AOM Logo September 1998


The Trenches: Audio and Music in Northern California

Andrew Chasin

Northern California, and The Bay Area in particular, is truly an audio mecca, playing host to a plethora of high-end manufacturers (VTL, Audible Illusions, Wisdom Audio, to name but a few), distributors and retailers. A recent bout of travel brought me to the area for a pair of two week visits, giving me an opportunity to explore the audio and music scene thoroughly.

In the previous installment of this ongoing series, I spoke of Brian Hartsell's The Analog Room (www.theanalogueroom.com), one of the few remaining bastions of the continuing vinyl movement. Allow me to reiterate my previous assertion that every analog enthusiast worth his weight in black plastic should make the pilgrimage to this small, but well-stocked and very friendly, shop in downtown San José. Your eyes and ears will thank you.

Just a short twenty minute drive north from San José on highway 101, you'll find The Audible Difference in Palo Alto. Parking is severely limited (just two spots allotted for the shop, both of which appear to be permanently occupied by the store's staff), so you'll want to put your car to rest at the small strip mall just south. Given the store's considerable advertising budget (its ads appear regularly in some of the larger print journals), I expected it to have an appearance that was commensurate. Instead, I found the shop to consist of a relatively large, yet rather plain and sparsely occupied, space, whose exterior was emblazoned with what appeared to be a temporary, banner-like, sign. Frankly, the shop's appearance reminded me of one of the transient Persian rug stores (the ones with seemingly-perpetual "going out of business" sales) that appear, and shortly thereafter disappear, in large urban centers. Listening rooms were somewhat better - irregularly shaped, I'll offer for acoustical reasons, and not too densely populated with gear. After feeling the Arctic breeze from two salespeople, I hooked up with a salesman named Ben Privitt, who was willing and able to discuss music and sound. Ben took the time to demonstrate two of the store's main systems, one consisting of Mark Levinson electronics and digital front end driving a pair of Wilson Watt/Puppy 5.1s, as well as one comprised of a Proceed CD player, VTL MB450 monoblocks, and a pair of EgglestonWorks Andra loudspeakers. A third room contained a number of Mark Levinson pieces and a pair of Wilson X-1 Grand SLAMMs integrated into a home theatre setup. Unfortunately, a demo was not offered. In addition to the brands already mentioned, the shop represents products from Aerial, Goldmund, Rega, and Well Tempered. The Audible Difference is certainly worthy of a visit, although I will likely consider return trips optional.

Approximately fifteen minutes north-west of downtown San José, along I-280 north, is the aptly named Bay Area Audio (www.bayareaaudio.com). A long, narrow, shop, Bay Area audio has some of the most attractive listening rooms this side of Carnegie Hall. Floor-to-ceiling columns and handsome lighting are the main architectural features here. The rooms also feature extensive acoustical treatment designed to tame the typical listening room anomalies. Unfortunately, these lovely rooms remained silent during my visit, as my request to hear the Classé Omega power amplifier driving a pair of Thiel CS7s (both in position and ready to go) was denied. I was told that the amplifier "isn't hooked up" and I would have to "come back another time". As the only patron in the shop, I found it deplorable that the salesman refused to invest a moment or two of his time in order to run a pair of speaker cables from amp to speaker. Little wonder that the public at large has failed to embrace the high-end. Besides the brands listed above, Bay Area Audio is also an authorized dealer for Audio Research, Creek, Martin-Logan, Theta, and Sonus Faber.

If you've been searching for that elusive analog setup accessory, orient yourself on the 101 north and head for San Francisco's Ultimate Sound. A modest second-floor shop, representing Totem, VPI, Audible Illusions, and Aronov Audio, Ultimate Sound's most appealing quality is its stock of tonearm and cartridge setup and maintenance accessories, including the Dennessen and DB Systems protractors, the Winds and Shure stylus pressure gauges, the Benz-Aesthetix moving-coil cartridge demagnetizer, a selection of headshell screws, and a host of other useful items. While owner Michael Tam admits he doesn't sell many turntables any more, he continues to support the analog enthusiast, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Before you mail-order your next analog accessory, give Ultimate Sound a call. They may have just what you're looking for.

