Road Tour: Fi, In Memoriam Don Garber (1935 - 2017)

[This tour was originally published to my off-the-radar blog, Twittering Machines, November 13, 2010, Ed.]
Did you ever wonder what the inside of a Fi looks like? Between the sheets, so to speak? I'm not talking about capacitor types and signal path lengths, I'm talking about seeing past the parts into the heart and soul of the beast to have a look at what makes it tick. I had the good fortune along with Stephen Mejias, John DeVore and Nori Komuro to be invited over to Don Garber's place to hear a new amplifier he's working on and have a look in and around the place called Fi.

If you know the hi-fi products that Don Garber makes or if you've seen any of his ads from Sound Practices or if you are fortunate enough to own something made by Don, you'll know he has an eye and attention for design. In general, I'd call it a distillation where the working process appears to be about removing the unnecessary rather than adding the superfluous. You won't find any adornment for adornments sake on a product from Fi. What you will find is to my eyes some of the most exquisitely designed and cared for hi-fi products you can buy.

Fi 46 'test mule', photo: Don Garber

The Fi that occasioned this event is the new Fi 46 monoblocks. "The project began as a continuing experiment with different possibilities for the 2A3 circuit—power supply options, an even lower operating point, different transformers, etc.— but a chance encounter with Gerry E. led to experimentation with the 46."

Based on the circuit from the Fi 45 with a newly designed power supply, as the name suggests the 45 has been replaced by the 46. The 46 is a directly-heated, double-grid power amplifier tube produced from the 1930s through the '40s. Here's a description from December 1932 in Popular Mechanics: "It has great power output at relatively low plate voltage and is also capable of full volume range without overloading, or "blasting." It has excellent fidelity at high volume and allows tone compensation in speaker circuits. For multiple-speaker installations, the C-46 is ideal. "Originally a multi-purpose tube, Grids 1 and 2 were connected together for use as push-pull Class B outputs, Grid 2 and the plate were connected together for use as a single-tube driver. Don mentioned a common implementation saw a single 46 driving a pair of itself which made tube replacement a single tube-type snap. Here, Don is using one 46 per side in single-ended triode mode for roughly 2 Watts of output power.

Don Garber's sketch of the Fi 46

While the final design has not been completed, from Don's description the finished Fi 46s will resemble the stacked layout of the Fi 2b preamp.

The idea for this amplifier and for trying the 46 tube came about from the experimentation and experiences of Gerry E. For those who are familiar with my Road Tours for 6moons, Gerry E was Exit 14 and his system included a lovely integrated amplifier designed and built by James Burgess based on the 45 power tube. Gerry started experimenting with the 46 tube back in late 2008 and he first posted about his experiences on the SET Asylum of Audio Asylum in March of 2009: "I like 46s better than any 45, current production or vintage old stock. This includes EML solid plate, TJ "mesh-plate", Raytheon globe box-plate ER-245, Silvertone 45A, etc. Matter of fact, I have sold all of those and kept only several pairs of ST-shape 46s."

At some point Don, intrigued by what Gerry was saying about the 46, picked up a few pair and started building. And here's his comment to Gerry "…the 46 has sort of stopped me in my tracks. And I've hardly begun to listen to them." And here's something from Don in the initial email setting up this event, "The 45 sounded really good, but lately there's been another tube in it that I think approaches being spectacular. A little more forward, detailed and downright lush. It's this last that's really got me." This was back in August of this year and we finally got around to hanging around and listening the other night.

I live the lush life.

Then you came along with your siren of song
To tempt me to madness
Listening to music in Don Garber's home is a feast for all of the senses. Everywhere you look—up, down, left, right, around and behind, there's something fascinating. Something you want to explore, something you want to get to know better. This town home was built in the 1850s, Don moved in in 1969 and within minutes of arriving you feel enveloped by a warmth that comes from a home well-lived-in and lived in well.

