By Jimmy Magahern / Photos by Kimberly Carrillo
Mike Ware navigates the sprawling Scottsdale Airpark showroom of LMC Home Entertainment, directing the caterers where to set up for tonight’s event: The global launch of the all new Wilson Sasha DAW loudspeaker. This model starts at a retail price of $37,900 per pair in standard colors. It’s the latest iteration of Wilson’s WattPuppy/Sasha series, the all time best selling high-end loudspeaker series in history, Ware says.
Daryl Wilson, loudspeaker designer and CEO of Wilson Audio, is special guest speaker for this event. The “DAW” designation is meant as a tribute to the late David A. Wilson, founder of Wilson Audio.
“We’ve got nearly 7,000 square feet and $3 million worth of gear on display here,” Ware says, snaking through a maze of luxuriously appointed listening rooms, each adorned with fine American- and European-manufactured audio gear from such iconic companies as McIntosh, Burmester, Wilson Audio, Sonus Faber, Linn, Naim, MBL, Audio Research and other lines that are highly sought-after by serious audiophiles and music lovers.
Ware is a lifelong audio enthusiast who, with his broad face and red beard, bears more than a passing resemblance to veteran Irish character actor Brendan Gleeson. He started LMC (an initialism for Legendary Music & Cinema) with his business partner back in 1999. The business now has two locations, one in Tempe and one in Zocallo Plaza on Scottsdale Road just north of Scottsdale Quarter. Plans are in the works for a Dallas-area location.
LMC is home to some of the finest high-end audio gear in the world and displays three of the world’s finest loudpeakers: “The Wilson Alexandria XLFs paired with Thor’s Hammer subwoofers, MBL 101 X-tremes and our North American exclusive, the Sonus Faber SE. These all sell in the area of a quarter million,” Ware says. “Don’t have a spare quarter mil? No worries – we feature a vast array of fine American and European loudspeakers starting under two thousand dollars.”
Ware says the folks at LMC are passionate about ensuring each of their clients receives the highest-performance system within their respective budgets. The pursuit of perfection is the nature of the high-end audio world, where obsessive audiophiles might contemplate cashing in their 401(k)s for a set of towering loudspeakers rivaling modern art sculptures and a sound capable of revealing every nuance and transient detail in their favorite music.
“Most people love music and many, once introduced to the world of high performance audio, acquire fantastic music systems often costing as much as their first home,” Ware says. “Many others continue to upgrade their systems, one new component at a time. Some people budget for a vacation, a new car, a boat or a cabin while some plan their next home entertainment upgrade.”
In his 2004 academic paper, “Golden Ears and Meter Readers,” Brown University music professor Marc Perlman proposed that audiophiles actively pursue the highest-priced gear to elevate their experiences as music-lovers, and that “deeply meaningful emotional experience” they derive from listening to their favorite albums is worthy of the price.
“It’s the same in any luxury/performance category,” Ware says with a shrug. “It’s like the difference between a high-end watch and a Timex, or between a Ferrari and a Kia — nothing wrong with with Timex or Kia — but they are clearly not in the same performance/luxury class.”
But those type of expenditures are visible, writes Esquire’s Alexis Petridis. “If you drive a Bugatti Veyron or wear a Rolex, you’re making a very personal although public statement about yourself,” Petridis notes. “But a high-end hi-fi isn’t a public statement. It’s squirreled away somewhere in your home, not on open public display.”
Ware agrees that a high end audio system is meant for the personal enjoyment of its owner, his family and a few lucky friends. That may mark the appeal behind LMC Home Entertainment’s listening events, which appear regularly on the store’s Facebook calendar. High-end audio equipment manufacturers host frequent and exclusive product demos at LMC’s stores, drawing both music lovers as well as serious audiophiles. Guests leave the comfort and seclusion of home for a taste of the latest amps, cinema systems and loudspeakers – along with some wine, conversation and (this evening) roasted butternut squash mini-tacos and sirloin bites.
“The quest for a high-end audio system is a journey, one marked by the thrill of selecting just the right gear and then enjoying the system with family,” Ware elaborates. “It’s about the connection, the experience you have with the music and the value you place on that.”
