pitch perfect palm desert

The Art of Sound

Matthew Rotunda’s new listening room on El Paseo draws serious music lovers into the rarified world of hi-fi systems.

Kent Black Current PSL, Shopping

pitch perfect palm desert

A variety of Shindo tube preamplifiers and amplifiers at Pitch Perfect Audio in Palm Desert.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY AARON FEAVER

For the casual El Paseo pedestrian, the glass storefront near the corner of Portola offers neither the bling of its neighboring jeweler nor the branded displays of other nearby retailers. In fact, Pitch Perfect’s dusty glass, locked doors, boxes, and eclectic jumble of electronic gear give the impression of transition, perhaps another retail victim of the pandemic. The passerby quickly looks away, as if glimpsing Aqualung stretched out and snoring on one of the boulevard’s concrete benches. Ah, but look again. Press your sanitized nose up against the glass and prepare to be astounded. Inside is a specialized little world that most people thought no longer existed. Pitch Perfect Audio is a stunning rebuke to the big electronic box stores and the mass production of cheap, integrated stereo systems whose sound reproduction is about as clear, to quote guitarist Leo Kotke, “as geese farts on a muggy day.”

If you should be so lucky as to have an appointment or should you be invited in by owner Matthew Rotunda, you will be transfixed by a wall of handmade, tube-driven amplifiers and preamplifiers from Japan’s Shindo Laboratory, their signature postwar, retro, matte green faces beckoning like an irresistible chorus of Sirens.

“This is eye-opening for a lot of folks,” says Rotunda, who opened his doors just before pandemic hit the valley last March. “They come in and haven’t seen this stuff before … [or] I get a lot of customers who come through the front door who are stunned that they actually still make [high-end] stereos. Sometimes, it’s an uphill battle. I get guys who come in and they’re looking for a turntable, and they’re blown away when I say [this turntable] is $2,000 [and] they’re thinking [to spend] $200. I say, ‘I’m sorry.’ People think [high-end audio] went away at some point. It didn’t go away; it just became a little more off the radar.”

Though like any business owner on El Paseo, Rotunda laments the dearth of foot traffic and the chance to widen his acquaintance with both seasonal and year-round residents. His type of business requires a lot of one-on-one time.

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Shindo Laboratory hi-fi.

The Long Island native points out, “You don’t have to spend a lot for a really nice hi-fi.” The affable audiophile points to two components with their tubes exposed (a preamplifier and an amplifier), two narrow, contemporary-styled speakers, and a sleek turntable. “You can get an amplifier for $2,000 [and] a pair of speakers for a little more than that. And then you add a source [preamplifier]. Turntables start about $3,000, plus a phono cartridge, plus the cables and any other accessories you might need. You could start at $18,000. And then it jumps up above that pretty quickly.”

Which, getting back to the issue of the absence of El Paseo foot traffic and the rarity of the impulse buyer, is not such a terrible thing. The day before we met, Rotunda spent many hours installing a system for a client in Los Angeles. Rotunda does what he calls a “soup to nuts equation” where he not only consults with clients as to what kind of gear will give them the most satisfaction, but he also transports the components (or has them shipped from his principal supplier, Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports) to the client’s house, determines the optimal placement, and then installs the equipment. It’s not just splice a few wires, stick them into the speakers, plug into the wall outlet, and go; Rotunda’s installations often require a full day to make sure the system operates to its full potential.

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J.C. Verdier La Platine turntable.

Rotunda welcomes any question that gives him the opportunity to delve into the mysteries of this audio engineering art form.
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Shindo Laboratory Cortese 300B hand-wired single-ended stereo amplifier.

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Matthew Rotunda

Though he does not redesign rooms for clients, he advises them to cut down on sound-reflective surfaces. “If you have floor-to-ceiling glass, obviously that will reflect,” he explains. “So, some light gauzy material for the windows will help. I always recommend books, carpet, an area rug.” Rotunda does not stick around to instruct a client in their new system’s operation. Generally, “They know what they’re getting when they purchase a system,” he says. “They’re already in this world.”

