Secret Societies of the Audiophile

During my several lifetimes on earth, I have belonged to a succession of secret societies.

I was initiated to my first in a wood-planks and sod-covered hole dug in the ground behind an abandoned car in a weedy gravel lot in Chicago. It was a boys-only club, but the founder-president was a tomboy: a nine-year-old girl named Lucie who carried a cloth bag filled with Crayolas and severed Barbie-heads (most with their hair chopped off). Our sworn purpose was to defend ourselves against the mean Irish boys across the street. We specialized in voodoo dolls, rock-throwing, and slanderous graffiti. Our underground clubhouse was a sacred temple dedicated to courage and defiance.

Club 131 When I came to New York City, my first job was at a social club in Little Italy. The only rules were unspoken: never use anyone’s real name and never ask any questions. I was called “Love Bug.”

After that I began doing construction, I fell naturally into a crime-based company with no official name or address. The big boss was affectionately called “Gee-hov-ah” because he was invisible, imposed strict commandments and every Friday bestowed blessings in the form of green manna. God’s front man was called “Howard – The Master of Disaster;” his foreman was a former builder of German warships named Paul (not his real name); we called Paul “The Hun” because he was an unreformed Nazi. Paul’s right-hand man was a certified killer called Frankie, “The Young Godzilla.” Paul called us all “flesh mit eyes.” “The Hun’s Son” was an electrician who wore dresses to work. I was “Boss of All Pipes.” In order to maintain the highest levels of craftsmanship the Hun maintained what he called “The Reign of Terror” whereupon every Friday he fired three workers. One Monday, while the Hun was chasing me down the street with a hatchet - I decided to quit.

New York Triode Mafia

After Little Italy and The Reign of Terror, I got drafted into an obscure audio society called the New York Triode Mafia. Membership in that club changed the direction of my life. This so-called mafia was a poor-but-happy sewing-circle of tube-amp constructors that gathered for meetings in the basement of Don Garber’s outlier audio store called “fi” – located at 30-Watt Street in SoHo. Fi specialized in selling vintage and hand-crafted amplifiers and like it said in its Sound Practices ad, “…loudspeakers, lollipops, and Yoshinos.”

Fi’s basement had damp dirt floors, and several thick wood benches with vises and drill-presses, where Don Garber, Noriyasu Komuro, and Jean Christophe “JC” Morrison, soldered the “hand-crafted” amplifiers that Fi sold.

The Triode Mafia’s activities promoted an alternative point of view: one where simplicity, naturalness, and vivid presence were valued above all other high-fidelity traits. Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio and Tim de Paravicini of EAR Audio fame joined our little group in championing new types of hi-fi systems featuring high-efficiency speakers and forgotten glass bottles in enlightened new circuits. This was 1993.

Membership in the Triode Mafia allowed me to join yet another underground society. This one was called “The Smokey Basement Club.” It was a purest-only DIY audio group that was more secret than the Italian social club. It gathered in a dusty, musty rodent-infused basement at the end of a long trash-piled alley in Chinatown. Members mumbled a password to enter through a grey metal door.

Like Fi, Smokey-basement people made smartly-crafted tube amplifiers and played them through high-sensitivity DIY speakers. This Chinatown club met six times a year and you were not admitted to a meeting if you were not carrying some form of home-made audio device. The members were mostly Asian – and mostly heavy smokers. The use of Saki, beer, and aged whisky was encouraged.


The secret society I belong to now is called ETF after the name of its annual meeting: the European Triode Festival. Charter ETF members include amp-builders associated with Sound Practices magazine and the New York Triode Mafia. Sound Practices founder-editor Joe Roberts is ETF’s unofficial figurehead.

ETF was inspired by the legendary DIY amp-builder’s festival called (New York) nyNoise – which was started by Triode Mafia members Gioachino “Blackie” Pagano and the aforementioned JC Morrison. New York Noise convened annually (1999-2002), drew triode-amp enthusiasts from around the globe and featured a cadre of brainiac women like Fran Blanche, Miho, and the Firecracker. At NY Noise, members demonstrated unconventional home-built amplifiers of all types. Radical experimentation was the norm: just like ETF today.

Membership in ETF is not open to the public. Membership and attendance at ETF’s annual meeting are by invite only. To become an associate member one must be sponsored by at least two “Elders.” Membership in the ETF cult is limited to about 100 – non or semi-professional – audio engineering folk; all of whom must make audio stuff from scratch and be willing to share their expertise with the group.

Each November, invited members travel with their inventions to live communally, sequestered in a compound, located in some remote region in Europe. They do this for four days and three nights, while participating in amp-shootouts, lectures, demonstrations and recording sessions. All food and drink (except alcohol) are covered in the attendance fee.


DeFgibbon's picture

Thank you Herb.

you are right not me's picture

Searching for good words to express my sincere appreciation for your writing. This will have to do.

Wilderness's picture

Herb, you're the GOAT of writing about audio. Every time I read anything by you from now on, it will be with the understanding that you really have the chops to know what you are writing about on a level few if anyone else will ever reach. Who else could have such an impressive background?

I decided last night that I will listen to some better speakers and amplifiers this spring or summer. I have been putting together a library of music the past several years and while my audio system sounds okay, I know I could get better sound. Your magnificent story seals it: I will listen to a tube amp for the first time in my life. I look forward to hearing the magic, and when I do I will remember this story. Thank you.

Ortofan's picture

... "vices" in the basement of Fi - or did you mean vises?

rt66indierock's picture

The only audio society we need is what John Atkinson calls the "We oppose MQA fraternity" otherwise known as The Fraternity.

John G's picture

I'm so jealous of this experience, and so enjoyed reading about it. Not sure anyone else would believe there's such a thing as the "European Triode Society, nor am I sure that I believe it. But I want to...