Saturday 27 January 2024

Cautionary Tale: Audiophile's dream's end... Make sure to find balance, audiophiles.

 I remember a couple of years ago, I saw this YouTube documentary on Ken Fritz:

That is certainly an impressive demonstration of dedication and passion poured into the sound room and audio system! Few would have such tenacity, disposable financial resources, or apparent family support. Admittedly, I wondered while watching that video just how well those massive DIY speakers integrated into the room and what measurements would have told us about frequency response and time-domain performance. There's a low resolution frequency response graph here. Yeah, I'm sure the system could play loud with 35,000W* of amplification.

And 2 years later, sadly, the final chapter of the life story was published a few weeks back:

I guess we'll never know exactly how that system sounded like now that everything has been taken apart. What looks like 27 years of labor and $1M original price was dismantled and sold off for $157k total in a comparatively short time. Clearly, neither the family nor the new home buyers had need for the extravagant system in the large room. The dead might at best influence, but cannot declare the will of the living.

Here's a detailed description and list of components. Obviously, audio/music items are generally not investment vehicles unless it's attached to someone very special (like maybe say Hendrix's guitar amp). These things we talk about are for the consumption of music primarily. The non-investable nature of these products is especially true of DIY items given that the quality of such items are unknown even if the bits and pieces like speaker drivers could be from a reputable brand. Over time as components degrade, it could be difficult performing repairs on non-standard builds.
* Regarding the impressive "35,000W" number, it looks like he had four Crest Audio Pro 9200 amps which are Class H rail-switching Class A/B type design for efficiency, rated at 6,500W each when running bridged mono into 4Ω, <1% THD+N. These are designed for commercial purposes like PA systems used in touring. I suppose just with those 4 units, one could already quote "26,000W of power". Obviously, that's not particularly impressive and it's doubtful that his speakers would even need a small fraction of wattage numbers like that! 
As usual, there's no need to be impressed with wattage values since what we want is quality over quantity and a few hundred good watts should be all we ever need in a good sound system depending on speaker sensitivity and room size. Just don't go deaf with excess loudness and distortion! Best is to go estimate what you need yourself.
For me, the most interesting part in the whole system was the 3 front speakers. I wonder if that center channel is ever used when not doing multichannel or movies. If so, what kind of processing did he use? I see he has a Krell Evolution 707 that can decode with Dolby Pro Logic IIx.

Here's the auction page on eBID. I found it amazing that those speakers were sold off for a mere US$10,100 despite the US$216,000 appraisal based on the parts! I suspect Ken would be horrified to know this. The fact that they were 1400 lbs each, 9.5' tall must have disqualified them from the homes of most audiophiles. As usual, the most expensive component of an audiophile's sound system should be the room/house, not the components themselves although speakers also should be up there as being important for good sound. Too often, we see pictures of megabuck hardware in tiny mediocre spaces stuffed with all kinds of other components, shelves of LPs, etc. and the listening chair typically shoved near a rear wall. Simply unimpressive regardless of how fancy the brand names or what amounts of dollars were offered for the products.

Since it's public information, and we know the address from the auction, here's a look at the house in North Chesterfield, Virginia within which was that sound room:

The house looks nice but certainly far from lavish outside. It was initially built in 1964 and the property is currently valued at US$457k in early 2024 and the family sold it already according to the WaPo article. Clearly, between the headline $1+M for Ken's building costs excluding his own time over 27 years, the final auction price of $157k for all the gear, a mere $10.1k sold for those three speakers, and the value of the whole property at $457k, I think there are some understandably mixed feelings around the disparity, the imbalances, wrapped up in this story whether one is an audiophile or simply an observer of financial stewardship, the human spirit and what drives our psychology.

Obviously we should not be too judgmental about this and consider that Ken must have enjoyed what he made and that journey must have been fulfilling for him. However, my belief is that as with any passion, we do need to be careful of the risks if one is living within the fringes of the audiophile obsession playing with such toys. Unless the pay-off is good because you're potentially making money off this stuff, it's important as consumers to not get too sucked in with audiophilia or any other costly activities with "diminishing returns". IMO, what we spend on this stuff should be disposable time and income easily paid off in cash, not stealing time from other much more important tasks. No matter what, little good can come from spending too much time and money at the expense of the family's quality of life if all is gone.

