As published in the The Absolute Sound on May 5, 2016
Roger Skoff, founder of XLO Electric™ and now the CEO of RSX™ Technologies, Inc. is a serious audiophile and world-famous cable designer who also happens to have a playful side. This came out when he had a need to avoid disclosing his identity prior to launching XLO. In this fun and fascinating article, Roger details how he created this mysterious persona.
Though XLO Electric… the high-end audio cable company that I founded… will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2016, I’ve actually been building hi-fi cables since I was a kid. As I’ve said in print many times before, I became a Hi-fi Crazy at just twelve years old, when my father and I went with one of my father’s friends to Emmons Audio in Studio City, California, one night in 1964 to help him pick out a new “component hi-fi set” (which was what such things were called in those days.)
That was the first time I ever actually heard good sound—especially bass (not just deep bass, but bass of any kind from any source), and, as you can tell, that experience and good sound in general have had an important influence on the rest of my life.
Those cables that I built back then weren’t made because I had any pretensions as a cable designer. The two principal facts behind them were: First, as near as I can remember there weren’t any commercially made audio cables available at that time, and I needed some for my system; and, second, even if there had been cables available, as a teenager and not a wealthy one, I couldn’t have afforded to buy them, anyway. Kids then, just as now, had no money, so, like everyone else—and certainly like all of us kid audiophiles of the day—I built my own out of nickel-a-foot Belden microphone cable and two-for-a-nickel cardboard-dielectric “tulip” RCA connectors. I was perfectly happy to do so because, like a great many people even today, I thought that “wires is wires,” and believed that any other claim could, at best, be only fantasy or wishful thinking.
I continued as a boy Hi-fi Crazy all through high school and into college, where other interests (girls, motorcycles, and my studies, although not necessarily in that order) pushed my hi-fi hobby into the background, and I proceeded on into the business world, where, for a while, it disappeared entirely. Finally, though, in the mid-1980s, I had been successful in business, gotten married, bought a house in a nice community, and was ready to get back into hi-fi with a fine new system.
As part of my shopping for that, my wife and I went to Jonas Miller Hi-Fi in Santa Monica, California, where I ran into my old friend Skip Weshner, a radio broadcaster who may very well have been the man who single-handedly started the entire folk music craze that swept the United States years earlier, and who had, in the process discovered or popularized more new stars (people like Joan Baez, Hoyt Axton, Van Dyke Parks, Bob Dylan, the Gateway Singers, Theodore Bikel, Randy Newman, and many, many more) than you can imagine, in the folk, pop, jazz, and other musical genres. Skip and I had become friends in the late 1950s or very early 60s, when he moved his nationally syndicated, hi-fi-sponsored radio program from New York to Los Angeles, and I, a devoted young fan, had gone to the studios of Radio KRHM, his local station, to meet him.
By the time we encountered him in Santa Monica, however, I had long ago lost contact with Skip, and he and I were both surprised and delighted to meet again. My wife liked him, too, so, after a long conversation followed by a good dinner, we invited him to come to our home for a home-cooked meal, more friendly conversation, and to see and hear my new system.
When he eventually got there, his only comments about the system were that it lacked bass and that he knew of the perfect subwoofer for me, which he would arrange for me to get. That was how I met Tony DiChiro, president of Kinergetics Research, and one of the very sharpest designers in the entire audio industry.
Tony, just a few days after Skip’s visit, came out to deliver an early pre-production pair of Kinergetics subwoofers (still, IMHO, among the very best ever made) and, in the process of hooking them up, noticed that I was still using my ancient nickel-a-foot Belden cables and, saying that he “just wanted to show me something,” went out to his car and brought back a pair of the cables that Harry Pearson had long been touting as the supreme “hot setup” that he used in his own personal system.
When he wanted to plug the new cables in, I told Tony that he could, but said, outright, that I expected nothing and thought that fancy cables were nonsense and a pure waste of money.
Imagine my surprise when just changing that one pair of wires made an immediate, clear, and obvious difference that we both heard and agreed on: The system sounded quite noticeably worse in a number of important ways.
