Goodbye to the house Mike Kay built

By the time this issue of Stereophile arrives in your mailbox (and on newsstands), Lyric Hi-Fi & Video, the legendary symbol of male-dominated, uber-luxury hi-fi retail, will be closed forever.

This makes me sad. I wasn't just a client of Lyric; I worked there.

Sometime after 1956, Michael Kakadelis, known to almost everyone as Mike Kay, went to work at a second-floor hi-fi shop called Lyric. In 1959, he bought the business and moved it a little bit north to a street-level storefront at 1221 Lexington Avenue. It stood there from then until now.

Lyric began selling hi-fi in the era of Fisher and Marantz. They continued into the era of William Z. Johnson's Audio Research, Jim Winey's Magnepan, and Mark Levinson's—well, Mark Levinson. Until just a few days ago, they were still selling: dCS. Wilson. Still Audio Research. Still Maggies.

Kay, who died in 2012, took a different approach than most hi-fi dealers. He was an engineer, and he worked closely with better-known manufacturers and nurtured younger designers and engineers, encouraging them to sell their products through Lyric. Lyric had its own cabinet shop and built its own hi-fi cabinets and loudspeakers.

In the '70s and '80s, I frequented other NYC audio dens: Liberty Hi-Fi, Rabsons, Harvey, Leonard Radio, Sam Goody. I didn't visit Lyric until 1982: I'd read a review of a SOTA turntable, and I wanted to hear it.

As soon as I walked in, a salesman insulted me. He refused to let me audition the turntable with an album I'd brought. "I hate that album," he said. "But I know what it sounds like," I said. He told me to leave, so I did.

Lyric opened a West Side location, and I became friends with the manager there, Lenny Bellezza, who apologized for that long-gone salesman. When that location closed, I became a client of the original, East Side Lyric. Later, Lenny became Lyric's owner.

Lyric's NYC location, Kay's personality, and the emergence of literary, subjective audio writing by Harry Pearson of The Absolute Sound, J. Gordon Holt of Stereophile, and others created a new language and, with it, a new market. Lyric was ground zero for the emerging High End.

Over the last 20 years or so, I've walked into many hi-fi shops, from Tokyo to Australia and throughout Europe. When I tell the owner I worked at Lyric, suddenly they want my opinion about the gear they are carrying. Lyric set the global standard.

My band, Twisted Sister, stopped performing in 1988, after 15 nonstop years. I remarried, had a child, and stopped buying audio gear. But I wanted to stay connected to the scene, so I hung around Lyric. Sensing I was bored, Lenny offered me a job. It was a win-win: I'd get to play the gear, get to know the manufacturers, and be able to buy the products. Wholesale.

I had free rein to sell up to a certain level, but the big stuff—expensive Levinson, Audio Research, Infinity, Magnepan, Goldmund, Koetsu—was left to Lenny and Mike.

I had assumed that big-dollar buyers were audio experts. Listening to their component auditions taught me otherwise. I got a little bit cynical. By the time you're rich enough to buy it, I concluded, your ears aren't good enough to hear it.

Once, a guy from New Jersey came in to buy a CD player and walked out with $150,000 worth of equipment: Levinson transport, D/A converter, and preamp and a big speaker system. When we arrived at his house to set it up—in his bedroom—he asked me to connect his Sanyo cassette player. The new system, we learned, was for listening to Grateful Dead bootlegs on cassette. The only CDs he had to play on those Levinson separates were transfers of those bootlegs.

By 1998, audio cable was getting expensive. The main brand we carried was MIT. Their top-of-the-line speaker cable cost $12,000/pair. The company sent two guys in lab coats to lecture us for two days on the technical aspects of their cables, why they cost so much, and how we should convince customers that they're worth the asking price. A month later, Kay announced that we'd be carrying another cable line, NBS, which topped out at an eye-popping $22,000/pair.

About a week after the delivery of the NBS cables, that company's owner, Walter Fields, walked through the front door. I told him about the days we'd spent with the MIT reps. "If anyone asks you why my stuff costs so much," he offered, "tell them it's because there is a lot of good shit in it!"

"Look," he continued, "when someone walks into Lyric, it's like buying a Rolls Royce or a Mercedes. No one asks a Mercedes salesman how the drivetrain is connected to the tires. Nobody who owns a Rolls buys replacement spark plugs from Kmart. They buy from a Rolls dealer. You don't connect Jadis amps and Infinity speakers with wire from Kmart. They want the best, period. If they want second best, tell 'em to buy MIT!"

That is how I learned to sell hi-fi: This is good, this is better, this is best, in increasing order of good-shit content. Will that be cash or charge?

