Josh Stippich admits he has no ready response for the customer whose jaw drops when told the price of one of his high-end, hi-fi sound systems.
At between $40,000 and $60,000, most people would consider that kind of money more than enough for a down payment on a house.
"I guess I’m a bad salesman," said Stippich, a soft-spoken electronics craftsman who opened his own audio, art and furniture store in Salt Lake City in April. "But when true audiophiles come in here, I can easily speak the same language with them."
He also lets his product speak for itself. With two pairs of oversize gramophone speakers standing a shade taller than the average upright person, and attached to vacuum tube pre-amplifiers and "single-ends triode tube" amplifiers, Stippich’s "big-horn stereo system" says plenty by itself when silent. With Igor Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring" coursing from its components and through its speakers, it speaks whole volumes. The orchestral strings thunder. Wind instruments crackle with crystalline energy. And even at the topmost levels of volume, the sound never snaps into distortion.
Unless you’ve an eye for fine art and furniture, which also fills Stippich’s E3 Modern gallery on 315 E. Broadway near downtown, the "big-horn" system is the centerpiece of the room. Passersby on the sidewalk may peer in curiosity, but Stippich’s audio handiwork has attracted clients from as far afield as Japan, Cyprus, Germany and Thailand.
Jay Fisher, a designer and architect for projects worldwide based in Santa Monica, Calif., met Stippich at an audiophiles convention in Washington state. Two years later, Fisher bought two of Stippich’s amplifiers, which today retail as high as $22,000 a pair.
Fisher praises Stippich’s craftsmanship, which he calls a cross between an invention out of a Jules Verne novel, Art Deco sophistication and the famed "steampunk" ethos joining technological innovation and vintage sensibilities.
"It seemed too good to be true that they were so visually arresting, and sounded better than anything I ever heard," Fisher said. "I was gobsmacked. It’s a sound you can feel instantly. You can’t even name the quality, but they’re undeniable."
Stippich said that, aside from the two years he spent reading electronics and stereo assembly books, he’s entirely self-taught. He ran his own recording studio in Salt Lake City throughout the ’90s, during which he recorded albums for such local bands as Red Bennies, Ether and Stretch Armstrong. The he got the audiophile bug — big time.
The early days were full of trial and error, Stippich said. Spending hours late into the night, he assembled and reassembled vacuum tubes and components, and constructed stainless-steel chassis to house his originally-designed circuits.
"Once he gets started on something, he can’t stop," said Ivy Earnest, his wife. "He’ll listen to the same piece of music again and again, then adjust it all over and over until it’s right. He went through one year of playing nothing but The Flaming Lips and Willie Nelson through his systems."
It’s a level of craftsmanship that extends back to the sound systems of the early movie theaters, first perfected by Bell Labs and General Electric. Back then, audio signals basked in the warm glow of vacuum tubes, decades before the advent of the transistor lessened the load to give consumers mass-produced stereo components perfected by Japanese companies. Today’s sound connoisseurs believe the superior sound of the older equipment was jettisoned for the sake of convenience.
High-end audiophile craftsmen such as Stippich delight in matching the vintage sound of tube amplifiers with current technology. It’s a labor-intensive endeavor with few shortcuts, in which components such as transformers are sometimes painstakingly hand-wound with copper wire. Fisher said that, in league with other audio craftsmen turning out similar equipment and custom systems, Stippich’s work under his own electronluv brand is surprisingly affordable by comparison.
While he’s sold a few components here and there, he admits most of what’s sold through his new shop is art and furniture. The space is also available for rent for receptions and other social functions to help make ends meet.
Otherwise, he’s happy to play his high-end system to any and all curious inquirers.
"In the end, it’s all about sitting in a chair to immerse yourself in the music," Stippich said. "If [the system] keeps bringing you back to the music, rather than simply how it sounds, then you know you’ve got the set-up adjusted just right."
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