That one incident cemented what was to become a longtime friendship between me and Tony, and set us off on an extended search for the perfect cable or, at the very least, the best cable available. The theory was simple: Now that we both knew for sure that cables could make a difference, if one cable could make a system sound worse, there must be others that would make it sound better, and one that would make it sound best of all, and we set out to find it.
From that point on, we both kept on the alert for news of any great new cable, and when we heard of one, Tony would use his influence or industry discount to borrow or buy a pair for us to audition. The first cables I heard that I liked well enough to actually buy were some very good (even today) skinny brown ones from Straightwire. The next was the “Cobalt” series from AudioQuest, which I tried but was hesitant to buy because they would have cost me (even in 1985 or thereabouts) some $2800 to re-do my entire system.
Before I bought them, however, something crucial happened that would change things forever: In the course of our friendship, Tony had introduced me to Judy Davidson, along with Enid Lumley one of the two women reviewers for The Absolute Sound. (Possibly the only women reviewers in audio at the time.) Judy lived just a few miles from me and had a system using all-British Naim electronics. Because Naim gear takes DIN connectors instead of RCAs, when someone asked her to review some cables that he had made, which, following the American practice, were terminated with RCAs, she was unable to do so, and called me and asked me to listen to them and give him my report.
I did listen to them, and I did call the designer to tell him that for $69 a pair, their selling price, they were quite a bargain, but that, of course, at that price they weren’t (as they couldn’t be) “world beaters.” He must have expected better, because when I told him this, he sounded thoroughly crestfallen and, to try to jolly him out of it, I told him that I had been trying quite a lot of cables lately and reading all their technical “white papers,” and that I had found very little consistency in the design theories they had set forth. This being the case, I asked him what his design theory was, and he told me that he didn’t have one, but just “dicked with” his cables until they sounded good.
Well, here I was, wanting new AudioQuest cables, but not wanting to pay the $2800 they would cost. What should I do? It seemed, to my even-then near-infinite arrogance, that if the guy I’d talked to could just “dick with” cables until they sounded good, then I must certainly be able to dick with them until they sounded even better—and I wouldn’t have to spend all that money to buy the AudioQuest Cobalts.
And that’s what I did, except that, being me and being an economist, I had both the drive and sufficient math so that—after years of study, nearly five thousand pages of reading, and more than $70,000 (so much for saving that $2800) spent on having custom wires drawn and insulated for me to fabricate by hand into cables to test my theories—I was actually able to figure out how cables work and to build the new interconnects and speaker cables that I wanted for my system. (If you’re curious, you can find write-ups on what I learned about “field-balanced” geometry, “capacitive discharge effects,” and other XLO features in XLO’s “White Papers.”)
Just shortly after that, as I settled back to enjoy my music and the impressed “oohs” and “aahs” of my audiophile friends, Mike Detmer, then President of Stax-Kogyo, USA, the U.S. branch of the company that made the world-class Stax electrostatic speakers and headphones (whom I had also met through Tony DiChiro), called to ask if I would be interested in writing for a new audio magazine called Sounds Like… that was being published by Jeff Goggin, formerly a staffer at The Absolute Sound.
When I said I would, Mike arranged for a telephone interview, followed by a sample article, which resulted in me being offered the job. As part of joining the Sounds Like… team, however, there was one small stumbling block: I was asked to provide a brief bio (no problem) and to describe my reference system (potentially, I thought, a big problem).
The problem was my cables: They were handmade home-brew, and, after I had heard some negative comments from audiophile friends about Dick Olsher being “unprofessional” for using his homemade “Black Dahlia” speakers as his reference while writing his reviews for Stereophile, I didn’t want the same thing said about me. To find a way around this, I called Mike Detmer, told him of my concerns, and asked what he thought. His suggestion was brilliant and proved to be a major turning-point in my career. As President of the U.S. division of a Japanese company, Mike had, over time, picked-up some knowledge of the Japanese language. With brands like Koetsu and others being both prestigious and hugely popular, he said that a Japanese-sounding name should certainly be acceptable, and suggested that I declare the cables in my system to be “Tezukuri” Reference. Because “tezukuri” means “handmade” in Japanese, this should, he told me, be both well-received and absolutely true.