RIP Lyric.


Footnote: Jay Jay French is the founder, manager, and lead guitarist for Twisted Sister.

COMMENTS
javabarn's picture

GREAT article and a HUGE welcome here.. I hope you contribute more if you would like. Is really fun to hear "audio" stories based on experience. Thank you for contributing... :)

volvic's picture

I don’t live far and was planning on making a trip just to catch up and see if there may be a cartridge that might interest me. I am sad to see THIS store close as I was always treated properly when I would come in. Pity.

Allen Fant's picture

Welcome! Jay Jay,
excellent article and review of Lyric. Always good to see a fellow Rocker around these parts.

Joe8423's picture

And I really appreciate the anecdotes, not too many people will be honest about the silly stuff.

This is what I think of 5 figure wires
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xmckWVPRaI

Michael David's picture

I received an e-mail recently announcing Lyric’s demo sale.
The pricing appeared aggressive and frankly this news is not surprising due to the hellish year that New York and Manhattan in particular have suffered through.

Mike was a true gentleman and the business model he created influenced everyone from Simon Zrechny/Audio Consultants, Peter McGrath/Sound Components, Walt Stinson & Steve Weiner/ListenUp, Elliot Fishkin/Innovative Audio, Alan Goodwin/Goodwins, Russ Goddard/Audible Difference, Christopher Hansen Ltd, Mark Ormiston/Definitive Audio and literally hundreds around the globe.

My best wishes to Lenny whether he’ll kick back or perhaps consider a second act in one form or another.

Sasha Matson's picture

Thanks to you Jay Jay for writing this fine tribute and sharing recollections. Sad to learn of Lyric closing. One sign of a fine business is presence of long-time employees. A shout out to my friend Bob Herman, a part of Lyric Hi-Fi for many years. Bob sold me my first decent turntable (a Rega of course), and later, college grad presents for both my sons- Peachtree amps paired with Nola Boxers. We had a laugh when I said to Bob: "Wait a minute, why am I giving this to them? I want this system!" I will miss being able to visit and listen there. - S.M.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Lyric was my local shop and I enjoyed visiting over the course of decades. The shop was 3 blocks from my apartment and Mike Kay used to live across the street from me.

We go back to the late '60s when, graciously, Mike set up a small room with a pair of Quads and left me alone (with coffee and donuts) to play with them. (I bought Stax instead.) Later, Lenny provided me with a needed "cold splash in the face." I was reviewing a puzzling pair of speakers and I asked to play a few tracks over any system because I needed to clear my ears.

They did a bang-up job installing two big systems for members of my family and I bought a couple of things from them (and sold Bob my old Dyna preamp). Since my retirement, Lyric had been a regular stop on some of my walks. I enjoyed kibitzing and complaining with the guys about the industry and the world in general.

I am saddened by their closing.

Jack L's picture

Hi

That's life.

No business will last for ever just like no banquet will never end.

Mortality is physical. Fame is immortal!

Lyric stores are now gone, but the fame they have won may be eternal !

Take it as a praise & compliment !

Jack L

Herb Reichert's picture

Crackling prose about a good man that graciously opened his listening rooms to me way back in the 1970s. The first time I met Mike I was covered with sheetrock dust from my construction job. I said, "Mike I am a broke artist. I am not going to buy anything except audio magazines . . .I just want to listen." and he said, "That's ok." and he sat and listened with me. Kay and HP were my introduction to the "high-end."

So? What are you writing' next?

hr

sethgodin's picture

I would imagine that would be a really strong selling tool... Even for the top of the line stuff!

I remember when a salesperson at Stereo Exchange tried to sell me something by telling me that Paul Simon had recently bought a similar setup...

Jack L's picture

Hi

In sales know-how, it is called "endorsement" ! It shows that sales guy had been trained to sell hi-end HiFi.

Jack L

3pillars's picture

About 17 years ago, I was hired by Lenny B. for the custom installation side of the business. I was warned about Mike and to not get on his bad side. From the very beginning he was nice to me. While his personality sometimes matched is gravelly voice and commanding tone, he was a pussycat if you were as committed to great sound as he was.

My office was close to the big sound room in the back. Every so often, he would grab me to listen to a new equipment setup he was working on. He would sit me down in the room and close the heavy wood doors that sealed you in. After about 20 minutes, he would come in and ask "what do you hear?" I later found out if he was not impressed with your listening skills, your "punishment" was to go to a Carnegie Hall concert and to hear how music should sound. I always passed his little "tests" and never had to go to Carnegie Hall as punishment.

Mike was the heart and soul of Lyric. He was an evangelist of great sounding hifi. And he was a great guy to work for.

X