LB: Ted, welcome to Dagogo. Let’s begin with some history. How did you first get involved with high end audio?
TL: My first experiences with high quality audio gear came from a cousin of mine. When I was just kid my family would visit my mother’s brother often and Willie, my cousin, as far back as I can remember, always had what was to me a very impressive stereo. The first “high end” system I ever heard was a Garrard/Pickering analog rig, a Teac open reel tape deck both feeding a Marantz 2240 receiver which drove a pair of Altec Voice of Theater loudspeakers. Discwasher Golden’s interconnects (remember those?) and zip cord for the speaks. He played rock and roll and he played it LOUD. Visiting him left an indelible impression in my soul – an absolute love for rock music and the electronics which brought it to life so dramatically.
From that point on I was hooked and (little did I know) life as I knew it would never be the same. I still have that old 2240 and I doubt many other audio products have seen so many hours and brought so much joy
LB: Like many in the industry, you began as a hobbyist and then became a proprietor. Tell us the impetus behind starting HighEndAudio.com, and how it evolved over the years.
TL: It’s incredibly simple – see above! I adore most all music and have always craved it in my life no matter where I am. It’s more important than food which is why I have always been so skinny, heh, heh. I bought that 2240 from Willie when I was 13 and mated it up to a pair of Ohm L’s with an N2 sub (eventually going to the Walsh drivers; foreshadowing for Duevel or what?) and a bunch of different front end gear. Went to Nikko then Carver separates after that (had not yet discovered tubes) with Dahlquist DQ-10’s and it was that purchasing experience which put the idea of “professional audio” in my mind. I grew up on Long Island not far out of the city and frequented the upper scale audio places in my neighborhood. As much as I loved audio, I actually dreaded going to the high end stores and having to deal with the (mostly) jerks who ran them. Who knows, perhaps I was the jerk but I always thought I could present such wonderful things to folks like me who just loved music in the way they should be presented: with love and enthusiasm, not with attitude or snob appeal.
Anyway, the last system I had before biting the HighEndAudio.com bullet in 1995 was a CAL Alpha/Delta digital front end, an Audible Illusions Modulus 3, a pair of Forte Model 4’s driving a pair of B&W 802 Matrix 3’s all wired up with blue Audioquest wire – honestly forget the type. I was a self employed roofing and building contractor at the time and had damaged my back badly enough to lead me to say that now was the time to get into audio. I had the ability to and so built a beautiful addition to my Simsbury, Ct. home, took out a $75,000 small business loan and bought a bunch of audio gear focusing on single ended amplification with Cary and Pass driving ProAc loudspeakers. Great stuff with those 3.5’s. That’s how it all began. Over time I added an increasing number of lines, trying to compete with the strictly internet dealers who were popping up everywhere. Things just got crazy there for some time, but that is all shaking out now. I began looking to import brands to build exclusivity into what I sold and shrink the number of lines carried, as no matter how many lines I made available to folks, the most often asked question was; “what do you think is best?” People tended to buy those things I honestly thought were most worth the price of admission. I believe that exclusivity is the key to eventual success, not trying to “mostly” please all comers but to absolutely thrill some. We need to sell what we love, nothing more, nothing less.
LB: My sense is that home-based audio dealerships are coming to play an increasingly important role in high-end. While this may often be a matter of practicality, I think it also represents a different mindset. As a home-based dealer, please share with us your thoughts on this topic.
TL: I believe you are absolutely correct for a number of reasons. Storefronts are very nice but expensive, so operating out of a home can be an effective way to offer clients a taste of the lines the dealer offers in a setting much like where the gear will actually be used. I was always able to offer ultra fine audio in a very relaxed and low pressure situation. Dollars are becoming more and more scarce while other “toys” are becoming more and more available. Younger people, for the most part, no longer sit and listen to music so listening as an art is falling out of popular favor. Our industry has been shrinking and formal stores have been closing. Home based folks are just doing what they can to keep the flame lit and alive as best they can. Not easy, to say the least, but I do not (cannot) believe that fine playback systems will ever be a thing of the past. Good taste will always exist no matter its surroundings.
