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Street jive
To foreigners, American slang is most peculiar and very slippery to fathom. Hot shit. Cool as shit. Which is it? Things used to be all manner of - um, things. Hip. Far out. Radical or rad for short. Awesome. Righteous. Foxy. Bitching. Bodacious. Bad. Bonza. Boss. Cah for cool as hell. Tight. Sick. Slick. So active. Amped. Banging.

In-between, the same things also rocked. Later they went phat. Today? Unless you or your kids partake in current street culture, who the heck knows. Whatever. I haven't, in a long long time, come across a hifi concept and much-needed life jacket for the industry as groovilicously kewl as Ken Ball's brand-new 32Ohm Audio emporium. He just opened it this month in one of Portland/Oregon's more eclectic shopping streets. As Wikipedia puts it, "the Hawthorne District is an area of Southeast Portland that runs along SE Hawthorne Blvd., particularly between 30th and 42nd Avenues. It is known for its young liberal residents and pedestrian-friendly high density mixed-used development. Historically, the district has been populated in part by gays and lesbians, Generation X and hippies and more recently, hipsters although many people who do not fit into stereotypical categories also reside in this area. The Hawthorne area has vintage homes and apartments and locally owned shops and restaurants."

In the winter, Portland is much like Belgium - cold and very rainy. People tend to hunker down, read books and listen to music. In Powells, the city has one of the nation's largest and funkiest independent book stores and resellers. Portland is also known for its thriving vinyl and CD music shopping scene. As Ball puts it, "the stage is definitely set. Portland is prime for this type of business."

On our side of the great divide, everyone and their peevy pet belabors the thinning ranks of people who are aware of and thus interested in performance audio. Meanwhile Apple sells iPods and iTunes files by the gazillions at a heady clip. Clearly, far more people are listening to more varied music than ever before in recorded history. But, they ain't doing it on audiophile kit. We insist they miss out half the fun. Unless the MP3 nation recognizes the limits of its consumption habit by way of deliberate culture shock exposure, they'll never aspire to a more fulfilling experience over superior hardware.

The solution is obvious. Embrace the iPod. Coddle it, stroke it. Give it the biggest baddest eargasm this side of the Big Bang. Set up a hip store that takes every walk-in iPod and jacks its owner into something that makes that little music carrier sound frigging bomb-diggity. But who is actually doing that?


Street culture
Now Ken Ball of ALO Audio has smacked down the purple glove. Bham! He's bringing audiophile culture to the streets. It's his new audio salon and headphone boutique nattily called 32Ohm Audio. This is how he explains the concept: "I am pretty sure this kind of audio shop is the first of its kind. The closest thing I know of is in NYC and that is more of a Japanese gadget store while we are focusing purely on audio. We also do things very differently than your typical audio shop. This is truly a family- and friends-run operation. I did not hire an audiophile to run my store. Instead I hired painter/artist and long-time friend Curtis Phillips whom I met back when I too was a painter. Curtis's sales at his galleries have slowed down due to the economy and he's been working with me for a while now in my 'cable factory' while still producing his paintings. So the whole approach is very different. We are focused on people's iPods, iPhones and computers as quality music sources.

"A vital ingredient for that is having a big selection of very good headphones and in-ear buds. Many of these headphones our customers can touch, feel the weight of and more importantly, listen to. In the age of, we believe and hope that people will support this local customer service approach. We also have a very unique selection of compact elegant solutions for home audio - small speakers, DACs, small amps and hand-made items like our wooden iPod docks.

"Our home section is still missing a few displays at the moment but we are building out our own component racks using Walnut, Bamboo and Beech. For these, we had our own brass hardware made [renderings below - Ed.]. Once we get rack production underway, we will almost have completed the store. This walk-in concept has always been a dream. The headphone-centric part was and remains a no-brainer. To be quite honest, I cannot believe that no one has done this before.

"Moreover, the fact that it's not been done was one of the main motivators to do it. The iPhone and iPod as music sources have permeated modern life to become ubiquitous. We see them as pocket music servers with internet radio, Pandora and the SomaFM iPhone app able to access your favorite music quickly both at home and on the go.

"Yet it astonishes me that very few people know how to get the most out of these wonderful devices. I see almost everyone using really horrible headphone and ear buds. What a crying shame. We must stop this rampant iPod abuse. Using these devices as quality sources in the home also is a huge hole that needs to be addressed. Enter 32Ohm Audio.

"I also believe that the future of high-end home audio could stand to be made healthier by having the younger population introduced to hifi over what they already own and love - their iPod or iPhone. We have very affordable amps and headphones that almost anyone can afford. For the crowd already into hifi, we still have a lot to offer too. I am amazed at people's reactions when they first walk into the store. It's almost a big Aha! moment. All in all, we really are just starting out and will continue to add vendors and unique items and continue to get the word out.

