Stereophile, Introducing Audio Element of Pasadena
Original Article Posted 11.7.13
The long-anticipated opening of Brian Berdan’s high-performance audio store, Audio Element, took place on November 1 and 2 in Pasadena, CA. The store’s prime location in the heart of Pasadena’s retail- and restaurant-rich Oldtown helped sweeten the unveiling of America’s newest high-end emporium.
Signaling the start of a new era for high-end dealerships in Southern California, Friday night’s catered “soft” opening for existing clients and Saturday’s six-hour public open house were attended by enough major manufacturers, designers and distributors to have made possible a mini-audio show. On Friday night, for example, I discovered Berdan (left) speaking with Tom Bierry (right), former General Manager at Warner Bros, who now runs an independent label that is signing with Sony Red. Among Saturday’s visitors were Manley Labs’ EveAnna Manley, her mastering engineer husband Dave Collins, and T.H.E. Show head honcho Richard Beers.
Posing for a Saturday morning photograph, Jerron Marchant (Wilson Audio), Joe Wessling (Musical Surroundings, distributor of Musical Surroundings, Clearaudio, Fosgate, Aesthetix, AMG turntables, and Graham tonearms), David Carr (The Sound Organization, distributors of Rega and Quadraspire), Luke Manley (VTL Amplifiers), Raveen Bawa and John Quick (dCS), Jesse Luna (Sumiko, distributors of Sumiko, Sonus faber, Pro-Ject, and REL), Alex Brinkman (Ayre), and Jim White (designer of Aesthetix), joined Berdan and Matthew Payne of Audio Element in taking a deep breath before the day got underway. Absent from the shot, but arriving in time to greet visitors at the unstructured open house was Brian Von Bork (Cardas). Had representatives from Burmester, Transparent, Grado, and Grand Prix Audio been available, all of the store’s brands would have been represented.
Brian Berdan, 34, son of legendary audio retailer Brooks Berdan, has been surrounded by audio for virtually his entire life. During the three years preceding his father’s death in July 2011, when Brian ran Brooks Berdan Ltd. in nearby Monrovia, it became clear that he needed to eventually step out on his own.
“I always had more modern ideas,” Brian told Stereophile during Friday’s evening libations. “While I adhere to my father’s core values—I’m not in this to gouge people—my dad was more of a technical guy, while I’m more of a feeling person. I’ve taken my toys and my sandbox and moved to Pasadena.
“I feel I can sense what a client needs and what can work for them. I watch their body posture when they listen to music, and know what they like and what they don’t like. Then I introduce them to products in stages, as one would offer different kinds of wines, in order to guide them to audio bliss. It’s about the journey, and I’m here to help people enjoy it.”
Brian is especially proud of the fact that he once played Heifetz recordings to a man who knew the great violinist, and managed to bring the potential client to tears. “While I remain a vinyl-head—vinyl remains at the core of the sound I try to produce—it’s somewhat of a romantic attachment,” he acknowledges. “The truth is, digital has gotten so good that I’ve grown to really like it as well.”
At the store’s entrance, Brian and Matthew have positioned “less intimidating, more approachable electronics that people off the street can associate with.” On the left (above), you immediately discover a relatively compact system that mates Rega’s Elicit-R amplifier, Aria phono stage, and RP-8 turntable with the Sonus Faber Venere 2.5 loudspeakers that Kal Rubinson praised in the November issue. I was amazed at the solidity of the bass, as well as how pleasing the overall presentation sounded. Beyond this system was positioned a turntable bar with Clearaudio Performance DC, Pro-Ject Classic, and AMG tables.
At entrance right, I encountered Grado and Pro-Ject headphone displays, allied to a small listening area fronted by Pro-Ject’s Stereo Box, Head Box S, Stream Box DS, Phono Box, Debut Carbon and Essential turntables, and Sonus Faber Venere 2.0 loudspeakers. Next came a wall and bins filled with luscious vinyl, fronted by a listening area that included the dCS Puccini CD/SACD player/U-Clock combo; Aesthetix’s Calypso preamp, Rhea phono stage, and Atlas amplifier; Cardas Clear and Clear Beyond cabling; and Wilson Audio Sasha loudspeakers.