Looking back, it seems almost inevitable to Rotunda that he would end up in the rarefied atmosphere of top tier hi-fis. His father was an artist and graphic designer who, in his spare time, was the alto sax-playing leader of a popular 19-member swing band. There was always music playing in the household, and during Rotunda’s teenage years, he bought, sold, and traded some of the popular brands in high-fidelity components, such as Fisher, Marantz, and MacIntosh. After graduating from the highly regarded School of Visual Arts in New York, he began a freelance graphic design career, but he was frustrated by the long hours and low pay.

In the late ’90s, he was living in Queens with his wife, Keenya, and young son, Jared, and “at this point, I was, like, I can’t do this anymore. I’ve got to parlay my love of what I do into another field so that I can still do my art.” He realized that next to the visual arts, his other great passion was music. He promptly made the rounds of the high-end audio stores in Manhattan and took a job as a salesperson. “I did that for many years. I bopped around to a couple different stores in New York City [and] then relocated my family to Chicago.” After a few more years selling audio and working off someone else’s business plan, he reached the point where he knew he had to go out on his own.

rivieraaudiolabs

Riviera Audio Labs audio components in champagne and dark titanium finishes.

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Vintage audio vacuum tubes.

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Devore Fidelity Orangutan O/96 loudspeakers in lace walnut finish.

Rotunda’s friendship with Jon Halpern was key in creating the kind of exclusive retail business that he envisioned. They were both enthralled with the creations of Japan’s Shindo Laboratory. After years of working for other hi-fi manufacturers, Ken Shindo created his eponymous lab in 1977, slowly building a reputation among the most discerning audiophiles by taking “the best of the original intent of the manufacturer and revitalizing it with modern thinking and modern componentry.”

Though Shindo-san passed away in 2014, his sons, Takashi and Yoshinobu, have carried on the family tradition. There were other elite makers, such as DeVore speakers of Brooklyn and the second-generation French turntable maker J.C. Verdier. None of the so-called high-end audio storeowners for whom Rotunda worked was interested in such rarefied componentry. Their business models were based on units sold. Rotunda had a different idea. If you’re one of the only Lamborghini dealers, you don’t have to sell a ton of cars. You just have to find a few people who are passionate about Lamborghinis and have the means to afford one.

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Well Tempered Lab turntable.

“If you’re looking for new speakers, We’ll decide what amps I have will work.”
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Shindo Laboratory Latour reference loudspeaker.

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Shindo Laboratory Montille hand-wired stereo tube amplifier.

Rotunda chose San Francisco to launch his business in 2005. At first, he operated from his downtown loft, and his customers were used to hanging out in his living room and listening to various combinations of components while Jared ran around and various other aspects of the Rotunda domestic life rolled on in the background. But the blurred boundaries between family life and business and the skyrocketing prices for San Francisco real estate convinced Rotunda to move his family to Indio and open a showroom in Los Angeles. He retained a loyal San Francisco following, as well as new, enthusiastic clients in L.A., but the constant driving wore him down. After moving his family to “a cabin” in Pinyon Crest, he decided last year to open Pitch Perfect on El Paseo — about a month before the pandemic brought all business to a halt. Only in the last few months has he reopened on an appointment-only basis.

With his extraordinary knowledge of audio gear, a complete lack of pretension, and a natural affability, Rotunda has achieved the salesperson’s equivalent of bodhisattva. He hangs back as I move covetously around the storeroom, my fingertips hovering over but not touching the engineering art of Shindo, the gorgeous blue anodized faces of J.E. Sugden amplifiers, DeVore speakers, J.C. Verdier and Shindo turntables, and Line Magnetic amplifiers. Rotunda stopped being a salesman long ago. I would call him an audiophile adviser. Sure, he’s a business owner with bills to pay and a profit to seek, but he’s also kind of a gatekeeper.

Rotunda senses my visual overload and guides me down a narrow corridor with purposively exposed stubs and into a cozy listening room in the center of the store. It’s about the size of a medium living room — if your living room had a large, thick area rug on which sits two comfortable chairs in the center of the room. The periphery of the room is filled with various configurations of components and speakers and stacks for LPs. Artwork hangs from the walls, adding a sophisticated aesthetic but also providing baffling for the sound. The laid back, almost hippie vibe of the room belies the work Rotunda did mic’ing every inch of the room to achieve best possible sound.

