On the Albuquerque return leg of my recent trip to NYC, I stopped over in Atlanta to enjoy the hospitality of Jim Smith. As already recounted in twin installments in this industry features column, Smith had invited me to cover the Grand Opening of Avantgarde's latest showroom on the East Coast. Among other to-do items in that peachy state of his, I'd audition Jim's personal DUO setup. According to extensive visitor testimonial on his website, it ranks as one of the premiere US-based examples of music replay done right.

At least that seems to be the general consensus of anyone who's ever heard it. Some of the parties -- Bob Visintainer of Avantgarde Music & Cinema for example, SoundStage! columnist Jim Saxon -- had clearly been exposed to their fair share of top-drawer contenders. It made such opinions more than just inexperienced infatuation, more than the spellcasting of a consummate trickster or hypnotic ice-to-the-eskimos salesman of darkly suggestive powers.

I knew that Jim uses the same AUDIOPAX amps I own. But ancillaries diverge to indicate that Jim's system should enjoy a major edge in resolution and refinement over mine. Where I use a $1,500 24/192 Cairn Fog front-end, he triggers a $35,000 three-piece digital dcs rig into upsampling standard CDs to SACD specs. That should make a difference. Where I adjust volume remotely in the digital domain via the Bel Canto PRe1 (soon to be replaced by their new PRe6), Jim turns a hefty analog dial on his Viva tubed unit with outboard tubed power supply. Where I connect the electrical I-s and T-s with Analysis Plus, HMS or NBS, Jim favors Cardas Neutral Reference and Dave Elrod's top-line powercord creations.

Knowing how critical the Avantgarde's ultimate performance is with regard to fastidious setup, I was curious. As their importer, Jim was probably the setup guy in our hemisphere. By contrast, how close would the performance of my personal system come to what -- I had to assume and did -- was probably one of the most dialed-in DUO systems in the entire country?

Reviewing your own system vis-à-vis stepping out into the greater surrounding world is a terribly useful exercise. In isolation, human adaptability adjusts to just aboutanything. One easily settles for mediocrity believing it special. One readily misreads import, misjudges ultimate value. It's good to occasionally disturb such self-congratulatorily waters of potential myopia. Get the bigger view. Reposition one's objectivity -- at least momentarily until our hearing mechansim again recalibrates itself -- to a more expansive perspective.

Equally enticing was the prospect to interview Jim Smith. From the highly personal and ongoing dialogue of his ads, you'd believe another opportunity to get himself into the papers should have been fat in the fire. Far from it. It's taken me a good year to finally have Smith cave in to my standing proposal. "Let the speakers speak for themselves. I'm just the guy that brings them into the country." That and similar retorts were what I had to contend with for the longest time. It didn't matter that I kept pointing to what I thought was the blatantly obvious: For most consumers in the US -- perhaps even internationally in certain quarters -- Avantgarde and Jim Smith are nearly synonymous.

Jim's unusual ad campaign made it so. It's brilliant, unique and a breath of fresh air. It's autobiographical, always in the first person singular, signed with his name most of the time and peppered with charged, nay outright critical references to audio's present status quo.

Here was a guy with strong convictions not afraid to speak his mind or take shots at the establishment in dubious references to The Audio Police. As you will discover, those convictions are founded on extensive experience in the industry. They're anchored by candid and self-critical references. They really make you think twice about certain popular notions.

The surprising part? That Jim Smith claimed minor ignorance over the effects his ad campaign has had. Not in successfully promoting the brand. Nor in deliberately attacking certain notions that hornspeakers in general suffered when he came aboard. No, in tying him inextricably to the brand, not as a mere name on a business card but as a living, breathing personality of quite some renown. What would seem apparent to you and me wasn't to him - and I don't believe he played coy. Behind that outspoken facade really hides a rather private individual. He's struggled long and hard to refrain from coming onto my extraterrestial and colorful carpet. Being younger and endowed with that nasty Teutonic habit for not taking "no" for an answer, I eventually triumphed. But trust me, it wasn't from lack of resistance that we finally arrived at today's interview. Here's to hoping you'll find my galling persistence worthwhile. I'll tell you right now that it's a very extended dialogue. Long enough to require two parts. If you stick with it through thick and thin and until the final clearing, I believe you will have found it to have been a most worthwhile journey of unusual discoveries and insights indeed.

But first, a brief pictorial documentation of Jim's listening space. It was done up in cozily subdued lighting. It more than made up in sheer comfort what it lacked in ideal photographic conditions especially for an amateur. Translation? 'twas womblike dark...

As you can see despite grain and polarization, the room sports one straight and one angled long wall, with a sizable software rack on the right (facing the speakers) and a computer desk on the left. A Grand Prix Audio Monaco stand just fits next to rows upon rows of original Ampex and Agfa master tapes. The AUDIOPAX monos are housed in the garage below, with their speaker leads coming up through the floor right behind the blue DUOs. Dedicated 20-amp lines power the gear and the resident cat warms your lap - if you pass muster with its feline "good vibes" extrasensory scan first.
The sheer number of CDs proved welcome evidence that Jim's "It's about the Music" slogan isn't just empty marketing propaganda but a direct reflection on his voracious listening habits. The analog master tapes proved that Smith has been at this for a while, and for the right reasons - to be close to the music, the equipment merely a means to an end. I felt at home in an instant, marginal illumination included - whenever possible, I listen in the dark and have chosen components whose displays can be entirely defeated. All I see at home is the faint glow of four cryogenically treated KT88s ...