After three more Rega tables, Grand Prix Audio Woodcote and Le Mans racks, a Clearaudio Matrix record cleaning machine, and Wilson Audio Sophia 3 and new Sonus faber Olympica II loudspeakers, I discovered the “Living Room Experience.” Facing a couch array, beneath a video screen whose images were absurdly mismatched with the music played, rested a laptop and Pro-Ject Extension 10 with Blackbird cartridge supplying Ayre’s QB-9 DAC, KX-R20 prototype preamp, and VX-5 amp; VTL’s TP 2.5; and Sonus Faber Elipsa SE loudspeakers, all connected by Cardas Clear cabling.
Given that the system was truly up against the wall, I was amazed at its fabulous spaciousness. I experienced no sense of limitation. Alex Brinkman attributes this in part to Ayre’s 20th Anniversary KX-R20 preamp’s Diamond Output Stage. Expect to hear more about this shiny wonder in our CES 2014 show report, which will appear right after the first units ship.
The Glories of the Inner Sanctum
All this lusciousness led to the beveled glass door that opened, not to Oz, but rather to Audio Element’s main, purpose-built listening room. Brian designed the room’s 9.8 foot ceiling and 16 x 20 floor plan to get as close to the Fibonnaci sequence/Golden Ratio as the suspended wood flooring in the rear of the 100-year old historic building would allow. As attested by the room’s exceptional sound, Brian is a system set-up specialist whom dCS has flown to the UK several times. Most recently, on October 17, he worked on both a factory system set-up for dCS and a dry run for a potential event at the Royal College of Music. This caps seven years of helping manufacturers set up shows, as well as aiding in product development, voicing and evaluation.
One unique feature of the room is the sliding wood door on the far side that, when opened, noticeably increases soundstage air and depth. We who lament that our rooms are asymmetrical, with openings on one side, may discover that the openings actually work to our ultimate benefit.
It’s a shame that the mere mention of this room’s equipment may cause some readers to complain that Stereophile pays too much attention to the high-priced spread, and cancel their subscriptions to this free site. To such folks I say, get a grip. If you found yourself flown to Southern California with plenty of time to enjoy track after track in a superbly designed room that included dCS’s state-of-the-art Vivaldi transport, DAC, upsampler, and clock stacked on an eye-catching Grand Prix Audio Silverstone rack, and a separate dCS Paganini system (wired with AudioQuest cabling) on a Grand Prix Monaco Modular rack; Grand Prix Audio Monaco turntable with Tri-Planar tonearm and Lyra Skala cartridge; VTL’s TL 7.5 and TP 6.5 preamps and mighty Siegfried monoblocks; Wilson Audio Alexia and Sonus Faber Amati Futura loudspeakers; and lots of Transparent Opus and Cardas Clear cabling, would you spend your afternoon listening to the excellent lower-priced components, or settle into the inner sanctum’s comfortable couch and indulge?
You know what I did. Cellist Antonio Lysy playing Piazzolla, Peter Gabriel sanctifying “Mercy Street,” Shelby Lynne doing a little lovin’, Paul Simon dancing on 25th anniversary diamonds in 24/96, Dead Can Dance sounding fabulous as MoFi vinyl sent them into the labyrinth, Satchmo dreaming a little dream in 24/192, Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony on vinyl, Sarah Vaughn sending in the clowns in Red Book… it went on and on. Along the way, we experimented with the settings on the Siegfried, and confirmed that the Vivaldi’s DXD upsampling option surpasses its DSD upsampling in soundstage air and depth. But mostly, we grooved to the music.
Welcome to the fold, Audio Element. You and Brian are poised to make a lot of music lovers very, very happy.