LB: Tell us a bit about the product lines you carry (we’ll get to Thor in a moment), and your selection criteria.
TL: I actually carry very few product lines at this point Larry. It is basically because of that question I was always asked: “What do you think is best?” My observations on the industry at large and my feelings toward what I wanted to offer my customers led me to condense as much as possible the items I would offer for sale. For example, instead of my investing in three $10,000 preamps from which to choose, I felt it would be smarter to just have the one I felt was best and leave the other two for those sellers who felt they were best. Better to compete with other sellers in terms of something more concrete i.e. brand A vs. brand B, rather than simply attempting to offer the largest discount on the same products. That said, I have a great deal of respect for 47 Labs gear, Duevel Loudspeakers, Stealth Cables and Thor Audio; while these are certainly not the most popular gear around, in my opinion they are some of the very best at any price point.
My criterion for selection is simple. I’ve been listening to “the best” out there for well over two decades. Whenever I have the opportunity to listen to the “latest and greatest” I ask myself a single question: Where would I rather be, here listening to the new “super system” or at home listening to my own? Needless to say, I am still here listening to my own. I do have one exception however: I am a complete sucker for a top-line MBL system. Had I the unlimited financial resources such a system requires, I’d gladly listen to one of those! Without unlimited capital, for me, it’s 47/Thor/Stealth/Duevel! My ears however are always open.
LB: Now let’s turn to Thor Audio. Though I never owned any of their products I was always impressed at shows with their sound and of course, their unique toroidal shape. Tell us about your initial involvement with Thor Audio.
TL: I got involved with Paul Marks and Thor Audio back in the latter half of the 90’s. We were introduced to one another by Jerry Gladstein from Fi magazine if memory serves correctly. He came to visit me in my Simsbury showroom and brought one of the first TA-1000 line level preamplifiers with him. I had been running some outstanding Lamm gear, the L1 preamp and M1.1 and ML1 amplifiers with a variety of speakers from Verity and Kharma, and the TA-1000 just took the sound to a level I had not yet experienced before. It was not necessarily more or less “accurate” than what I was hearing but had a way of laying bare and revealing the true soul of the music. It communicated the artists’ feelings and intent in a way that truly spoke to me. Soon thereafter Paul introduced the TA-3000 phono stage which replaced my units from Sonic Frontiers and Pentagon. The TPA-30 mono amps followed along with the DC-1000 DAC (the only DAC ever to best the Timbre TT-1) made by Jerry Ozment and Paul Marks, thus completing the line. I never owned the more powerful amplifiers (never needed them) but I was hooked big and was a retail dealer for many years.
LB: Thor Audio seemed to suddenly drop out of site, without – to the best of my knowledge – any formal announcement. Precisely what is your current business arrangement with Thor Audio? Is Paul marks involved? Do you have any other partners?
TL: My partner Jordan Hill and I purchased Thor Audio lock, stock and barrel directly from Paul Marks just a few months before our economy crashed… again. My timing in business/financial endeavours has always been exquisite that way For all intents and purposes, Jordan and I are Thor Audio going forward. I like the gear that much! Paul has more or less fallen off the face of the Earth. I have not had any contact with him for about two years. There was no formal announcement of his desire to leave audio, Thor’s closing (or sale) and he disappeared leaving many people, myself included, in less than ideal situations. Let’s just leave it there…
A bit about Jordan and our initial plans for Thor. He is a graduate of the University of Hartford and has a degree in audio engineering. He is an outstanding young man with a great deal of energy and some incredible ideas. Our mutual love of music in general (Zeppelin and The Who in particular) brought us together as friends so when the opportunity arose to purchase Thor, together we jumped at the opportunity. We both greatly enjoyed the gear as Paul built it and thought (at least at first) that we would just continue where Paul left off , making no changes at all. We were supposed to have received numerous chassis in the buy-out which would have enabled us to get a running start in the business. Regrettably that did not happen so with time on our hands, we began to experiment (a little at first) and were able to make some surprising improvements especially in the area of parts quality which paid off tremendously in sonics. We have now nearly completely altered every aspect of the designs and “the new Thor Audio” is our attempt at creating true state of the art audio componentry for those who take their music as seriously as we do. From what I and several others have heard so far, we are on the right track.
