Out of left field
First there was the Sonic Impact T-amp. Then came the Red Wine Audio Clari-T. Sonic Impact retaliated with the Super T amp. Now Red Wine resets the charts with the Signature 30. Does this have the makings of a teenage super hero slug fest? Spidey nails Wolverine? Alien vs. Predator? Not. It simply acknowledges that getting good performance for less is at an all-time high right now.

This isn't peculiar to amplifiers either. It does, however, mean that the associated sales model is often exclusively direct. From that follows no reviews - in print magazines whose policies stipulate a minimum number of formal retailers. To fill the resultant hole, owner commentary on chat rooms like Audio Circle becomes the primary means whereby prospective buyers interact with current owners and the designer.

This scenario is sometimes called the audio underground. It's a meeting ground of DIYers and turnkey hobbyists and the makers who -- due to their own small size and/or preference -- have chosen to sidestep the traditional sales model of dealers and print reviews. The word underground -- especially during times of war when it refers to active resistance -- carries with it danger, excitement and relative invisibility. However, the commercial underground is readily found and penetrated. All you need is Internet access. Still, the element of excitement does translate from the other meaning. It's here where makers interact directly and exclusively with the end users rather than dealer middlemen. This keeps their finger on the pulse of what people want, directly. Response times can be much faster than when dealing with a solid and established dealer network. That entails higher numbers, larger parts commitments and higher resistance all around, to rapid changes that could condemn existing inventories as outdated on both sides of the fence.

Anyone who doubts this underground phenomenon -- consumer interest, maker responses and the snowballing of enthusiastic dialogue into actual product -- need merely monitor the by now legendary Gravity Well of a Dark Star thread on Audio Circle's Red Wine Audio forum. It clocks 60,000+ views and 900 responses by now. It all started when a Clari-T owner began to experiment with a Visaton driver in an open baffle. The current outcome is that Red Wine boss Vinnie Rossi has formally commissioned former collaborator Louis Chochos of Omega Loudspeakers to build him the necessary open-baffle-with-wings structure to hear for himself what certain of his amp owners are raving about.

It's quite possible that Louis will soon go into formal production on finely veneered, professionally flat-packed OB (open baffle) non-cabinets where a non-DIY owner would merely have to connect the wings to the predrilled baffle and drop the driver into a perfectly recessed and predrilled cut-out. Moon man Michael Lavorgna is scheduled to visit with Vinnie on the next installment of his popular RoadTour column and hear the Clari-T or Signature 30 on the Dark Star open baffle speaker. If his listener response is at all akin to my personal confirmation of the Sig 30's first owner commentary, we could be seeing the initial swell of the next underground phenomenon.

Mainstream manufacturers who decry the apparent lack of interest in their products might learn a useful lesson from the youthful vino rosso. Going direct, monitoring and answering his own chat room, responding quickly to on-line feedback and suggestions and, first and foremost, keeping his wares as value-priced as possible, he's busy as beaver without a solitary dealer or mainstream reviews. Naturally, he isn't the only one in this field. Not even close. But having recently made the acquaintance of his newest amp, he's the one that stands out today as someone the industry might do well to emulate.

He's also been very proactive to work with publications such as our own to create visibility for his wares. Not all manufacturers return e-mails -- either promptly or ever -- and of those who do, not all are willing to make review loaners available without unacceptable conditions attached (such as personal delivery, delivery restricted to certain areas or using the test loaner only with specific ancillaries). In fact, it's not uncommon to have to answer reader inquiries about "how come you've never reviewed The Red-Hot Second Coming" with "they've never even asked us yet to review anything of theirs". Until 6moons opens a psychic hot line, it's best to contact us the old-fashioned way - by phone or e-mail.

In conclusion for today, make no mistake - the so-called audio underground is where a lot of the exciting stuff goes down. We love to report on it to the best of our ability if and when we're invited or find out about it vicariously. Yet our readers and 'philes in the market needn't even wait for an invitation. Crash the party by logging onto the individual manufacturers' circles on Audio Asylum and Audio Circle. Just because something isn't reviewed in print or carried by your local audio dealer doesn't mean it's not legit, desirable or couldn't be just the thing you've been looking for. If and when you find out about something that has all the earmarkings of deserving a larger audience, let your favorite mags know. As the underground so clearly shows, nothing need be a one-way street these days. In fact, the days of the white-suited omniscient doctors who don't brook questions or criticisms are over. There's open dialogue between makers and owners and reviewers. And I'm not talking about the public grilling and name calling on certain forums. I'm talking about civilized interactions conducted in a spirit of mutual respect and open sharing that have everyone walking away enriched.

Perhaps the best thing about the underground is its "pre-commercial" spirit of enthusiasm and passion. Naturally, its manufacturing participants need to make a profit to stay in business. Perhaps by virtue of being small enough to avoid getting bogged down by insane monthly liabilities; perhaps by being new enough still - there's a lot of bi-directional juice being exchanged here that seems to have quite a different flavor than the jaded, cynical and weary attitudes encountered elsewhere. So consider this your personal invitation -- or reminder -- to descend into the underground and check out its latest players and offerings...