NATHAN HAINES is a big fan of Onehunga’s specialist hi-fi store Turned On Audio, so we asked him to put the right questions to its owners Paul and Neil.
My first proper turntable was a lovely, early and original Linn LP12. I never managed to get one of those bolt-into-the-wall stands for it, and when listening to records, I’d have to gingerly creep around the hi-fi area for fear of the dreaded ‘wobble’ causing the suspension to be flung around like a small boat in a large storm. Then – with the arrival of our firstborn Zoot Haines on Christmas Eve 2014 – after relocating back to New Zealand from London, the pitter-patter of tiny feet led to a realisation that I needed a more robust turntable to cope with the rigours of new family life.
I’d always loved the instant torque and workman-like aesthetics of the direct-drive Technics SL-1200 and I own a pair for DJ-ing duties. But with the cash from the sale of my LP12 burning a hole in my pocket, I scoured TradeMe for a turntable that would fit my new lifestyle of Dad and audiophile.
I spied a listing for a Garrard 401 with an SME 3012 12-inch arm in a lovely teak SME plinth. It was a one-owner and in all original condition (including the ancient Shure V15 cartridge) and was dated to 1968. I got an affable chap called Neil on the phone and was told to drive out to the Onehunga shops, which I duly did. As soon as I clapped eyes on the 401 it was love at first sight, and so started my relationship with Neil and Paul at Turned On Audio.
The Garrard is rock solid and reminds me of driving my Dad’s old Triumph 2500 – all 1960s British build quality with a reassuring firmness to the controls. And did I mention the lovely wood veneer?
Just recently, Neil and Paul have assisted in fitting a second 10-inch custom-made Ortofon arm to run my Miyajima Zero mono cartridge, which means I can listen to both stereo and mono pressings without having to change cartridges and phono inputs.
Along with oodles of technical know-how, these guys stock a range of great secondhand gear along with new offerings from boutique manufacturers like Leben, Shindo Laboratory, Modwright Instruments, DeVore Fidelity, Acoustic Plan, Auditorium 23 and others.
In Neil’s words, “We like things that sound good from manufacturers and designers with integrity. We like different sounds, small triodes and high efficiency but also big power and huge, room-filling speakers.”
From re-wiring tonearms to fine-tuning a custom made plinth, these guys do it all with aplomb. And don’t be fooled by the audiophile tag. Their labour prices are very reasonable, and they’ll even fashion cables that don’t have to cost the price of a small car.
Nathan Haines – How long has Turned On Audio been around for, and can you give me some background on how the business started (where you’d come from/worked at previously)?
Neil/Paul – We started in 2005, previously I was at Paul Money and Eastern Hifi and Neil was at Eastern Hifi and Strawberry Sound. We have both been involved with the audio industry for a long time now. The starting of the shop enabled us to sell wares that aren’t the big box chain type products which can be bought anywhere, and allowed us to investigate cool gear that sounds awesome. We’re not tied to any one distributor. We never wanted to just be a stack-them-high, sell-them-low type box mover. Most distributors have obligations to move numbers, and sort of lose sight of the point of being in the business. All of the products we import are from smaller boutique operations that actually care about how their products are sold and perceived, where selling huge numbers isn’t the main priority. We’re very lucky to be involved with them.
Nathan – How long did it take to get your customer base, or did this happen pretty much straight away?
Neil/Paul – Like anything, it takes time to build a customer base. However, we were lucky that some of our good clients followed us here to support us. Over time we have tried to deal with people honestly and promptly, and hope that they tell their friends, which many of them do.
Nathan – Do you do any social media posting or does your business rely on word of mouth?
Neil/Paul – Yes, we have a Facebook page that we occasionally post interesting things on, but we do rely on word of mouth referrals quite heavily.
Nathan – What is the age/gender demographic of you customer base?
Neil/Paul – Mostly male, and between 30-60 or so. We do have a smattering of younger people coming in, and the odd lady enthusiast, but they are few and far between.
Nathan – In this day and age of earbuds on iPhones and lo-res streaming audio like Spotify and even YouTube, how does Turned On Audio fit into the picture?
Neil/Paul – Hi-fi is still definitely relevant, more so possibly than home theatre perhaps. Our demographic doesn’t seem particularly interested in earbuds on iPhones, but really, as long as they are listening to music, that’s great. Maybe one day they will take the next step into better quality reproduction. We try not to be too snobby about formats and whatnot.
Nathan – Please tell me what your home system is and if those pieces are permanent fixtures, or are you suffering from up-grade-itis?
Paul – My system varies depending on what we have around. Currently, it’s some Sonus Faber Electa Amators and a Modwright KWI200. Neil’s system is a full Shindo based system, which can be found here.
Nathan – You are the agents for some very impressive and beautiful sounding pieces of audio equipment. What’s your personal favourite?
Neil/Paul – They’re all great, that’s why we bring them in! We carefully chose the offering based on what we had heard and seen and brands with philosophies that align with ours. Choosing a favourite brand would be like choosing a favourite child. Everything has its place.
Nathan – How did the Leben brand come up on your radar, and can you explain how you ended up stocking these lovely amps?
Neil/Paul – We saw the buzz about Leben online a few years back, and we sold it for the then importer. When the opportunity arose to acquire the agency, we took it up enthusiastically and haven’t looked back. Leben is a great brand, with amazing backup. Also, they don’t change their line up every five minutes to suit the flavour of the month. And of course, they are extremely good value for money!
Nathan – Do you think the audiophile industry is in robust health or is high-end audio for old cantankerous men on the wane?
Neil/Paul – It’s hard to say in a way. It’s probably like any other luxury goods industry. Fickle and subject to its ups and downs. We’re still here after 15 years or so though, so there is still a need for shops like us to exist. The problem is perception. Everyone listens to music, so the industry has to appeal to more than just cantankerous old men. Cantankerous old men tend to have the money to spend on this stuff though, so we love them.
Nathan – Everybody has been talking about the resurgence of vinyl over the last five years or so. Do you agree with this?
Neil/Paul – I think there has obviously been a resurgence, but from our point of view vinyl never disappeared anyway. It waned a bit, but the audiophiles out there always seemed to prefer it as a source. Also, of course, the collectability and tactile nature of it appeals to the hoarders and collectors out there, us included. The sheer number of reissues and represses reeks of a bit of opportunism from record companies, but I guess they are finding it tough to fund their new private jets in this day and age of downloading and streaming. There are the guys who love hi-res digital stuff, but vinyl always seems to trump it. Same with CDs. I think with the number of the things floating around out there, they won’t disappear in the foreseeable future either.
Nathan – What are you really passionate and specifically interested in with regards to audio gear?
Neil/Paul – We like things that sound good. Boutique brands from manufacturers and designers with integrity. Not mass-market stuff that exists to fill a temporary niche and fill a landfill. We like different sounds, small triodes and high efficiency but also big power and huge room-filling speakers. Essentially we trust our ears first and ignore the spiel for the most part. We try to do business with good people whose outlook is similar to our own.
Nathan – Which are your favourite brands and those you stock?
Neil/Paul – Leben is just one of the brands we love, also Shindo Laboratory, Modwright Instruments, DeVore Fidelity, Acoustic Plan, Auditorium 23, EMT. Obviously, many of these brands have a shared history and are seen together a lot. We have been lucky to find them and have them click with us. All of the people behind these brands are fantastic to deal with and have been so helpful whenever we have had any issues.