LB: Will you be handling the design and manufacturing, or will some of that be farmed out? And what are the plans for distribution? Will you be setting up a dealer network, or sell direct?
TL: We are doing just about everything Larry. Obviously we have a chassis manufacturer, PCB company, transformer winder, etc., but all those parts come back here for assembly. Each and every Thor Audio component will be hand-soldered, assembled, packed and shipped from our own shop by Jordan and myself. Only the finest parts we can find will go into new Thor Audio components. They will be the absolute best we can build with zero compromise anywhere.
In terms of distribution, at this point in time we do not see ourselves going forward with traditional dealer networks. Direct sales seem like the more appropriate method to us. It is a way to install parts superior to those by many of the competition, and offer the completed component at a lower relative cost since the markup from factory to consumer is cut nearly in half. The most important thing businesswise moving forward is keeping overhead to an absolute minimum which will keep costs (and sonics) incredibly competitive for similarly priced components. We have no debt and we want to keep it that way!
LB: As you mentioned, Paul marketed a line stage, phone stage, and two or more amplifiers. What exactly are your plans for the product line?
TL: There were those and more. There was the TA- 1000 (line), 2000 (line/phono), and 3000 (phono) preamplifiers, the DC-1000 DAC and the TPA- 30, -60 and -150 watt amplifiers. We have similar long term goals but our immediate objective is to make three components as good as they can possibly be, to absolutely max them out sonically and physically. We will be releasing the Mjollnir (Thor’s battle hammer) line level preamplifier first, hopefully by this summer, with the Sjofn (goddess of human passion) phono preamp to follow shortly. Finally will come the Valkyrie’s (beautiful women who carry warrior heroes to Valhalla) 30 watt mono amps. We would love to re-introduce the digital-to-analog converter as it was a stunning piece but Jerry Ozment passed away in the summer of 2010. We miss him terribly and he was the biggest part of that component. Most folks don’t realize that Jerry played a much larger part of the initial development of Thor Audio than he or Paul ever let on. Jerry was an absolutely brilliant man and wonderfully humble human being. Thor Audio will suffer that loss.
As I said earlier, Jordan and I want to build a statement product regardless of what it costs. It has taken us a very long time and a great deal of money to systematically listen to huge numbers of different caps, resistors, wires, etc, in order to find the perfect parts. As everyone reading this knows, each part the signal (and power) passes through alters that same signal in some way. I can’t begin to tell you how many listening hours have been and continue to be logged making these components sound as good as I know they can sound. Absolutely everything is a tweak of some sort! We also want to make the chassis as visually stunning as possible by offering the components in a textured chrome finish with engraved gold plated faceplates and tube chimney. Folks who desire a more subtle look will have many custom colors to choose from.
If all goes reasonably well for us financially (and in this economy, who knows?) we will design a very simple though ultimate quality 300B-based single ended triode amplifier, before a completely re-worked TPA-60, all in the trademark Thor toroidal chassis. We are not sure if we want to rebuild the TA-2000 combination line/phono stage as the design, compared to the 1000 and 3000 taken together, represents a compromise of sorts, so we will wait and see what requests our customers make of us. The 2000 is certainly a future possibility however.
LB: That sounds very ambitious, and I admire your passion. Needless to say, there are many excellent products on the market. Are there any in particular that will serve as a benchmark for you, and how do you intend to distinguish your products from theirs?
