Tone of Music Audio, Boppin’ On Castro Street

Last Wednesday was my birthday, and Becky, and I went over to San Francisco for lunch at Colibri Mexican Bistro. It’s one of my favorite Mexican restaurants, but of course, you can guess that. After all, why would I pick a place for a birthday lunch that I didn’t like?

Anyway, after lunch, we went over to 1033 Castro Street to visit with Tim Nguyen, the owner of Tone of Music Audio (TOMA). With the Castro Street address, the location was a surprise to us. We hadn’t realized that it is in the Noe Valley neighborhood surrounded by small shops and has a real neighborhood feel that’s hard to find these days. In fact, the minute I walked into the store I felt like I had entered my past. In so many ways Tim’s store reminded me of Hillcrest High Fidelity in Dallas, Texas. It was my favorite audio hangout when I was in college. The layout of the store, the community, and the fact that the customer in the store when I arrived was young all took me mentally back in time.

Another thing that took me back in time is that Tim’s passion for music reminds me of my own. He says he has loved music as long as he can remember. As a teen, he started to save up to buy and modify vintage hi-fi gear. His first job was working at an engineering firm building laboratory equipment, which gave him access to all of the tools so he could tinker and do interesting projects. Listening to Tim, his impressive knowledge of vinyl recordings, both past and present, makes it obvious that he likes all types of music.

About the Store
As you enter the store, the first room is full of entry-level products like AudioEngine, Music Hall, Rega, and others. He also carries a full range of turntables from Music Hall, Rega, Well Tempered, and Brinkmann. In fact, one of the things I noticed was that overall Tim carries a good range of inventory, which is unusual for smaller, high-end neighborhood stores. Never mind the inventory, it’s rare to have neighborhood audio stores these days. Today, most of these stores are in the dealer’s home, and there are pluses and minuses to this, but they never have this much inventory. Tim’s house is a couple of blocks from the store, and he told us he often gets some guys from the neighborhood together to listen to music after hours. In fact, he has a leather chaise lounge in the middle room of the store just for late night listening.

Tim and I got to talking about his customers and what they buy. He says that he’s noticed that speakers are an initial buy for someone who wants to put together a high-end system. So, it’s no surprise that he carries many wonderful speakers from names like Focal, Harbeth, Magico, Quad, Spendor and others. The system we listened to was Line Magnetic mono-blocks driving a beautiful looking and sounding pair of DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96 speakers.

The source was the Brinkmann turntable with an EMT tonearm and cartridge. We also listened to some digital music though the wonderful sounding Wavelength Crimson Modular Battery Power DAC that uses Directly Heated Output tubes! The sound from either source was beautiful, but it was equally wonderful talking to Tim about the tunes as we were listening.

Becky asked Tim about how his customers get started in the audio hobby. Tim quickly moved the conversation to a passion for music. Many of his customers work in Silicon Valley, and he says they start with an entry-level system and then as they discover the pleasure a good system can bring to enjoying music they start to upgrade. We got into an interesting discussion about the price of a first-rate, high-end system. I pointed out  that when I was in college, I owned a Dodge Dart and Quad 57s, Quad tube amps, an Audio Research SP3, a big Sony direct drive turntable with an SME tonearm and a Decca London cartridge. My system cost a little more than my car, and that has been true ever since. Tim says that putting money into a sound system is all about a passion for music. We all  agreed that most people aren’t wired that way.

While we were having this dicussion, an older customer who lives in the neighborhood came by to visit with Tim and listen to some tunes. Meeting him turned out to be a real privilege for both Becky and me as he had spent most of his life as a record producer for Verve during the glory years of jazz and had some great stories to tell. There is nothing much more fun for me than hearing a good storyteller talk about music. And, maybe the most wonderful thing about a neighborhood dealership is that people just drop in to visit.

If you live in the Bay Area, or if you’re are planning a trip to San Francisco, you should give Tim a call and go by and see all the gear in the store. You’ll meet a fellow music lover who is not a high pressure sales person. If you’re not in the area, I want to encourage you to take a look at Tone of Music’s website and see the products they carry. Tim is an old-time, full-service dealer. He will help you find the equipment and setup that’s best for you. I found it quite reassuring to know that there is still at least one high-end audio dealer who is part of a neighborhood and makes friends with his customers.