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Reviewer: Jeff Day
Vinyl source: Garrard 301, Cain & Cain maple & walnut plinth, Denon 103 phono cartridge, Origin Live Silver tonearm [on loan from Origin Live for the Garrard Project], SME 3012 vintage tonearm [on loan from Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports], Pete Riggle Audio VTAF (Vertical Tracking Angle on the Fly), Auditorium 23 moving coil step-up transformer [on loan from Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports], Monolithic Sound phono stage [on loan from Stephæn Harrell for the Garrard Project], Tom Evans Audio Design Groove Plus phono stage [in for review], Fi Yph phono stage [in for review], 47Laboratory Shigaraki phono stage [in for review], 47 Laboratory phono cartridge [in for review]
FM source: Vintage early 1960s Scott 370 FM vacuum tube tuner supported by Yamamoto ebony audio bases from Venus HiFi, Magnum Dynalab ST-2 vertical omnidirectional FM antenna
Digital sources: Meridian 508.20 CD player used as a transport with the Audio Logic 2400 vacuum tube DAC crunching numbers
Preamplifiers: Tom Evans Audio Design Vibe, Tom Evans Audio Design Vibe Series 7 with Pulse power supply [in for review]
Integrated amplifiers: Almarro A205A EL84 single-ended pentode; Sonic Impact Class T digital
Amplifiers: Fi 2A3 single-ended triode monoblocks; Tom Evans Audio Design Linear A power amplifier [in for review]
Speakers: Avantgarde Duo 2.0, Omega Super 3 & matching Skylan Stands
Cables: 47 Laboratory OTA cable kit [in for review], Nirvana S-X interconnects between DAC and preamplifier; Nirvana S-L interconnects between preamplifier and amplifiers; Nirvana S-L speaker cables between amplifiers and speakers; a custom Nirvana wiring harness to connect the Duos midrange and tweeter horns and woofer module; Nirvana Transmission Digital Interface [on loan]; Cardas Neutral Reference digital cable; Auditorium 23 speaker cable [on loan from Jonathan Halpern of Shindo USA]
Stands: Atlantis Video Reference equipment rack, Billy Bags 2-shelf rack
Power line conditioning: none
Room size: 20' L x 17' W x 24' H
Review component retail: $945 with standard finish, $75 additional for the optional hand-polished matte finish
An American revolution
While I was a high school student in America during the early to mid 1970s, my hometown HiFi shop -- like those in many other cities -- carried the high performance audio gear of the time. The enthusiast salesmen delighted in amazing me with musical wonders even though I was a penniless kid. HiFi was popular in mainstream middle-class America then and it wasn't unusual for electricians, car salesmen, roofers, educators, housewives or even some of the more well-to-do middle class kids to have a HiFi rig at home that was pretty close to the state of the art.
Not being of the more affluent set, I watched the fun through the windows of more well-off friends or the friendly local HiFi shop. Audio was still in among the people. As I said in my original Fi 2A3 monoblocks review, high performance audio "was perceived to be generally available to a wide economic cross section of the populace and many could share in the fun with some sense of equality." While I couldn't afford much as a kid, I figured that if I worked hard and got an education, when I got out of school and got a decent job, then I'd get the HiFi rig of my dreams.
But something happened to spoil the fun. The High End concept of audio began to emerge and split off from mainstream music-loving American society. The audio that I loved had been hijacked. At first, most music-loving enthusiasts enjoyed the advancements pursued in the HiFi industry. By the middle 1980s and early 1990s, it became apparent that enthusiast audio was held ransom by High Enders who didn't give a rat's ass about audio everymen who wanted to join the musical fun. They instead focused on high-priced audio toys for the affluent and abandoned the desires of audio everymen and women to partake in the musical games. Prices for good gear skyrocketed out of the reach. Most music-loving people in mainstream American culture were alienated from the audio hobby as a result. High End audio established itself on a pinnacle of high prices isolated from the people.
The audio craftsmen movement
Like the haughty Marie Antoinette, American High End decided to "just give the people cake." The audio everymen wanted audio & musical freedom that allowed them access to good gear at fair prices so they could laugh, dance, sing and make love while enjoying their music & HiFi hobby. Audio craftsmen emerged from the American audio underground to pursue a new path towards musical satisfaction. While the High End audio industry focused on expensive audio jewelry, HiFi sound effects and pricing that spiraled out of reach, the audio craftsmen began to turn their focus back to the vacuum tube gear of yore that so easily evoked a sense of musical pleasure and great sound.
