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Reviewer: Michael Lavorgna
Source: Audio Aero Capitole MKII
Preamp: Déjà Vu Audio
Amp: Fi 45 Stereo "Prototype", Fi X
Speakers: Cain & Cain Abby (Normal) and Cain & Cain Bailey, Tonian Acoustics TL-R2 Super Tweeter
Cables: PHY interconnects, Auditorium 23 Speaker Cable, JPS Labs Digital AC Power Cable, Audience PowerChord, ESP Essence Power Cord, and Z-Cable Heavy Thunder V2 on the Blue Circle MR
Stands: pARTicular Basis Rack
Powerline conditioning: Blue Circle Music Ring MR800
Accessories: Symposium Rollerblocks Series II under AA Capitole, Yamamoto Sound Craft PB-10 Ebony Bases under Abbys and Bailey, PS Audio Ultimate Outlets and AudioPrism Quiet Lines. Room damping provided by lots of books.
Room size: 13' w x 14' d x 9' h
Review component retail: $2650 without power tubes. Mono blocks $3275/pr without power tubes.
High Fidelity. The fidelity in Hi-Fi is a reference to being faithful to the original - the recording. Fi the company took its name from Hi-Fi. And the truncation takes some of the starch out. Injects some playfulness. Some wit. Fi. It's fun to say. Try it.
If you are interested in Fi and you haven't read Jeff Day's review of the Fi 2A3 monos, you really should. And you should read it before you read this review because it contains the most information on Fi in one place that you'll find anywhere. And then you should read Jeff's Fi Yph review too because that'll give you more of a personal perspective on Don Garber, the man behind Fi. Once you've got all that covered, I'm going to talk about a prototype amp that Don built for me as well as how it compares to the Fi X whose circuit it shares.
To get us started, I thought I'd take up where Jeff has left off on the Fi journey. I asked some of the people that know Don Garber and others that inhabited the store called Fi at 30 Watts Street to reminisce.
My first request went out to Terry Cain of Cain & Cain. We've discussed Don Garber and Fi and I know Terry owns the Fi X while Don owns a pair of the Cain & Cain Abbys. From my email to Terry Cain: "I'm working on a review of my Fi 45 amp. I'm thinking of including a section of quotes from industry notables :-) all answering the question "What Don Garber means to me" or something along those lines. The idea is to give people a wider view of Don and how he "fits" into the big audio picture."
As you'll see, Terry moved my quotes from "fits" to "big". And I agree with this edit and Terry's comment. While the question was admittedly awkward, there is a relevant point to be made: for the record, Don Garber, JC Morrison, Herb Reichert and Nori Komuro helped paint an important piece of the American audio picture.
"Don Garber has been an inspiration since I met him. He combines the finest minimalist circuits with inspired architecture and impeccable craftsmanship to create a musical experience unique in the home. As far as the "big" audio picture and how he fits? Not sure, and I would not think it matters. One thing is sure, he has captured my heart in his designs."
"I've been lucky to know a lot of amp designers over the years but Don Garber -- who has also amassed a significant body of work as a painter -- is one of the few real artists I've ever become close friends with. It's interesting to see him apply that aspect of his background to his work in audio. Just as looking at a man sitting on a park bench and looking at a photo of a man sitting on a park bench are two entirely different things -- the latter showing how our perspective is altered and added to by our drive to create and consume art -- so too are listening to a symphony orchestra and listening to a recording of one two completely different things. Don understands that and while he doesn't undervalue the need for hi-fi gear to be truthful to the original, he doesn't overvalue it either. His amps get to the heart of what he finds important in music, and I think that Don's priorities as a listener and mine overlap more than they clash. Which is good.
As a person, Don mixes seriousness of purpose with a real playfulness - a real sense of whimsy. He enjoys life, he adores his children, he loves his friends and he has a good time. Most of all, he doesn't take himself too seriously. And he has good taste in music, food and bourbon without being the least bit snobbish or condescending. (He's also frugal to a fault.)"
"I haven't gotten to know Don that well other than a quick chat here or a drink there. His brief but beautiful store Fi, down at 30 Watts Street however looms large in my memory as an important stop on the way to were I am now.