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Handmade turntable phono cartridges for auditioning.

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J.C. Verdier La Platine Turntable.

I’ve always shied away from stores like Rotunda’s because I’ve never really understood the components. What’s the relationship between pre-amp and amp? What should you pick first: speakers or amplifier? What’s the difference between a $200 turntable and a $2,000 one? In the past, it seems like the audio salesmen I’ve encountered were either so haughty that they were inapproachable or they were as clueless as the porn actor, stereo salesman character Don Cheadle played in Boogie Nights. Rotunda, on the other hand, is so passionate and enthusiastic that he welcomes any question that gives him the opportunity to delve into the mysteries of this audio engineering art form.

First, he explains that a source is any piece of equipment that produces music or sound, such your turntable, reel-to-reel, or CD or MP3 player. Those sources feed into the pre-amplifier, which acts as the source selector. Rotunda says the preamp requires no more than a few watts of power to send the signal on to the amplifier. A high-end tube amplifier has no controls. The volume is controlled by the preamp. The amplifier boosts the signal enough to drive the speakers.

One of Rotunda’s favorite challenges is finding the best “synergistic match” of components for a client. Quite often, he and a customer begin with speakers and work their way backward toward the source because speakers are usually the most visual part of the system, and it’s important to match the speakers to the size of the room.

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Line Magnetic Audio stereo tube-integrated amplifier with remote control.

“If you’re looking for speakers, we’ll decide what amps I have will work,” he says, leading me to the back of the room and indicating a pair of Devore speakers with a cherry wood finish. “These speakers are 90DB and 8ohm and we can drive them with this 20-watt single-ended amplifier. That’s a nice pairing. But here is an 8-watt Shindo Laboratory amp. Now, if someone said to me, ‘Matt, I love that amp. I covet that amp. I want that amp and those speakers.’ I’ll say, ‘I can’t sell them to you, sorry. But I’ll sell you these speakers, 96DP at 10ohm because they’re easy to drive [with the Shindo amp]. It’s all about pairing.’”

Rotunda points to two preamps. “This is $6,000, and this one is $12,900,” he continues. “[A customer and I] would compare and contrast those two components. They would listen to this with that amp and those speakers, and they would decide, ‘Hmm, do I hear a difference between the two? Do I hear more delicate shadings, tonal, texture, and nuance with the more expensive preamp?’ Typically, customers do. You have to decide if it’s worth it for you.”

Though there is a massive, spectacular J.C. Verbier turntable within
reach, Rotunda opts for an Aurender DAC (digital to analog converter) that he calls “essentially a computer for music.” For someone whose store is alight with glowing vacuum tubes from countless amplifiers, it’s a shock to see Rotunda program a digital play list. He says the quality of music it produces, however, is excellent and points out that coupling a DAC with a subscription gives you access to pretty much all the recorded music on the planet.

Indeed, as the first licks of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” come out through the DeVore speakers powered by a Shindo Labs amp, the visceral sensation is impossible to deny. Even at low volume, the music is enveloping. It’s a completely different sensation from what I experience from my old Sony integrated amp and Polk speakers at home. By contrast, my system seems to simply penetrate my ears; the music in Rotunda’s listening room is something I can feel with my entire body. At home, the music that comes out of my speakers is something to fill the silence while I chop up veggies for a mirepoix. When Ben E. King’s tenor comes across with absolute clarity, I realize this is an experience in which you have to give yourself completely to the music. There can’t be any other activities or distractions, aside from a cup of tea, a glass of wine, or the occasional bong hit.

As the pandemic changes our world, Rotunda thinks one unintended benefit is that more people will have greater appreciation for music and audio. “People are now realizing that the initial frustration has now turned into a good thing, and they [think to themselves], ‘I can work from home, homeschool the kids, and listen to a lot of great music.’ And that can change your priorities in life.”

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