Once you've tired of the audio shop grind and want to pick up some new music on CD or vinyl (music is the reason you're into audio isn't it?), the Bay Area will accommodate. After sifting through The Analog Room's huge selection of reissues, new and used imports, and immaculate classical originals (the only downside being that Brian Hartsell actually knows what the latter are worth!), head to Amoeba Music (www.amoebamusic.com) in San Francisco's trendy Haight-Ashbury area. I literally became weak-kneed as I walked into this shop and spied what must be one of the largest selections of new and used vinyl in the country. For the most part, prices were very reasonable, an original Mercury Living Presence Prokofiev's Scythian Suite/Love for Three Oranges for the ghastly asking price of $200.00 notwithstanding (thanks, Harry). On any one visit, expect to find a good selection of RCAs (shaded and white dogs, as well as red seals), EMIs, Deccas, Argos, Mercurys and Columbia six-eyes, not to mention sealed reissues from the usual crowd. Looking skyward, one will find the walls of the shop papered with original Blue Notes, Riversides, etc. for prices in the $40.00-$60.00+ range. For those of a more digital persuasion, Amoeba has an enormous selection of CDs, both new and used. A store which should be on every San Francisco day-trip itinerary. Amoeba's Berkeley location, located in a rather more seedy neighborhood, pales in comparison in terms of both selection and record quality.

San Francisco's Flat Plastic Sound (www.mediarare.com/fps.html) will appeal to the vinyl aficionado with a strictly classical bent. Records are reasonably priced (I picked up several RCA white dogs for $4.00 each), and in good, if not great, condition. If in doubt, take advantage of the shop's generously provided listening station. The middle of the shop contains the 'Audiophile" section, containing RCA Living Stereos (organized by LSC number!), Mercurys (Living Presence and Golden Imports) among others, all priced quite fairly considering today's rather insane used LP market. The staff is helpful and congenial, and ample street parking is available. Ignore Flat Plastic Sound at your record collection's peril.

Recycled Records, located in downtown San Francisco, is home to a reasonably good selection of used vinyl in all genres. Several Columbia six-eyes tempted but, alas, their surfaces appeared to have been used for Elvis Stojko's Olympic training, and boasted prices out of step with their condition. A decent selection of collectible jazz LPs was available for purchase, but none proved irresistible during my visit. Perhaps next time...

Postscript: As I write this, I am steadily traversing the collection of forty five LPs I hauled over two thousand miles back to Toronto. Physically carrying this number of records through three airports (San José, Dallas, and Toronto, Dallas not being on the original game plan, but proving necessary due to a strike by Air Canada's pilots)and on and off three airplanes proved to be a daunting task (many thanks to Brian Hartsell for generously providing a sturdy carrying box!). Convincing the Canada Customs official that yes, these really were LPs ("you mean like, vinyl discs?") was the final hurdle on what proved to be an arduous, but fruitful, journey. Yes, the discs arrived without a scratch (well, none that I had any hand in, anyway) with not a dud among them. Most are near-mint, some with fairly innocuous surface imperfections. I look forward to my next vinyl buying extravaganza south of the border, although I'll likely leave the shipping to UPS.

Amoeba Music
1855 Haight Street, San Francisco, CA 94117
phone: (415) 831-1200, fax: (415) 831-3585

Second location: 2455 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley, CA 94704
phone: (510) 549-1125, fax: (510) 549-1307

The Audible Difference
805 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94301
phone: (650) 328-1081, ext. 406, fax: (650) 328-6931

Bay Area Audio
1362 De Anza Blvd., San José, CA 95129
phone: (408) 255-0735

Flat Plastic Sound
24 Clement Street, San Francisco, CA 94118
phone: (415) 386-5095, fax: (415) 386-1541

Ultimate Sound
41 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94108
phone: (415) 781-6025, fax: (415) 781-5723

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