By Hal Espen / For The New Mexican
The sound of music pulses across Santa Fe’s cultural landscape, from opera to lowrider subwoofers to the EDM beats of Meow Wolf’s brand-new $35,000 KV2 audio system, so it’s no surprise to find a rich vein of audiophile enthusiasm running through town. Vinyl fiends can browse the bins at The Good Stuff and The Guy in the Groove (inside A Sound Look, on Cerrillos Road), while home theater and smart-home shoppers can find dazzling ear- and eye-candy in the array of showrooms at Constellation Home Electronics.
There’s a rich history as well. Highlights of the lore include the longtime presence of Stereophilemagazine, the original bible of high-end audio, at various locations on Early Street, Delgado Street, and San Mateo Road from 1982 until 2000. (For years after the publication decamped for New York, there was a Stereophile Way off Botulph Road, marking the site where the publication had planned to build new offices. It’s now called Kiva Court.) Other affectionately remembered businesses include the legendary Rare Bear record store, whose owner once drummed up business by parading the sidewalks in ursine costume, and the Candyman offshoot Schwartzman’s High Fidelity, later incorporated inside The Candyman’s San Mateo location. Like the vast CD inventory of Santa Fe’s two Borders stores and many other physical-media dinosaurs, they’re all now long gone — though The Candyman carries on as a thriving musical-instrument and pro-audio emporium.
Given these dwindling ranks, it was curiously surprising when a new retail shop, Gestalt HiFi, shoehorned into a tiny storefront on St. Michael’s Drive, quietly opened its doors in March 2017. Entering Gestalt means encountering a powerful gust of enthusiasm from owner Mike Phalan, 49, a wiry former rock-climbing coach and psychology professional (hence the therapeutic ring of the store name) who seems intent on demolishing every stereotype of the intimidating, slightly chilly audiophile salesman catering exclusively to the one percent. He welcomes with equal warmth the opera cellist, the Led Zep-loving UPS man, the headphone hipster, and the homeless guy who once wandered in and was treated to an hour-long session of tunes.
Not that Phalan eschews the Rolls Royce performance, Tiffany prices, and MOMA design of the ultra high end. If you are so inclined, he’ll be glad to sell and lovingly install his top all-inclusive system for $238,000, along with a guarantee that you’ll sit grinning from ear to ear with tears running down your face, “experiencing music in a way that feels like Norah Jones or Neil Young is in your living room.” To showcase the product lines that represent his core philosophy of audio design — made-in-Berlin Voxativ speakers, and Pass Labs and First Watt amplifiers designed by engineering wizard Nelson Pass — Phalan transformed his retail space into perhaps the finest listening room in New Mexico, rebuilding and soundproofing the 25- by 12-foot wall he shares with an insurance office next door and hanging Sonex acoustical panels and a billowing “absorbing cloud” of violet drapery overhead. Sink into one of his plush gray chairs, make a request from Gestalt’s library of vinyl LPs and digital files, and you may be astonished by what you hear.
To let sticker shock scare you away would be a mistake, however. First off, he seems far more intent on sharing the joy of music than pitching his wares. To that end, he founded the High Desert Fidelity Club, which meets the first Tuesday of the month in members’ homes (and occasionally at Gestalt), to hold free-wheeling, commerce-free City Different listening parties. (I’ve been. They’re big fun.)
Second, Phalan is as evangelistic about good sound on the cheap as he is about the state-of-the-art bling.
“I believe I’ve found the absolute best products in the world, at any price point, for the money,” he says. “It’s an obsession of mine. We offer complete systems starting below $500, beautiful headphone and desktop gear, and amazing ELAC bookshelf speakers starting at $279 a pair. We carry inexpensive, locally made speaker wire. Even folks who maybe can’t afford anything in here quite yet, but they may have a pair of speakers or an old turntable they want me to refurbish, I do those sorts of things. I’ll help people sell their old gear.”
Like many a Santa Fean, Phalan, who grew up in Atlanta, embraced his new endeavor as the fulfillment of a childhood dream and lifelong vision. In the course of a single week in the fall of 2016, three friends told him he should start his own hi-fi shop. After leaving his job at the Santa Fe Climbing Center and getting a green light from his partner and now store manager, Alison Gully — a biochemist who worked at Integrated Genetics for eight years — Phalan moved swiftly, signing the store lease on January 1 and launching the business only two months later. (The couple owns a home in Seton Village, where they’re raising a daughter, 10, and a son, 8.) He remains undaunted by the challenge of keeping a brick-and-mortar audio store afloat.
“Without a doubt, a lot of people think I’m nuts,” he said with a laugh. “But this has been a passion since I was twelve years old, tinkering with loudspeakers. This is what I love to do. People are discovering us, and the word is getting around. We’ve just signed a new lease.
“I’m also a hi-fi shop not just for Santa Fe, but for America. I get business all over the country. I just sold an amp to a guy in L.A. today, I sold some speakers to a guy in Boulder last week. A lot of this stuff I carry, there’s only a few dealers for in the U.S.”
In the process of growing a business, Phalan and Gully are offering one of the great free thrills in Santa Fe. Don’t buy a thing — though you may start itching to bring some of the jaw-dropping, ultra-realistic musical sound home with you. “Part of the reason I opened Gestalt was that I missed going to the hi-fi shop,” Phalan says. “I just wanted to have a place with comfortable chairs so people in the community can come in, hang out, with no obligation to buy anything. And hopefully to hear some really great music.”