One Man’s Quest to Build the Best Stereo System in the World

To make Fitz­car­ral­do, a movie about a rub­ber baron who drags a steamship over a hill in the Peru­vian jun­gle, Wern­er Her­zog famous­ly arranged the actu­al drag­ging of an actu­al steamship over an actu­al hill in the actu­al Peru­vian jun­gle. This endeav­or ran into all the com­pli­ca­tions you’d expect and then some. But the rea­son­able ques­tion of whether it would­n’t be wis­er to cut his loss­es and head back to civ­i­liza­tion prompt­ed Her­zog to make an artis­ti­cal­ly defin­ing state­ment: “If I aban­don this project, I would be a man with­out dreams and I don’t want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life, with this project.”

Ken Fritz is a man with dreams, and the doc­u­men­tary above con­cerns one he pur­sued for near­ly 30 years: that of build­ing “the best stereo sys­tem in the world.” He set about real­iz­ing this dream in suc­cess­ful mid­dle age, the time of life when the thoughts of no few men, he acknowl­edges, turn to audio­phil­ia. But in Fritz’s case, the dri­ve that made him a busi­ness suc­cess in the first place fixed his sights per­ma­nent­ly on some­thing more than a hi-fi fit for a man cave. Indeed, it entailed build­ing some­thing down­right cav­ernous, a ver­i­ta­ble con­cert hall of an addi­tion to his house scaled to accom­mo­date cus­tom-made speak­er tow­ers and designed for the opti­mal dis­per­sion of sound with a min­i­mum of inter­fer­ence.

Much of Fritz’s sys­tem is cus­tom-made, most elab­o­rate­ly notably its three-armed, 1,500-pound “Franken­stein turntable.” How much did it cost asks his son Scott? “I’ve seen turnta­bles that sell for $100,00, $120,000, and they’re nowhere near as com­pli­cat­ed and as involved as this,” he says. (Fritz now esti­mates that he has spent north of $1 mil­lion on his rig.) But to the true audio­phile, every invest­ment is worth it, whether of mon­ey, time, or effort. For “once it’s built, if you don’t like it, if does­n’t work, you’re stuck with it. You just lie to your­self: ‘It sounds good.’ ” Fritz’s music room stands as a tes­ta­ment to his deter­mi­na­tion not to lie to him­self — as well as to his love of music and will to give that love a con­crete form.

“I just can­not go day after day with­out accom­plish­ing some­thing,” Fritz says. “They say that when you’re retired, you should­n’t have to do any­thing. I don’t buy that at all. For­tu­nate­ly, all my goals have been ful­filled. I’ve built every­thing I’ve want­ed to build.” This includes all his music room’s shelves and cab­i­nets, each per­fect­ly pro­por­tioned to the com­po­nent it con­tains. And though a diag­no­sis of amy­otroph­ic lat­er­al scle­ro­sis has brought Fritz’s wood­work­ing days to an end, it has­n’t put him off the notion that “if the mind does­n’t keep the body going, and the body does­n’t ful­fill the thoughts that a man has, he becomes sense­less. He might as well just pack it up.” Few of us will ever know the kind of sat­is­fac­tion he must feel lis­ten­ing to Swan Lake, his favorite work of clas­si­cal music, on the sound sys­tem that could fair­ly be called his life’s work. But many of us will won­der: how must “Dea­con Blues” sound on it?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch “Hi-Fi-Fo-Fum,” a Short Satir­i­cal Film About the Inven­tion of the Audio­phile (1959)

An 82-Year-Old Japan­ese Audio­phile Search­es for the Best Sound by Installing His Own Elec­tric Util­i­ty Pole in His Yard

Jimi Hendrix’s Home Audio Sys­tem & Record Col­lec­tion Gets Recre­at­ed in His Lon­don Flat

How the Grate­ful Dead’s “Wall of Sound” – a Mon­ster, 600-Speak­er Sound Sys­tem – Changed Rock Con­certs & Live Music For­ev­er

How Steely Dan Wrote “Dea­con Blues,” the Song Audio­philes Use to Test High-End Stere­os

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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