That was what I did in my system write-up, but when Jeff Goggin, coming across a new “brand name” he had never heard of, called me to find out more about it, I couldn’t keep up the pretense: I broke up laughing and had to tell him the truth about my concern over using homemade cables as a reviewing tool. To my relief (and truthfully, surprise) he not only accepted the Tezukuri name, but promised to never tell anyone a word about the cables’ real origin.
That issue solved, I started reviewing and, while doing so, I was finally able to complete the most difficult of all my initial cable designs: the phono cable from cartridge to preamp. Because practically no current, at practically no voltage, must be carried by this cable without distortion or noise with nothing added and nothing lost, it was truly a bear to come up with. Once I had developed one that I was satisfied with and had thoroughly tested it in my own system and those of friends living nearby, I made another one and sent it off to Tom Miller, another reviewer for Sounds Like… (and, both earlier and later, TAS, as well) for evaluation, still keeping the fact that I had made it a secret.
When I called a few days later to see if Tom had gotten it and tried it out, he told me that he had gotten it, that he had tried it, and that it was wonderful, and launched into a whole series of questions about what the cable was, where I had gotten it, and so on. Sticking to anonymity, I told him that the name of the cable was Japanese (true) and that it wasn’t available for sale in the United States (also true—it wasn’t available for sale anywhere). As to how I had found out about it, I told him that I had heard it at the home of an audiophile Japanese-American neurosurgeon friend of mine. (Also absolutely true—I did hear the cable at the home of my neurosurgeon pal, Bill Tomori, who is a Japanese-American audiophile. Of course, I was the one who had brought the cable there, but that was another issue.) All in all, I tried to answer Tom’s questions as truthfully, but as misleadingly as possible, and to give him as little real information as I could, and we eventually ended the conversation with him saying that he loved the cable and was going off to hear more of it.
At that point, I thought the tumult was over, but that wasn’t what happened: Just a few days later, Tom called me and said (this and all further quotes are rendered as accurately as I can remember, but may not be the precise words spoken): “Hi, I’ve done some more listening to that cable and—don’t know who designed it, but I hope he wasn’t a friend of yours. It’s really pretty awful.” He then broke out laughing. It turned out that he hadn’t been satisfied with the answers that I had given him, and had called Jeff Goggin, our publisher, to see if he could get more information. It also turned out that Goggin, despite his oath to maintain secrecy about the cables, had told Tom everything. (When, after getting off the phone with Tom, I confronted Goggin with this, he admitted that it was true, apologized, and swore, once again, never to tell another soul.) In the meantime, though, I was on the phone with Tom, and Tom suggested that we should play a little trick on Michael Gindi, another reviewer for the magazine.
Just about all of us who wrote for Sounds Like… were unhappy with Gindi: We all played by the rules and waited to be assigned products for review. Not so Gindi. When something new and exciting came out (the Avalon Ascent speakers, for example, or the Jadis Defy 7 amplifier), Gindi would simply contact the manufacturer or distributor and ask for a review sample directly, instead of following procedure and going through the magazine. That resulted in Gindi getting all the good stuff and the rest of us missing out. We didn’t like it. And Tom had an idea for some gentle retribution: What I should do, he said, was to make another phono cable and send it to Gindi, saying in advance that he could only have it for a short while and must return it to me when that was over. “That’ll drive Gindi nuts,” Tom said, “He can’t stand for anybody to have anything really good that he can’t have!”
Before sending the cable, though, Tom said that we must “polish” the original tezukuri story to make Gindi feel even worse when he couldn’t get cables for his own system. To that end, we invented the character of Dr. Tezukuri, a blind Japanese physicist, who, because of his affliction, had developed ears like a bat. The good doctor was the inventor of the cables but, for obvious reasons, couldn’t actually build them, so that task was left to his two sons—one an engineer and the other a sculptor. Both, the new story went, did the actual fabrication of the cables and, perhaps because one was right-handed and the other was left-handed (or perhaps because of their different professional skills and training), the cables made by the left-handed son were said to be better-sounding. As before, the cables were not for sale to the United States, and each one here had had to be individually smuggled out of Japan.
