Gramophone Dreams #30: Skyfi Audio

Let’s talk about management styles. If you want to run a successful small business, you must first be happy. If your personal goals are to learn and to discover, and you combine those with an intrinsic need to share your achievements and connect with people in your chosen field, you are likely to succeed. Given those qualities, if your business goal is to provide desirable goods and needed services, you will not fail. You will succeed beyond your wildest dreams if these are your goals and if you hire happy, smart, big-hearted people, with strong creative forces lodged inside their chests. Your entrepreneurial success is complete when your customers and employees love you and are grateful you exist.


I witnessed living proof of these tenets when I visited Fernando Zorrilla in the basement workshop of his company, Skyfi Audio, in Ridgewood, NJ (footnote 1).


According to Fernando, Skyfi specializes in the “purchase, reconditioning, and reselling of select high-end audio equipment. We only buy equipment we admire and are passionate about. No mid-fi, no gimmicks, no junk.”


SkyFi owner Fernando Zorrilla with a row of classic Garrard turntables.


It was a breezy June morning. About 11am. I was feeling sun-drunk sipping coffee at a café table on Broadway near 17th Street in New York City—directly across from the Stereo Exchange’s new location. I was talking with my friend Sphere about how I can play the same record on 100 different systems and it will sound 100 different ways. “How could I know which one is the most accurate?” Sphere was just starting his snarky answer when a gray Mercedes pulled up. “Are you ready?” the driver asked.


Next thing I know we’re sliding over the George Washington Bridge. Below, the Hudson is littered with glittering white sailboats.


Dave Wasserman, proprietor of the aforementioned Stereo Exchange, was driving the C-class Merc. I was in the back seat with no idea where we were going. All I knew was I would be auditioning four completely different vintage audio systems spanning four decades, beginning around 1960.


Sphere and Wasserman were talking politics when I interrupted and told Sphere to ask Dave the same “class-D question” he asked me.


“So, Dave, you’ve been selling vintage hi-fi how long Thirty-five years? And during this time have you noticed any class-D amps that have held their value?”


“None I can think of.”


Dave qualified that with an exception: “The Rogue Audio Sphinx fetches good prices—but it’s a hybrid.” I reminded him how the Sphinx was my first-ever review for Stereophile. Whereupon Dave turned around (while driving), squinted one eye, and said, “You wrote for Stereophile?”


Being a New Yorker, I answered his question with a different question, “So, Dave, what percentage of class-A amplifiers hold their value long-term?” He responded immediately: “All of them. Except maybe some [from] Classé.” I sniggered at the irony. Why Classé? I wondered.


I leaned back and closed my eyes for a nap, trying to think of any vintage tube amps that did not hold some value. When I woke up, I looked about and I saw that I was surrounded by a wall of tall coniferous trees and a cohort of silver cars parked in a back-of-the-house driveway fronting four brown-painted garage doors. One door opened, as if by magic, exposing two tall youngsters and two Technics turntables, the latter on a red trolley.


I entered, and as my eyes began to focus in the shadows, I realized there were no cars in these garages—just scores of audio amplifiers. Stepping over the red trolley, we entered the basement of a large house. Inside, I noticed a couple of hand-made wooden model boats, alongside vintage photos of similar vessels. The first room we came to was a super-clean, brightly lit workshop with a square worktable in the center and four walls of benches dedicated to various building and repairing activities.


I shook some hands, forgot everybody’s name, and wandered the room silently, touching and scrutinizing at least a dozen vintage turntables—all in various stages of reconstitution.


A hot-rodded Kenwood KD-1100 turntable.


From across the room, my host, Fernando, asked, “So Herb, which one do you want?” I pointed at a stripped-down, plinthless Kenwood KP-1100 turntable and said, “I’ll take the Japanese hot rod.”


Everywhere I looked, I saw reel-to-reel recorders. On a shelf below a mint Revox PR99 and a handsome Technics RS-1500U, I noticed a trio of classic FM tuners: a McIntosh MR78, a Marantz 10B, and the super-legendary Sequerra Model 1 FM tuner. (A Sequerra Model 1 cost around $2000 in 1974, when it came out, and around $5000 in 1989. Today, it sells for similar prices—despite internet radio.) “So, Fernando: Are people really buying these old radios?”


“Absolutely! Right now, audiophiles are getting into tuners and tape decks—but they must be clean, fully tested, and work perfectly.”


Smiling proudly, I bragged how I use my Kenwood KT-990D tuner to listen to every Yankees game on WFAN (660 on the AM dial).


I toured the garage slowly, mov ing from shelf to shelf, admiring one preamp or amp chassis after another—some models of which I haven’t seen in 30 years—while swapping vintage amplifier stories. After examining dozens of Krells and Levinsons, plus a slew of Luxman, Marantz, and Fisher tube amps, I asked Fernando, “Is there a demand for used class-D amps?” He said more or less the same thing as Dave: “A couple—the Rogue Sphinx and maybe the Bel Canto Black.”


Then I asked, “Can you think of any class-A amplifiers that have not held their value?” “No, demand is high for all class-A, especially for classic designs like the Levinson ML-2 and the Krell KSA-50.”


Remembering what Dave said, I asked, “What about Classé amps? Have they held their value?”


“Definitely—especially the early DR stuff: the DR-3, DR-2.”


Classic Luxman 3045 and Marantz 8B amplifiers.


“What about tube amps?” I inquired. “Everybody loves tube amps. But to sell, they must be clean, recapped, retubed, and fully tested. That is my job.”


Then I asked, “How much do you think looks count with used-gear buyers?” Fernando replied, “Amps become classics not simply because they sound good; they have to look good too. Oftentimes, art directors came here looking for just the right style for a hi-fi in a photo shoot. Once, an art collector came and showed me a picture of a big abstract painting. She wanted her hi-fi to match the style of the painting.”


People love vintage audio because it delivers a complete sensory experience. Vintage aficionados want their system to be beautiful to look at, luxurious to touch, and exciting to listen to.


At lunch, Dave Wasserman asked me what I thought of all the gear I’d seen. “Fantastic!” I said. “But where’s the dust?” (Fernando’s shop and storerooms are super-clean.)

Footnote 1: Skyfi Audio, 355 McKinley Place Ridgewood, NJ 07450 Tel: (646)852-2073. Web: skyfiaudio.com

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