Daryl Wilson agrees. The 6-foot-4, 40-year-old is the son of the late hi-fi pioneer David Wilson. Daryl has spent his life working at Wilson Audio, designing most of the recent models released by the company. He says he gets asked all the time why customers are willing to pay so much for his company’s speakers, which are meticulously engineered and painstakingly hand-crafted (seriously: Each part is even signed on the back by its assembler).
“Many people have a hard time wrapping their head around the high-end audio industry,” Wilson says, taking a break in LMC’s centerpiece room, a huge red velvet-walled cinema with a façade resembling a Parisian street corner, complete with mosaic sidewalk tiles and a street lamp. “They’ll say, ‘How much did you spend on that system? Your loudspeaker and amplifier costs as much as a house!’ Well, that same argument could be made about an expensive bottle of wine, a meal at a fine restaurant, or that one-of-a-kind custom evening gown.”
Wilson is demoing his new Sasha DAW loudspeakers at LMC tonight for a select clientele on the store’s email list – those who value their music-listening experience enough to spend the price of an average new American car on the latest top-of-the-line audio equipment. One by one, they arrive at the catering table: mostly men (a baker’s dozen or so men show up before the first of several women arrive at the party), each sharing business cards and tales about the first record albums they ever bought – which turn out to be surprisingly mundane.
“Eagles Greatest Hits – the first one,” says a man who actually introduces himself as “Dean, James Dean.”
“Bachman-Turner Overdrive,” admits another. Wilson himself joins in. “Roxette, The Look. And the Chicago album with ‘Look Away’ on it. I had it on cassette.”
“How a person finds joy in life is their personal pursuit,” Wilson says later. “Audiophiles – people who really get the emotional connection between the music and their life, and who want to engage in that emotion as deeply as they can – they’re willing to go as far as the person buying that rare and expensive bottle of wine, or those spending a king’s ransom on art… That’s their pursuit of happiness.”
Surprisingly, Wilson’s not a snob about music formats, as some modern audiophiles tend to be. As guests claim their spots on the couch in the main listening room and line up against the back wall to hear the Sasha DAWs debuted, his assistant slaps on a CD of Dean Martin singing “If You Were the Only Girl in the World,” followed by a CD of Leonard Cohen’s “Nevermind,” to demonstrate the stark realism the DAWs preserve in the human voice. Not vinyl?
“I love dropping the needle on vinyl,” Wilson says. “However, you can’t always listen to vinyl when you’re in your car, or working out, or in your office. In those cases, why not stream? Why not put a CD in, or connect your iPhone to the Bluetooth and play a high-res download? The fact is, whatever you feed into these systems is going to sound amazing.”
While some audiophiles are all too happy to tell fellow enthusiasts exactly how much they’ve spent on their amazing gear, there’s one group of people they would rather not discuss price with: their partners.
“There’s an old joke among audiophiles: ‘My greatest fear is that when I die, my wife will sell my gear for what I told her I paid for it,’” Wilson says with a laugh.
Ware says he’s had customers ask for an additional invoice with the prices listed per speaker. “While we will not make up a fictitious invoice, we have had clients say, ‘Can you break that down and put one speaker on this invoice and one on another?’ Works for me.”
Ware admits this is still very much a male-dominated pursuit, although he says he’s had several female clients who are just as excited as the guys about selecting the right gear. Women are also frequently involved in selecting/approving the larger tower speakers, as these typically go in the main living room of the home. “Women also hear slightly better than men do, at all ages,” he says. “This means they hear distortion first as well, which is one reason we constantly hear men complaining their wives won’t let them play their existing systems very loud… Once we get them into a high-performance system, the feedback is their wives will now let them play it much louder.”
Wilson says he’s found another way to draw his spouse into his obsession. “My wife loves it when I drop the needle on a Nat King Cole album and I pull her into the room and I just dance with her,” he says. “Music consumption doesn’t always have to be sitting in a room by yourself and closing your eyes and listening. Physically engaging with the music, and being in the moment with the people you love, is often the best way to bring the whole family into enjoying this gear as much as you do.”