc player ($40,000).
On the floor were a SonoruS-modified ReVox PR99 reel-to-reel tape deck, a Technics deck modified by Tim de Paravacini (of EAR), and, next to each G1Giya, a Luxman M-800A class-A stereo amp, the pair used as monoblocks (120W in mono, 60Wpc in stereo; $19,000 each). Connecting everything were Stealth Sakra interconnects and Synergistic Research speaker cables and power cords.
To demonstrate the capabilities of the G1Giyas, O’Hanlon played some digital tracks by Steely Dan, explaining that the Vivids boasted "absolutely pistonic drivers" in a transmission-line design. In his hands was a tweeter for the Giya, a long, flagon-shaped assembly of several parts the color of pewter. He unscrewed some of the parts to show how powerful the magnet was. It gripped like a magneto. Next, he put on an SACD of Debussy’s Piano Trio in G, performed by the Florestan Trio (Hyperion SACDA67114, out of print). The system, with the Audio Aero LaSource disc player, produced clean string tones, a dimensional soundstage, with sparkling piano and a fulsome cello.
I found the Audio Aero LaSource a lovely disc player that produced bloom, air, ambience, and a rich harmonic structure. Each instrument had a fine texture, particularly the strings, and the loveliest pizzicati I’ve heard in a long time. With Ivan Moravec’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 23, "Appassionata," a recording well known to me, I heard impressive hall depth and ambience, a glorious midrange, and thrilling trills and arpeggios. And, in the low bass, there was no rumbling to break up the pitch integrity and definition of notes.
A reason for some of this system’s notable clarity, besides its components and despite the challenge of such a large room, was perhaps the exotic tweak O’Hanlon had set up on a camera tripod between the Vivid speakers: the Vibratron ($1495), from Synergistic Research’s Acoustic Room Treatment (ART) system. It looked like a spherical astrolabe from medieval Islamic astronomy. He explained that he used it to focus the soundstage and improve the bass resonance and pitch definition. It certainly seemed to work!
And so it went, from my late-afternoon arrival into the early evening and near sunset. O’Hanlon played CDs of Dvorák’s Symphony No.9 and a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. Then he switched to his Brinkmann Anniversary Balance rig to play LPs of Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, and Nat King Cole. Of these, the most exotic was a test pressing of a vinyl reissue of Jack Nitzsche’s music for the 1990 film The Hot Spot (Antilles/Analogue Productions AAPB 8755-45), with Davis and John Lee Hooker. Davis’s distinctively muted trumpet played mordantly behind Hooker’s bourbon-tinged voice and the signature boogie-strum of his slack-tuned electric guitar.
O’Hanlon told me that though he’d originally started out as a nightclub owner in the south of Spain, he’d come to SoCal to work in the movie business as a special-effects producer. But he tired of the commute from Capistrano to the studios in Hollywood and Santa Monica, and in 2001 founded On a Higher Note to distribute Halcro amps, running a room for the new company at the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show. Later, he convinced Luxman, which had left the US market for a while, to begin selling here again. Brinkmann came to him two years ago, when they decided to change distributors. O’Hanlon himself pursued the distribution of Vivid Audio speakers; they seemed not only to look fresh and new, but to sound wonderful, too. In order "to rise above the noise floor" of the speaker market, he thought it important to have something different to offer, and Vivid fit that bill. With the Smurf-like curl of its top end, the flagship Vivid G1Giya, made in South Africa and named for a Zulu dance, looks like a gigantic dollop of Tastee-Freez soft-serve ice cream. "But," O’Hanlon said, "form follows function here -- there are no parallel surfaces inside the cabinets, and the frame never gets in the way of the drivers."
On a Higher Note is doing well, O’Hanlon said, with strong networks of six dealers for Vivid, a dozen for Brinkmann, and 20 to 30 for Luxman. Among his dealers are Music Lovers in San Francisco and Goodwin’s High End, in Boston. The best part of it, he says, is that it’s his business to play records and CDs all day long. "Not bad for a poor Paddy from the land of bogs and little people," he said.
My visit to Dan Meinwald, of EAR USA/Sound Advice, was more loosely planned; I’ve known him for years, and he’s always extended an open-ended invitation. When I arrived, Meinwald was already standing in the driveway, smiling broadly in front of his new Scion xD.
He waved me in, and we drove across town to a Hawaiian diner in a strip mall in North Long Beach for a dinner of two entrées, three sides, and "two scoops rice" -- the post-Polynesian version of the South’s "meat’n’three," and not nearly as healthy. "Once in a while doesn’t hurt," Meinwald said, wanly.
After supper, we returned to his home -- a typical three-bedroom suburban structure converted into an office, a big listening room in the living room, and a small listening room in a back bedroom. He wanted to show me his office computer setup: a hard drive full of downloads, CD cover icons littering the screen of his iMac like burnished oak leaves on a woodland forest floor.
I was more interested in the books lining his shelves -- volumes of Renaissance art history, Romantic philosophy, German aesthetics, 20th-century photography, European history. Before he got into audio as a profession, Meinwald studied art history, literature, and philosophy, and has a graduate degree in Museum Studies.