I wasn't the greatest customer though I did buy my first all-tube amp there (a pair of lovely warm Heathkit W-5Ms). It was hanging out in that comfortable laid-back store where I met JC Morrison and Nori Komuro, two guys who along with Don were truly passionate about Hi-Fi and thought about it in a way that I admired and hadn't seen before. These guys were artists (JC a musician and Don a painter) who applied their creative vision to reproduced audio. This was cool but I could claim to be in that boat too since I had been building audio gear for some time by then. What really struck me was the community and commerce I saw at Fi. The vibe of enthusiasm in that shop was infectious and the sharing of ideas inspirational. On top of that, it had never occurred to me that anyone would be interested in buying a "home-made" piece of audio equipment (image of light bulb appearing over Johns' head)."
Don Garber and "La Fête à Triode" by Herb Reichert
"That last time I saw Garber in the flesh was at my birthday party in April. I showed him my new paintings and he introduced me to his new girlfriend (exotic, beautiful and highly erudite). I liked her instantly so I started chatting her up. Don comes over saying, "be careful what you believe cuz Herb has a tendency to make things up." I reminded him that for me imagination was a necessity because my mind is a notorious sieve.
Sieve or no sieve, there are three things I do know for sure; 1) Without MJ (Japanese home builder magazine), Jean Hiraga (L'Audiophile), Joe Roberts (Sound Practices), Nobu Shishido (Wavac), Walt Bender (Audiomart), Anzai (legendary triode designer), Ken Shindo (Shindo Labs), Arthur Loesch (physics/reality), Bruce Edgar (horns), Peter Qvortrup (Audio Note), J.C. Morrison (musician/engineer/NY Noise), Rio Kimuro (artist/visionary/Western Labs), Noriyasu Komuro (engineer/designer), Uchida (designer) and Don Garber (artist/engineer) - the single-ended triode scene would most probably have never started. 2) The road to hell is paved with good intentions. 3) Be careful what you believe.
Just think, it's 1992. Who besides Garber could find a little triangular-shaped storefront at 30 Watt Street in the hippest neighborhood in the world? The store was all one big window and no floor space. But what an important window it was! Garber put bronze Quad fire screens next to Garrard 301 and Thorens 124 turntables next to WE 755 full-range loudspeakers in Bender boxes next to Tango and UTC transformers. He'd put Tim De Paravacini's 845 Yoshino next to Altec A5 horns next to Altec, Lux and IPC amps next to WE 274A and 102D tubes. There'd be my own 300B Flesh & Blood and JC's Pipe Dream tapered pipe loudspeakers next to Jelmax Black Gate, Teflon and oil-filled capacitors next to RCA Globe 10s and screen-plate 50s next to JBL Paragons next to little rolls of vintage wire, next to Komuro's 845 amps next to a great-sounding single-ended 6BQ5 amp (with $1.99 output transformers) designed and built by Komuro's girlfriend Amy (we called her "Firecracker"). In the little damp basement with the 7-foot ceiling, there was one long heavy oil-stained workbench where all of us would drill and solder. We kept the steel doors to the sidewalk open for light and lived on pizza, free sushi and solder fumes.
Garber created this scene. Amazing people came from all over the world to stand in front of Fi and stare at the weird stuff in that window. Most people had never seen audio like this before. A few imaginative duffers came in and listened (many of them are now famous audio designers themselves). It was right next to this big vibrating glass window (which looked out on ground-shaking trucks and stalled horn-blowing Holland tunnel traffic) that one of the most important paradigm shifts in the history of modern audio was conceived.
We spent a lot of time arguing about how this big window and all the traffic were making the systems sound bad and how a triangular room was the absolute worst idea because, as my mentor professor Loesch says, "there is no mathematics to describe the action of a wave entering a corner." We also spent a lot of time arguing about paper cones and silver wire and what kind of circuits were best; about how many parts were absolutely necessary and how good those parts must be - to make a stereo system speak directly, with great presence and lucidity on behalf of the listener's favorite program. Sadly, Garber's good intentions did not precipitate any significant cash flow and we all nearly starved. But - you can definitely throw caution aside and believe me when I say that Don Garber (and his band apart) did absolutely on purpose precipitate a wonderful scientific and poetic moment which changed hi-end audio forever."