We listened to hours of music. Don played us a track from Sacrificium: The Art of the Castrati [Decca 478 1521] featuring Cecilia Bartoli all over Geminiano Giacomelli's "Sposa, non mi conosci" ("she sounds like a theremin" said Don and we all agreed) and later on the wonderful (and new to me) Wanda Jackson from Lovin' Country Style who sounded like so many other wonderful country singers only better. Stephen brought and played a side from what sounds exactly like a record I must own – For the Ghosts Within on Domino featuring Robert Wyatt, Gilad Atzmon and Ros Stephen. We filled in the rest with some great blues, folk music, I'm Gonna Live Anyhow Until I Die one of the wonderful Alan Lomax LPs from Mississippi Records (every track is simply stunning), Norwegian folk songs with improvised church organ accompaniment and more.

We also ate, drank and conversed about many things, mostly music, some talk of hi-fi and vacuum tubes, art, Eames, Komuro's forthcoming Type 50 amplifier (stay tuned) all accompanied by lots of laughter. Don is a wonderful and gracious host with a keen eye and ear for cracks in the veneer of pretense. I think one of his least favorite words is "favorite".

I tend to agree with and appreciate this distinction so I won't say the new Fi 46 monoblocks are my favorite Fi amplifier. Are they better than the 2A3, 45, 300B, or 421A? I'd suggest that depends on many things including your speakers and your tastes but I will say they sound different yet they sound like Fi.

One other bit of what is to me some great hi-fi news – the Fi X4 which utilzes the 46 is in production and available right now ($995 w/Hammond 125E outputs or $1395 with Magnequest DS050). If you think about the cost of NOS 46 tubes (I will let you figure that one out) as compared to 45s and 2A3s and have been considering a Fi X 2A3 or 45, you may want to re-consider and consider the 46 instead. I know I would.

The system we listened through consisted of the Fi 2b full function preamplifier, a Garrard 301 (formerly owned by Julius Futterman) fitted with an SME 3012 tonearm and Denon DL-103 cartridge, some CD player or other, and the speakers were a four-way, two-pair Fi open baffle meets Cain & Cain Abby nearfield version. I suppose you could say it has dual mid-range drivers with one pair run full-range. A three and a full way. Cables were very thin.

I'd like to leave you with images instead of descriptions and thank Don Garber for letting us have a look inside.

Nara's picture

Michael, you might be amused to know that I dropped in the morning after this get-together just to say hello to my father and, to my surprise, found no morning newspaper on the table (he had usually read the New York Times in its entirety by 9am) and instead an abundance of pizza boxes and empty bottles. I was impressed (but not altogether surprised) that he evidently led a rowdier life at 75 than I did at 40! It was only years later that I read your and Stephen Mejias' articles and had a context for what I stumbled upon. Thank you for capturing his warmth and spirit.

Alex Halberstadt's picture

I have such warm memories of that carriage house overlooking Cobble Hill Park. The most striking thing about the place was the grace and care that Don imbued it with. His paintings, his audio, and his travels were all around it, assembled with as much style as his amplifiers.

I happily owned one of Don's amps for some years and then, during a long spell of being broke, I sold it. It was the X-shaped 300B amp, and I had no idea how to pack it, and because Don lived down the street I walked over to have him do it. He was in his garage, puttering with something. I was feeling ashamed about having to sell a piece of his beautiful work, but Don just smiled. "Of course you had to sell it," he said. "Happens to me all the time. Don't give it another thought."

I will miss him.

grantray's picture

I spent the last month emailing Don, trying to sweet talk him out of that oak based 2A3 amp you shot, which had 45 tubes installed back you fellas had your night of serious drinking. Don spent the last month emailing me about wanting to blow up Apple for making his phone a clunker. He was the best kind of cantankerous.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Thank you for your comment. That was a wonderful evening, one of many fond memories I'll carry with me.
DeFgibbon's picture

and a million years ago. Thanks for refreshing this wonderful memory Michael.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Beautiful memories. I'm so happy to have been a part of this evening.

kenmac's picture

Golden glow all around.

TNjazz's picture

Early 90's was working at 100 Sixth Ave and a small shop called fi opened up on Watts right across the street below my office window. Already listening to entry level audio like Vandersteen, Aragon, Roksan, etc., and intrigued by the store but for some reason never stopped in. Not sure if it was because it seemed so different from what an audio store was "supposed" to look like or scared off by the odd looking tube gear in the window. Years later, long after I had moved on from that lower Manhattan job and began to read about fi and realized how cool his gear was. Your lovely article made me feel I missed an opportunity to meet a fascinating person. Thanks Michael