Whatever dreams we may have, whatever passions, I think it's always good to remember that these hardware toys we're playing with are just things. No matter how great one's system, one day, capacitors leak, wires break, power supplies give out, and there will always be a better toy out there. As Shelley cautioned:
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Eventually, ourselves and all that we own in this material world will at best be but empires of sand and dust.

I think it's wise to make sure to enjoy the music first rather than ruminate over the hardware especially these days given the phenomenal quality at very reasonable prices. And through the seasons of life, find balance with all the other demands that make life fulfilling. Except for the names of the extraordinary few individuals that would live on in history on the tongues of others, only our family and friends are all that may remember us for a time fondly.

I suppose the name Ken Fritz might live on on-line and among audiophile lore as a result of the videos and various articles over the years. I'm not sure this is the kind of legacy or memory that most of us would want to leave behind though.

Embrace life. Love others. Enjoy the music. Be mindful of one's own gluttonous appetites. Don't feed Snake Oil salesmen. In that approximate priority order.


  1. Hey Arch, this post is really food for thought!

    I had read the WP article and felt sad because the conclusion was that the guy destroyed his family in search of his dream stereo and was now low on time left to enjoy it. I had not viewed the YouTube film and now I understand better. This is not an audiophile, this is a tinkerer, a builder that finds pleasure in designing and assembling a system, not in listening to it.

    If the goal is only to hear Tchaïkovski’s Swan Lake at symphony orchestra levels, it would be saner to just buy a concert ticket, not try to replicate the sound levels in that huge room…

    Sad also that it is so cheaply dismantled, after his passing, a good illustration of entropy (as your AI-generated picture hints at)…All the energy spent in assembling the parts is dissipated (and entropy increased) so easily!

    I remember when I was a budding « audiophile » in my twenties hearing of a demo that was to be available to audition for a fee in a large church basement, a so-called state of the art stereo setup: 18 inch woofers and super tweeters that were probably ribbon. It was impressive as for volume and bass, but the high frequency hiss from those tweeters was almost unbearable to my still young ears, similar to frying eggs if I remember well, even with nothing played.

    Of course, in those days the only source was vinyl. I recall they played an instrumental piece by a Québec composer that was quite popular in those days and had pretty impressive sound for the time:

    1. Hey Gilles,
      Thanks for the comment and thoughts, as well as the link to some François Dompierre; I'll have to search out his music!

      I think the case of Ken Fritz is an interesting one and representative of the "tinkerer", perhaps a good example of the "hardware audiophile" where the primacy of the hobby is the incessant pleasurable futzing around gear, in this case the spirit of DIY from the ground up rather than just spending money acquiring the stuff.

      For all those years, with the room and hardware in a state of construction, I hope he still had a good secondary system with which to enjoy his LP collection. It would certainly be a tragedy for a lover of music to spend decades building something, eventually completed and ready to listen and then develops ALS and pass away in less than a handful of years with progressive decline to the point of having difficulty cuing up the songs. Thank goodness for streaming digital rather than having to put on and flip LPs later on!

      Instead of that tragic narrative, I would like to think that as a "tinkerer", Mr. Fritz achieved the actual goals for his hobby... And the journey of building this was way more important for him than the actual listening of music.

      As painful as it might be if he were to know that the system was dismantled and sold at a low price, I trust he found satisfaction in life for what he set out to do - to build the "best" sound system, which he seems to believe he achieved (whether this is the "objective" truth is actually unimportant). Obviously, much of his passion might not have been acceptable or reasonable in the eyes of his family. Which is why for us living hardware audiophiles, it's worth thinking about this for our lives and with a broader lens that looks beyond our neurotic minds!

