Build-Your-Own Audio Kits Make a Comeback During Pandemic

Brad Breedlove never considered himself an audiophile. The project manager for an Indianapolis-area industrial piping company has been collecting vinyl for about five years, and the records in frequent rotation on his midrange Audio-Technica turntable include the well-worn now-classics that belonged to his parents when he was growing up.

It’s a good stereo system—but not obsessively so—that includes SVS Ultra Bookshelf speakers and an SVS SB 4000 subwoofer powered by a Schiit Vidar amp.

In September, however, Breedlove took a step into the deeper waters of the sonically serious and ordered a $369 Reduction 1.1 phono preamplifier from Bottlehead, an audio kit maker in Poulsbo, Wash., across Puget Sound from Seattle. When it arrived, the box contained slabs of unfinished alder wood, carefully packed circuit boards, vacuum tubes, and bags full of capacitors and resistors.

Before he could turn on his preamp, he would have to put it together.

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A Kaiju 300B amplifier kit from Bottlehead.

Source: Bottlehead

In the golden age of hi-fi in the 1950s and ’60s, building your own stereo equipment was almost as common as buying it. Entire magazines dedicated to the craft were full of black-and-white halftone depictions of Brylcreemed dads hunched over disemboweled sound systems from companies such as Heathkit and Dynaco, soldering irons in hand. These days, it’s often the warm glow of vacuum tubes on Instagram—and a surfeit of time—that draws in people.

Breedlove had some experience framing houses and building decks, but this was his first electronics project. He borrowed a soldering iron from his brother, watched a few YouTube videos, and “just kind of figured it out,” he says. The project took about eight hours spread over two afternoons. “The instructions were easy to follow,” he says, “and the first time I fired it up, it worked.”

He joins a growing number of enthusiasts who are building inaugural systems this year. Bottlehead’s founder, Dan Schmalle, saw a surge in orders that started in the spring, coinciding with lockdown measures to combat Covid-19. “It was definitely a lot of first-timers,” he says. “It was guys who were saying, ‘Man, I’ve been thinking about this for three years, and here’s the opportunity.’ Of course, what they weren’t saying was ‘I also got that stimulus check, which is just about exactly what this kit costs.’ We saw right when this check started hitting, it was going into our bank.”

At Ottawa-based ANK, which specializes in high-end digital-to-analog converters (DACs), director Brian Smith had a similar experience. “In the summers we typically slow down on sales because people are not really thinking about projects, but this year, it just kept climbing,” he says.

That surge was reflected in the audio industry as a whole. “While sales in tech over the past six months have been dominated by productivity-focused products like PCs,” says Ben Arnold, an analyst with NPD Group Inc., “we’ve also seen growth in consumers’ investment in entertainment, of which audio is included.” U.S. sales in the audio category from March through August totaled $5.62 billion, Arnold says, with “11% growth during what is normally a pretty sleepy sales time.”

Even if build-your-own audiophile gear is a niche within a niche—Bottlehead sells a few thousand kits a year—it’s a decent-size one, says Jason Donald, who founded DIYAudio in 1999. The site’s forums have more than a half-million members, he says, who contribute about a thousand posts a day. Much of the conversation revolves around tips for building and modifying gear bought from a related online store Donald began in 2009.

Components and kits can range from the $1,950 Elekit TU-8600S 300B amp, suited to builders with a few projects under their belt, to a $327 Amp Camp one, geared for novices and originally designed in 2012 by Nelson Pass, an industry guru. The most recent allotment sold out quickly, and orders taken now won’t be fulfilled until January.

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Speakers assembled at Gowanus Audio.

Source: Gowanus Audio

Pete Raho of Gowanus Audio in Brooklyn, N.Y., has been teaching the DIY-curious to build Overnight Sensations speakers for the past two years. Now that in-person workshops are few and far between, he’s rolling out a new strategy: For $565, he’ll send all of the parts to build a pair of those bookshelf speakers. Included in the price is a loaner box of tools, with a return shipping label. (You can knock $20 off if you have everything you need.) Also included are 90 minutes of live Zoom or FaceTime instruction for tasks such as soldering the crossovers or applying veneer.

Clear directions and customer service are, arguably, more important for a happy outcome than the actual hardware. ANK recently hired a documentation specialist to improve the steps for its kits. “The manuals have gotten so good over the last couple of years that we’re at a point now where I just don’t hear from people anymore,” Smith says.

Build times can range from a few hours to a few days, depending on the project’s complexity and the builder’s skill. Bottlehead’s forums are a source of support from both fellow builders and their products’ designers. And if all else fails, the company will soon bring back a repair service that will “do what is needed to make it function to stock specifications.” ANK, where the initial outlay is often considerably higher, will do it free.

You could always let someone else do the building. ANK’s L5 DAC 5.1 Signature costs $5,000 in kit form, but can be bought fully assembled for $6,050. Independent builders also hawk completed kits on EBay and Etsy, where Bottlehead’s bestseller, the $430 Crack headphone amp (with the Speedball upgrade), can be purchased for $725, no assembly required.

Of course, having someone else do the building is to completely miss the point, Raho says. “We’re so devoid of authentic experiences. We’re going in that direction—it’s not getting any better,” he says. “But I can take apart a tube amp and figure out how it works. I can take apart speakers and figure out how they work. It’s human scale. It really puts a smile on your face and lights you up. You cannot get that from a little Jambox, or whatever.”

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A vintage McIntosh ad for the Mack-Kit 30.

Source: McIntosh

That’s not to say that your commitment of money, sweat, and soldering is the only reason to love a piece of homebuilt audio gear. Much of it sounds genuinely great. Steve Guttenberg, a writer and stalwart of the audiophile community with a substantial YouTube following, recently tested the Amp Camp amp and noted that “you don’t buy this amp if you’re a measurement geek”—a persnickety class of audiophile who quantifies every aspect of a piece of equipment’s ability to accurately reproduce a sound. But, he says, it’s “definitely cut from the same sonic cloth” as Pass’s other revered designs, such as the $4,000 First Watt J2 amplifier. Guttenberg has also described Bottlehead’s Crack headphone amp as something that “sounds like it’s five times the price.”

One difference between the heyday of kit stereos and today is that back then, even Harman Kardon, Fisher, McIntosh, and other big-name manufacturers offered DIY options alongside finished pieces. The current surge of interest is causing at least one of those companies to consider reentering the market.

“We’re taking a serious look at it now,” says Charlie Randall, chief executive officer of McIntosh Laboratory Inc. Discussions are ongoing about how complex a project its kit would be. “We would have to supply the circuit boards and then let the people basically do the mechanical assembly and wire connection,” he says. “That’s what we’re leaning toward.”