In the Neighborhood: Tone of Music Audio

by Dennis Davis | April 7, 2017

s Internet sales gobbled up chunks of the retail market for audio equipment over the last 15 years, audiophiles have lamented the demise of quality brick-and-mortar audio dealers. In the San Francisco Bay Area, however, someone forgot to tell the dealers, because it seems that there has never been more of them who are also truly dedicated audiophiles.

A case in point is Tone of Music Audio (TOMA), Tim Nguyen’s little jewel box of a dealership in the heart San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood. Noe Valley is an affluent area of young professionals; the sidewalks in this neighborhood seem to have the highest concentration of baby prams of any in San Francisco.

The key to the survival of two-channel audio is passing the same passion for listening to music at home that seemed second nature to Baby Boomers on to Millennials and Generation Xers, and TOMA is well situated for this purpose. San Francisco is a fairly sophisticated music town, and denizens of Noe Valley combine that musical hipness with the financial means to enjoy it in style.

On April Fools' Day, Tone Of Music Audio held an open house sponsored by VTL, one of its premier lines. VTL’s Luke Manley was on hand to demonstrate his product line, including an S-400 II stereo amplifier ($33,500), TL-6.5 II line stage ($12,500) and TP-6.5 Signature phono stage ($12,500).

Magico M3 speakers ($75,000/pair) were on the receiving end of all this tubey goodness. A Berkeley Audio Reference 2 DAC ($19,900) decoded digits from a MacBook, a Nottingham Analog 294 turntable with a Nottingham 12" 'arm ($6500) carrying analog sounds generated by a Shelter 501 Mk 3 cartridge ($1300). Cabling was from Argento and power was conditioned by an Audience Adept Response aR2tp ($2000).

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What separates Tim from most other audio dealers is his passion for record collecting, especially vintage jazz treasures from the 1950s and 1960s. The two main listening rooms are packed with vinyl, all part of Tim’s collection. Consistent with his love of vinyl and appeal to a younger generation, there wasn't a single CD player (or CD!) on the premises -- at least that I could see. Turntables were in abundance, at a wide price range, and TOMA carries Music Hall, Rega, Nottingham Analog, Well Tempered Labs, Brinkmann and EMT tonearms. Like the wide range of turntables, TOMA offers an equally wide range of loudspeakers, as not every customer will opt for a Magico M3.

At the end of the day, the biggest draw of TOMA wasn’t just the great equipment on hand to be sampled, but the relaxed, homey feel of the store -- "a place where everybody knows your name," as the line goes. Regular customers stopped in for a chat with Tim, and a few potential customers, who appeared to be new to the store, dropped in seeking a bit of direction about how to inject new life in aging systems.

Being surrounded by cases of LPs and walls decorated by framed record covers made for the kind of place I will visit from time to time. It made me nostalgic for my neighborhood record store, where I shopped once a week for over 20 years -- until the day it closed. I certainly wouldn’t mind having a Tone of Music Audio in my neighborhood to pick up the slack.

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