      For most of us, I believe we accept that "WAF" is an important consideration at the very least. 😉

    2. Arch, don't expect too much from François Dompierre. He wrote mostly song arrangements, and I think he only committed one instrumental album. This cute little piece is nice demo material, but not much more, and of course the sound is quite a bit dated... ;-)

    3. Yeah, I noticed there wasn't too much out there. Nice demo material nonetheless!

  2. Hej Arch,

    In a letter John Steinbeck wrote 1960 to Adlai Stevenson, which was recorded in the Washington Post , Steinbeck says, “If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much, and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy, sick.”
    As we travel deeper and further into this hobby or any hobby it becomes increasingly difficult to satisfy our real or imagined need for improvements. And often more costly. This frustrating desire to better what we already have seems to be rooted in a constant sense of dissatisfaction. A seemingly inherent bias toward negativity fuels this dissatisfaction. Perhaps man is wired to constantly search for something different and preferably better. So rather than enjoy what we have, we are unhappy. So paradoxical that,” that which I most enjoy contented least” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 29
    Listen to “Don’t hurt yourself” from the album Marbles by Marillion.
    “There'll come a time when all of this is over
    Something else will grow and take it's place
    The brand new car, scrap metal in a junkyard
    The children playing will grow up and leave home
    Put it away this dream, you can't stop dreaming
    Put it away this anger and desire…”
    Finding a balance is difficult. But yes, prioritize Life, Love and of course Music.


    1. Love the deep thoughts Mike!

      That Steinbeck quote is really something we need to keep in mind as a society beyond individuals. Perhaps sadly we're seeing much of that at a time of deep political divides, ballooning opioid deaths, anxieties about financial strife.

      All the best to you and yours Mike, and hope you're enjoying the music!

  3. I watched the doc' and then thought to myself - "perhaps this will inspire some audio fanatics to realize the brevity of life, and do something useful to society with all of their extra disposable income".

    For every amplifier in this picture; a student bursary.

    For every speaker, a small business loan to a war Vet.

    For the turntable and accoutrements; a sponsorship for people trying to beat addiction.

    The list of what could have been done to better the lives of others, instead of pissing it into a stereo system which quickly depreciated ~ and the scorn of his own family...

    That was a lot of wasted effort, when a Krell integrated amp, a Linn Sondek LP12, a pair of B&W 802 speakers, a streaming box and some copper cables could have provided limitless hours of amazing sound, for a fraction of a fraction of what he wasted on that system...

    1. Wow Andrew, so true.

      Yeah, reminds me of the ending scene to Schindler's List - "I didn't do enough" thinking about money and in retrospect what opportunities we might not have seen or truly appreciated at the time:

  4. I very rarely watch audiophile tours because I think those and the gear they present is just audiophile bullshit, but that particular one I've most certainly watched! I mean I can't deny that huge line arrays is something of a dream for myself as well, and then of course everything just looks so nice.
    But apart from that, I'd say most audiophile dreams are exactly just dreams since their gear are mostly just placebo inducing status symbols.

    1. Over the years, I've been trying to avoid most audiophile videos as well. Hard to stomach a lot of that these days. "Placebo inducing status symbols" - nice one Tell.

  5. I read the Washington Post article referenced in your post and have been reflecting on it for a couple of weeks. Many layers to my reaction. A little embarrassment on the money I've spent chasing home audio utopia and relief that my rational brain kept me from going down those rabbit holes farther than I could afford. Also a bit revulsion because I recognize his faults in me. Oh for the grace go I.

    It seems easy to criticize this gentleman's decisions and dismiss his efforts as folly. Certainly the financial outcome and resulting strains on familial relationships are not something that many people would desire to be the result of their life's work. I do wonder if people that get enthusiastic to the point of obsession have some different way of thinking that drives innovations. In areas that are more highly valued like business, artistry, engineering, and health care, would someone with that level of dedication be thought of as a genius?

    1. Good point Doug,
      Certainly the "obsessive compulsive personality" style I think can be really admirable. One-track-minded and focused, with deep amounts of energy to perfect whatever it is they're seeking are powerful traits so long as the negative side of that (perhaps dismissive of others, maybe a "workaholic" in the eyes of family and friends...) can be acceptable to those around them.

      Personally, given the choice, I would prefer the "slightly obsessive" person if I were to hire someone than the "slightly lazy" for a job. :-)

  6. Hey there Phil,
    Happy New Year as well! Amazing how quickly January has gone by...

    Indeed that says something when over years he apparently was not playing music. That I think definitely puts his obsession "up there" among hardware audiophiles. :-|

    Catch up soon man!