"Thus far some of the more favorable vendors are Grado, Ultrasone, SoundMAGIC (fantastic in-ear monitors), Audio Technica, Sennheiser, Westone, Maximo (fantastic affordable in-ear headphones), AKG, Monster and Audeze. These latter guys are good friends and their LCD2 planar headphones are amazing. I am going to carry their LCD2 as a dealer in solid numbers. I am also working to supply them with a headphone cable specifically built as an upgrade path for their LCD2. For our headphone wall, I flew Vinnie Rossi from Red Wine Audio to Portland to wire up my listening station. It now has six built-in iMods, Goldpoint stepped attenuator volume controls and Isabella headphone stages.

"We shall also carry some really cool lifestyle headphone brands like Eskuche, Koss and even Skullcandy who by they way tell me that they are going to release a whole line of higher-end headphones aimed at older folks. We'll see. Then we of course do Red Wine Audio (Vinnie's HPA with Wadia 12+ power supply option is just amazing), KingRex, the Pro-Ject Box, EarMax, the Chordette (a BluTooth 2 DAC from Chord), Omega Loudspeakers (I love these because I can pair them up with the MiniWatt which I am the Western US dealer for), Audioengine USA, Trends and Wadia.

"When I told my contacts at Monster Cable about the store, they flew their people out to meet with us, took us on on the town and really came up with tremendous support. I think they too get the mobile concept of personal audio, the idea of a store that focuses on personal/mobile audio. I have to say that after seeing their road map for personal audio products, I was pretty impressed. Sure some of the Head-fi crowd thumb their noses at Monster Cable but their in-ear phones are scarily good.

"One package product I'd like to popularize are the Omega Loudspeakers—any of them, we love the Super XRS 5s—with the MiniWatt you were the first to review (Derek tells me his headphone adapter is almost ready), our RCA cables and a new line of ALO speaker cables to our new wooden iPod dock. Vinnie helped make the PCB for this. To complete the set, we are preparing a mini component rack in our shop to match all this as soon as the machine shop is done with our hardware order. If $1250 for the Omega speakers are too rich, we would probably swap in some Audioengine USA PA Bamboo speaker which would also match our Bamboo docks. Of course we always promote the Red Wine Audio amp and their HPA/DAC with the Wadia dock running off the clean battery power in the HPA coupled with some Omega speakers. That would be the way to go for a small compact really good system.

"We also just released our new portable headphone amp, the ALO Rx Prescription, which sold out in one week. I hooked up with Matt MacBeth of GR9 Technologies, a brilliant EE industry veteran who most recently worked on Klipsch's iPod accessories and the Image X5 headphone. We designed the amp to be the sonic front runner of all portable amplifiers while maintaining an affordable price. Our next product will pair up with it using an identical enclosure. Also running off a Li-Ion battery, this new device will take the digital signal off the iPod into its own high-performance DAC and output analog into the Rx. This is poised to redefine the landscape of portable audio as we know it. My partner is very bright and has been working with Apple on this for quite some time; this product will feature 'Works with iPhone' approval. We are also working on a balanced version of the Rx using a 4-pole mini plug, as well as a 24-bit/ 96kHz USB DAC. These industry firsts will add a new dimension to portable audio! I also hope to be making replaceable IEM cables in single-ended and balanced configurations."

In recognition of how important I think Ken Ball's store concept is, I will shortly begin a whole series of hardware reviews grouped together under the header 32Ohm Audio - anything to do with headphones and portable audio, with a link back to this article. I will also acquire an iPod and suitable Wadia/Onkyo-type dock with S/PDIF output to use as source for those occasions. It's high time to get into the act. Learning about 32Ohm Audio really drove it home. Hats off to the Portland crew. And, best wishes for both fun and sufficient fortunes to make it all work out as it should!

After all, Ken's daughter Lola is the future generation of music appreciators. She deserves to enjoy both convenience and superior quality. In the big picture, it's the small element of demanding audiophiles who help drive up the status quo of what's considered good audio. We simply can't impose what we grew up with —vinyl, tape, CD—and how we consumed it—in the basement sweet spot—if we want to pass the torch.

We can't effectively approach change just from the outside. We must work on the inside, with the tools we claim need much improving - streaming audio, plug'n'play devices that move from the hip belt to the car to the desk top to the living room system. And we must definitely include headphones. To that end, I'll be reviewing a number of those to kick off my new 32Ohm Audio series. Gotta start somewhere...