TL: Well, I figure if we don’t have the ambition at the outset it is not likely to show itself later on. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, right! Actually, so much depends on the economy, and the speed of release of each successive component will in large part depend upon the sales of the former. Neither Jordan or I want to go into any debt with this project and neither one of us is what I would call well financed. We both work outside this endeavor to help capitalize it and we are in for the long haul. The preamp thus far has been financed by the upgrades we have been performing to existing Thor components which I have to say are extraordinary. The sonic improvements wrought are simply remarkable. With your indulgence I would like to take this opportunity to invite anyone with Thor electronics to call me if they have any interest in turning a great component into a truly world class component. Folks will not be sorry spending their money with us and to make sure, we offer a 30 day money back guaranty on all upgrades and new 5 year warranties on upgraded components. We are that confident in the sonic improvements shown – they are not subtle! We have the ability to perform relatively simple upgrades like replacing all existing signal caps in a component as a start (a huge sonic improvement by itself) and can go so far as to take out entire circuit boards, replacing them and all associated parts and wire with our own. This would provide a current Thor owner with a nearly new component save for the chassis and its through parts. Oh yes, and our chassis guy can also sand blast and refinish those old chassis as well for a truly brand new look with that new sound! There is much more information and pricing on HighEndAudio.com for any interested in speaking to me about this.
There are a lot of great products on the market for sure. One in particular we have had the opportunity to “play” against through a Duevel customer of mine is a well known, $13,500 American tube preamplifier. Bernie A. has been gracious enough to allow Jordan and myself to visit with our heavily mod’ed red TA-1000 several times and at several stages of development. About a year and a half ago it outshined us in every way. That is no longer the case today… I believe what we need to do in order to distinguish ourselves is to build that statement product we know we can build; something which can not be improved upon in and of itself. Paul and Jerry laid an incredible foundation upon which we have been building. Jordan and I will explore every possible way to make these components into what they were truly meant to be before we even think about selling our first component. We can leave no stone unturned in our search for sonic ‘Valhalla’ as we will only have this one opportunity to get it right. We are three years and counting down… and will either hit a grand slam, or not. So be it. Not many folks get this kind of opportunity and we are quite honestly thrilled!
LB: Can you provide us with an approximate timeline for release of the products?
TL: Well, last year I would have said next year, so this year I will say this year There are still some things we need to experiment with internally and the chassis is a very involved thing to say the least. We had to reverse engineer the chassis with the help of a wonderful machine shop here in Massachusetts. It is taking a lot of time and money to have this done properly but we believe it will be worth it in the end when folks get a first look at the new Mjollnir vacuum tube line level preamplifier. I’d say if all goes according to plan, look for the Mjollnir during the autumn of 2011, the Sjofn in the spring of 2012 and the Valkyrie’s in the spring of 2013. Work on the preamplifiers, both line and phono are nearly complete; the amps still have a ways to go.
LB: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
TL: I understand that it is a backward thing to say (I’ve been accused of that before!) as Thor Audio is a business, but Jordan and I are not building this gear with the express desire and goal of making money. Sure it would be nice to be monetarily rewarded for making great electronics but our goal is honestly larger than that. We just want to make the best “things” that we are able to make. Call this a legacy of sorts – it is my ultimate audio-holic challenge. For us, success will not be measured solely in dollars earned but in the pure satisfaction of building something recognized by us and hopefully by others as truly great. These are going to be expensive components and few will likely be able to afford them. Someday we will dial back from “what is possible” to “what is more easily attainable” with less expensive Thor components (perhaps the same circuit with less expensive parts in a simple rectangular chassis) but as I said earlier, this has to be and will be a “statement” first and foremost.
LB: Thank you very much Ted for taking the time to tell us about your plans for Thor Audio. I, and undoubtedly many others in the audiophile community, eagerly await the opportunity to hear the fruits of your labor, and wish you all the best.
TL: I thank you Larry for allowing me to impose myself upon your readers and for getting Thor Audio back on the pages of Dagogo! Blessings, always.
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