  7. I am not surprised at all. I know of 4 audiophiles system just disappeared. Grand Utopia, Krell monoblocks, secret clock ( a secret he took to the grave) and so many others were just disposed or given away.

    1. Hey ST,
      Yeah man. Well, if folks are giving this stuff away, let me know. I'll be happy to take stuff off people's hands and will even measure it for the community if it seems worth it. :-)

  8. Ken Fritz seems especially outlandish in his behaviors, I think, because his hobby is so far off the beaten path. But there are any number of collectors/conspicuous consumers whose behaviors are equally obsessive. Some women have collections of Hermes Jane Birken bags which sell for in excess of $500k USD each, others spend millions on watches, still others have garages full of vintage automobiles.

    All are equally OCD if we stop and think about it. It's what happens when we create a class of super wealthy individuals by allowing the current absurdly unequal distribution of incomes and not recapturing some portion of that newly created wealth and putting to public purposes.

    Instead of having a universally literate population and well fed kids, we have a crumbling society against a backdrop these clowns buying $10k hamburgers and $5k ice cream sundaes, and paying $40 k for a new set of tires for their Bugatti Veyrons.

    As a society we get what we prioritize, and for the last 50 or so years, we have prioritized allowing a handful of individuals getting as wealthy as they wanna and they have use their wealth to dominate our politics, our culture, and our workplace, threatening our democracies, our families and our futures. The examples are everywhere: the worst obsessive behaviors of these people dominate our news cycles, we simply can't get away from them. Ken Fritz is just a small example of this larger pattern

    1. Nice rant Phoenix :-),
      Yeah, it is sad isn't it how our news cycle ends up being dominated by some of the most ridiculous individuals and their nonsense?!

      Whether it's histrionics, narcissism, or just plain immaturity, we see too much of it out there among politicians and billionaires. And yes, driven by gross financial inequality, with a populace impacted by decades of educational decline, and some deficient of basic moral decency.

      Good luck. All the best Phoenix.

  9. Just thought I'd add one probably final remark on this story after having dessert last night with AudioPhil and chatting about this.

    Clearly, the story here is one of a man who enjoyed the experience of building his sound room under the auspices of being a "hardware audiophile" which of course IMO is different from an actual "music lover". If the "journey" in life is truly what matters, then he would have spent much of his days on that journey which seems to be something he loved (even if the sentiment is not shared with the rest of his family), not just sitting back and enjoying music.

    I really think the room seems to be something quite special; created out of care and superb craftsmanship. Presumably it would have sounded great, built upon the proportions of the concert hall in Osaka, Japan. I don't think it has been reported which one, and I'm guessing it may be The Symphony Hall designed for Western classical music built in 1982. An audiophile might consider owning that house for the sake of that room!

    Given the lack of objective measurements, all we have are "1400lbs speakers", "35,000W amplification", triple tone-arm "Frankenstein" turntable weighing "1500lbs", nothing much about the actual "fidelity" of this system. Just because a man believes he has built the "ultimate" components and system, this is rather meaningless for anyone else or even objectively proven to be any "good". To a large extent, this is probably why the auction prices of these pieces were so low. The family would have likely recouped much more if he owned some giant Wilson speakers or D'Agostino power amps because those would have at least been better known products with positive subjective word-of-mouth (even if not the best objective fidelity). Like Ozymandias, just because we believe we've achieved something remarkable, worthy of echoes through time... Doesn't mean we actually have in the eyes of others (or even if spoken of, perhaps not in the way we intended!).

    While we obviously cannot make strong value judgments on behalf of others, I think it's worth wondering about whether we (hardware audiophiles) all have a little bit of Ken Fritz in us. To what level do each of us desire to engross our lives in this hobby (which also applies to any hobby!)? To what amount is "tinkering" and hardware ownership more important than the music itself? To what effect do we desire to project this to the world and those we care about?

    All I can say with good certainty is that if one wanted ultimate fidelity, I do not believe audiophiles should go with an LP copy of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. At least go digital, even 320kbps MP3 encoded with LAME 3.100 of a well-recorded, well-performed version would have been superior to any piece of plastic with needle dragged across the grooves. 😉

    Take care audiophiles, enjoy life...