Henry Rollins and Tom Schnabel: Audiophiles United

Henry Rollins leads Tom Schnabel and Frances Anderton on a sonic tour of his high-fidelity audio-equipped home.

Henry points at his giant speakers
Henry Rollins shows Frances Anderton, and Tom Schnabel, right, his Wilson Alexandria XLF speakers.

If you listen to KCRW’s music shows hosted by Tom Schnabel (Rhythm Planet) and Henry Rollins (Henry Rollins), you might think that they are two very, very different guys — Henry delivering an extreme diet of raucous punk while Tom bathes us in his refined world music selections.

But scratch the surface and you will find they are brothers under the skin, truly passionate “audiophiles” — “fanatics” would be Henry’s word — as DnA found out when Frances Anderton joined Tom recently on a wild sonic tour of Henry’s home.

It was Tom’s idea; he’d read a blog by Henry in which he firmly declared “I am an audiophile” and talked about his dedicated pursuit of hi-fidelity, culminating in five systems now in Henry’s home. He says the one he spends the most time listening to is “perhaps amateur hour to hi-fi heavyweights like yourselves, but I like it very much: Wilson Audio Sophia 3s, McIntosh amps and preamp, Rega Planar 3 turntable, and Rega Valve Isis CD player.”

Tom suggested that we join forces and visit Henry in his tower of power, and on an afternoon in early November, off we went to meet Henry in his house at the top of a scarily steep, curving drive high in the hills. There we found a man who lives an almost monastic life, devoted to the God of rock ‘n’ roll.

Henry walked us through one room after another, each almost empty save for a sofa or bed, punk memorabilia on the walls, and a sound system. Along the way he delivered nonstop anecdotes and facts about his music, his hi-fi and his music memorabilia, not to mention his commitment to educating the digital generation about why they simply must listen to music on analog. As he told DnA, without hyperbole:

“If you are going to listen to an mp3 — which is sacrilegious — through your listening device or your phone, every band you listen to, you are sticking knives into their ribs, you are throwing them into the curb, and running them over with a truck.”

Henry's McIntosh amplifier, which according to Tom and Henry has seductive powers.
Henry’s McIntosh amplifier, which according to Tom and Henry, emits seductive powers.

Henry’s rapid-fire, passionate delivery would have been ceaseless but for interjections from Tom, who proved to be Henry’s equal in audiophilia. The pair were off the races swapping notes about music and music-technology; I was merely a bystander.

Our journey culminated in the main, ground level room, dominated by Henry’s musical pride and joy, his giant Wilson Alexandria XLF speakers, standing, as Tom writes on his Rhythm Planet blog, “over six feet tall and weighing in at 662 pounds…each! Moving these would give you a hernia, even if you worked out at Gold’s Gym regularly! Astride these giant speakers were two VTL Siegfried Reference II monoblock amps that were coupled with Henry’s TL-7.5 Series III Reference preamplifier and TP-6.5 Signature phono stage.”

After a disquisition from Henry on the origins and process of installation of these speakers, taller than me and standing like sentinels in a room bare but for some books and a thick carpet, the three of us sat in a sofa positioned at a distance deemed perfect for audio delivery. And we listened as Henry gave us our own private DJ-ing session, and his extraordinary sound system filled the room with music so clear you could single out every note and instrument. (To many people, this set-up is also extraordinarily expensive; Henry did offer tips on how to acquire great hi-fi, at much lower cost.)

We wound up spending almost two hours in Henry’s headspace, on a trip that truly was a trip.

Listen to the tour here or on the audio above, and read Tom’s blog here. And send us your thoughts about audio systems and what works best for you.

Tom, Frances and Henry
Tom Schnabel, left, with Frances Anderton and Henry Rollins.

All photos by Camellia Tse.