When he rented a little storefront on 30 Watts Street in Manhattan's Soho district in 1992, one of those music-loving audio craftsmen in the American audio underground would -- unbeknownst to him at the time -- become one of the founding fathers of a new American audio movement. Don Garber called his little store Fi -- short for HiFi -- and began to resell musically satisfying vintage gear and something that would eventually cause a dramatic change in the American HiFi culture and put audio & music back into the hands of the people: The first American-made enthusiast single-ended-triode amplifiers created by audio craftsmen such as Noriyasu Komuro, JC Morrison, Gordon Rankin and Herb Reichert. Fi is where Gustav Stickley, Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway and Timothy Leary would have shopped for HiFi had they been around at that time. If that little Fi storefront still survived today, it could rightly be considered an audio National Historic Landmark much like the Ernest Hemingway House (Ketchum) in my former Idaho home is today.
Don finally closed Fi the Store to focus on Fi the Passion - his own audio creations that were & are the audio philosophical embodiment of the Arts & Crafts movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Don's Fi creations celebrate handcrafted artistry while using plain materials & unadorned surfaces. Their design excellence & simplicity produced startlingly good musical reproduction and combined with Don's very fair prices, struck a note in the heart of the American audio public. Don's Fi creations were a political & artistic testimony against the absurdly overpriced & underperforming sham technical twaddle of the High End that reeked of a materialistic society gone amok.
The Fi creations of Don Garber look completely at home next to the 'fine plainness' of a 1912 Gustav Stickley Eastwood chair at Craftsman Farms. Like Garber, Stickley's creations were artistic & political statements against the showy and materialistic society of his day. While Garber works in electronics and Stickley worked in wood, they have a lot in common with their shared desire for a just and fair society that promotes personal & intellectual freedom and human dignity and hasn't sold out to showiness and materialism.
|The advice offered by architect William Richard Lethaby in 1913 for recognizing art still holds up well today for life in general and audio in particular: "If I were asked for some simple test by which we might hope to know a work of art when we saw one, I should suggest something like this: Every work of art shows that it was made by a human being for a human being. Art is the humanity put into workmanship. The rest is slavery. The difference between a man-made work and a commercially made work is like the difference between a gem and paste. We may not be able to tell the difference at first, but when we find out, the intrinsic worth of the one is self-evident."
|Don's focus on quality artistic design, superior music-playing ability and fair prices in a High End world gone mad have made him perhaps the most noted of the people's heroes in the American audio underground.|
|While some designers & businessmen focused on creating expensive boutique product lines or undercutting prices with Chinese imports, Don adopted the noble creed of the sensible Samuel Gompers who observed that people wanted practical things that made their life better: "We want more school houses and less jails, more books and less guns, more learning and less vice, more leisure and less greed, more justice and less revenge. We want more opportunities to cultivate our better nature." Don brought to the American audio community honest craftsman artistry and a design philosophy that has become all too rare in today's world. Don Garber and his Fi creations express the creativity & originality that William Lethaby would have instantly recognized as art. This sort of passion and artisanship really speaks to me. It's an inspiration. Instead of buying blatant corporate & venture capital products that are musically & sonically mediocre and depleted of musicality and personality to exist for no other reason than making a buck off the audio community, I prefer to support the audio poets by purchasing one of their original creations. For me it's a better way to live and enjoy life.
Timothy Leary's phono stage
You probably think that Yph means Y ph-ono stage and that's sort of true. However, Don tells me that it's pronounced if in faded homage to Leary & Alpert's IFIF, the International Foundation for Internal Freedom. I didn't get it. "What's that about, Don?" Don went on to explain that Leary & Alpert were Timothy Leary & Richard Alpert of the Harvard Psychology Department in the 1950s.
"In the course of their psychology research, they got involved with psilocybin mushrooms -- 'shrooms' as they were called -- and later LSD. When they started their research, they looked like perfect '50s academics; tweed jackets, buzz cuts, black-framed glasses - the whole square bit. But all that slowly changed as they went down the slippery slope into the rabbit hole. Whee! They were both tenured but ultimately forced out. IFIF was a last-ditch defense effort (maybe fund-raising, I don't remember) to try to help them and salvage what was happening to their lives. Leary came to national prominence when G. Gordon Liddy (later a famous 'plumber') crawled through the grass (of the lawn variety) in Millbrook/ NY to bust him. It was "turn on, tune in and drop out" time and Leary was transformed into a sort of benevolent and heroic eminence gris - or arc villain, drug pied piper depending on your viewpoint. He was a mellow guy for the most part. He's dead right now, of course. Alpert became Baba Ram Das. When there was an effort to bust Leary and pack him away for a gazillion life terms, I had a favorite t-shirt that said 'Hands off Tim Leary!'"
If you've been feeling like a High End audio square with tweed jacket, buzz cut and black-rimmed glasses, the Yph is your chance to "turn on, tune in and drop the lot" and walk to the beat of a different drummer. The Yph might just be the IFIF "last ditch defense" to rescue you from High End audio boredom. The Yph represents freedom for the individual - but be cautious. The audio police might be lurking in the grass to come after you for indiscretion.
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