Meinwald began his audio business in Santa Monica, and moved to Long Beach in 2000. In his main listening room, the first thing he pointed to was a new Townshend Rock 7 turntable ($3000), whose ingenious tonearm-damping mechanism features an outrigger in a pool of silicon. It damps resonances at the headshell, rather than at the tonearm’s pivot or suspension.
Besides the Townshend tonearm and the imposing system it was part of, what I noticed was that Meinwald had entirely covered the living room’s big bay window with acoustic sound panels, and the walls to either side of the window with two more large panels. On the right wall were floor-to-ceiling shelves full of LPs; on the left were shelves for thousands of CDs. This was the abode of a dedicated audiophile.
In addition to the Townshend Rock 7 were a Rega 250 tonearm ($900) with Origin Live modifications, a PS Audio Power Plant, an EAR Acute CD player ($5495), a full-function EAR 912 preamp ($11,500), two EAR 549 monoblocks (200W, $20,000/pair when last available), Mårten Getz three-way speakers (87dB/6 ohms; $20,000/pair), and Jorma Design Origo biwire speaker cables ($13,000/2m) and interconnects (XLR/RCA, $5250/m). The equipment sat on Townshend Seismic Sink Hi-Fi Stands: two two-shelf ($2300 each) and a three-shelf ($2600). When I raised an eyebrow at the 200Wpc of the EAR 549s powering the system, Meinwald said, "I believe you give a speaker as much power as it can handle."
In his smaller listening room, a converted rear bedroom, Meinwald had an exclusively analog setup with open-baffle EAR Primary Drive speakers (three-way dipole, 90dB; $7000/pair), each outfitted with a Townsend Maximum Supertweeter ($1599/pair); an EAR 890 stereo amp (70Wpc, $7595); an EAR 834P phono preamp with level control ($1695); and a vintage Technics SP-15 turntable with a Fidelity Research FR-64 tonearm and Grado 78 cartridge. There was also an ancient Nikko equalizer he’d picked up at a swap meet. Wires were Jorma Design #2 speaker cables ($3850/2m) and interconnects ($1750/m). The electronics and turntable sat on two four-shelf Townshend Audio Seismic Sink Hi-Fi Stands with air bladders (discontinued).
With a 78 playing, Meinwald shook the stand until it wobbled. The cartridge and arm still tracked. "Complete iso from the floor to everything in the rack," he said triumphantly.
We settled into a nice, long session with a small stack of 78s he’d chosen to play. Up first was a rare, one-sided recording of "Luau Hooalu kie Kino," by Mrs. Alapai & Mr. W.S. Ellis & Ellis Bros. Glee Club, on Victor from 1901! The sound was, to my ears, definitely Victrola-like: thin and a little distant, but nonetheless fascinating; halfway between Tin Pan Alley and a kind of honky-tonk Hawaiian gospel.
Then came a parade of American classics -- "East St. Louis Toodle-oo," by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, a 1927 Victor 78; then Ellington’s "The Mooche," "Mood Indigo," and "In My Solitude," the latter two featuring Ivy Anderson, whom Meinwald pronounced Ellington’s best singer ever. This sound was definitely vintage, but, in contrast to the early Hawaiian record, it was richer and more vibrant, with lush horns, good vocal timbres, and great pacing.
Meinwald then put on some bebop and asked me to guess what it was. I did -- Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie playing "Salt Peanuts" at breakneck speed. We finished with a side from Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five: "Squeeze Me." I could have kept listening to this all night long, but Meinwald wanted me to hear what he called "the Big System" in the living room, which had been warming up all the while.
This was the system featuring the Mårten Getz speakers. Meinwald played only two sides, one analog and one digital, before I had to leave: Julie Tippetts with Brian Auger singing "Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood," from their Encore (LP, Warner Bros., 1978); and Lucinda Williams singing "These Three Days," from her World Without Tears (CD, Lost Highway, 2003). Meinwald accompanied Williams on air guitar, a sight remarkable unto itself. While I’d enjoyed the vintage sound in the small listening room, I could instantly hear that this system had much more sparkle, dimension, depth, and detail -- all the audiophile virtues -- while producing an impactful yet clean sound overall. The depth of the soundstage alone was impressive. But I had to drive back to Laguna Beach that night, so we regretfully ended the evening there.
Visiting Dan Meinwald was an education -- in audio componentry and in music, taste, and the history of our hobby. I came away very intrigued about the sound of 78s, and began fancifully planning my own dedicated system, possibly featuring an Empire 208 turntable I’ve kept on ice for just this sort of thing, mounted on it some kind of vintage arm -- perhaps a Lustre GST-801, which Meinwald himself had pointed me toward a while ago.
Unlike visiting distributors or manufacturers at a CES, visits that are usually brief and sometimes cursory, with other people and thrown-together systems crowded together in bad hotel rooms, and an atmosphere often fraught with anxiety, these two visits were to systems that had been completely dialed-in, with hosts who were in their element and generous with their time and hospitality. If I were an audio dealer, I’d be pleased to be working with On a Higher Note and Philip O’Hanlon and Sound Advice and Dan Meinwald -- two distributors of great taste, dedicated to music, and with a finely honed humanity in their possession. I came away having learned a thing or two, and with ears readied for my next sessions with them -- probably at an audio show, admittedly, yet with our warmth of acquaintanceship deepened by shared good times with great music.
. . . Garrett Hongo