With that new story in mind, I built another phono cable, called Gindi to tell him about it, and, at his request, promised to send him one, but only for evaluation, and only for two weeks. After that, the cable had to be returned to me for return to its actual owner. After the cable had been sent and enough time had passed for him to have received and tried it, I called Michael Gindi and asked him what he thought. His answer (this one, I’m sure, is quoted exactly) was, “I don’t know who this Dr. Tezukuri is, but if he wants his cable back he’s going to have to send his lawyers and a small army.” He continued bubbling over with praise and asking more questions about the cable, its origin, and how he could get one to keep for himself.
I tried to answer his questions as well as I could, keeping to the now-established story, but just as Tom Miiller had done with me, I eventually got to the point where I couldn’t hold it in any longer, and broke out laughing. At which point Gindi leaped on me, demanding the truth, and I—caught fair and square—told him the truth. Once he heard all of it, Gindi insisted that we send the cable on to Myles Astor, at the time another Sounds Like… reviewer. “Serve him right,” Gindi said. “He really loves his MITs—probably sleeps with ’em. This’ll really blow his mind!”
First, though, Gindi, just like Miiller before him, wanted to add his own little bit to the Dr. Tezukuri story: One of Gindi’s contributions was that the reason that Dr. Tezukuri is anti-U.S. and won’t allow his cables to be sold here is that he was interned in one of America’s “Japanese relocation” camps (Manzanar, perhaps) during World War II, and when the war was over and he was released, he left this country, vowing never to return. It was during his time in the camp, Gindi and I agreed, that Dr. Tezukuri developed the basic principles upon which his cables were based, and it was that same epoch-making research that caused him to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in physics. He did not win, however, and forever-after blamed his loss of that prestigious award and the recognition it might have gained for him and his work on U.S. interference in the Prize Committee’s decision-making process—just one more example, he believed, of American duplicity and another reason for his anti-American sentiment.
Gindi told all of this to Myles when he sent him the cable and, Myles, loving the cable but skeptical, called me to verify the story, which I did.
Over the next few months, more and more Tezukuri Reference cables—phono and otherwise—were made and sent out, always with the same (or at least the latest version of) the Dr. Tezukuri story, until a goodly number of the country’s top audio reviewers had them and were using them and listing them in their reference systems. Then (as I, not being there, have been told), at a meeting of the Westchester Audio Society one night in November of 1990, Howard Mandel (not the comedian, but the designer/manufacturer of the “Altis” line of quite excellent high-end digital electronics), asked Arnis Balgalvis, a member of the club and a contributing editor of Stereophile, if he knew anything about the Tezukuri cables everybody was using, and Balgalvis told him the standard line, claiming no knowledge of them other than what everybody else already knew. At that point, Myles Astor is reported to have said, “There is no Dr. Tezukuri and there is no Tezukuri cable; the cables are made by Roger Skoff, one of the writers for Sounds Like… magazine.”
Apparently Myles had believed neither me nor Gindi about the provenance of Tezukuri cables, and had contacted Goggin, who had (now contrary to two solemn oaths), once again “spilled the beans” about their true origin, leaving Myles—not knowing that Miiller and Gindi and however many others had also received exactly the same treatment—feeling like he had been the victim of something more than just a prank between colleagues, and out to take a long-awaited revenge. Rightly or not, the result of all that was that Howard, who had a reputation as “The Gossip of the Known Universe,” apparently and instantly told everyone on the entire planet that it was I who was the source of the cables that everyone was raving about, and within just a month, by December 1990, I received more than a hundred unsolicited requests from people who wanted to buy cables.
Despite my good intentions to never go into the cable business, that was enough for me to make up a number of samples and bring them with me, in January, to the 1991 Winter CES, where people, learning these were the mysterious Tezukuri Reference cables they had been hearing of for so long but had never actually seen, were eager to try them out and, when they did, either wanted them for their own systems or to sell or distribute. The result was that I left the show with about a dozen U.S. dealers wanting to carry the line and an equal number of foreign distributors wanting to distribute abroad. In the face of such demand, I really had no choice but to go into business.
After changing the brand name to “XLO,” which everybody agreed was both easier to say and more commercial-sounding than “Tezukuri,” I founded XLO Electric Company, Inc. in March of 1991, which means that in this industry where so many new companies appear, shine brightly for a short while, and then disappear again forever, XLO will soon be celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Thanks, Dr. Tezukuri, wherever you are. You done good.