TECHNOLOGY PROFILE - AUDIO
Retro Design With Modern Sound Quality
A young Austin entrepreneur retrofits vintage record consoles with modern audio for a unique combination of form and function.
By George McClure
IN 2014, SHEA HENNINGS, a young Air Force veteran originally from Wisconsin, found a vintage stereo console on Craigslist. He bought it, restored the cabinet and added some modern electronics. After selling it on Etsy much faster than he had anticipated, he did 40 more units to make sure the market was there — and it was.
Seven years later his company, ATX Record Players, is going strong. Shea enjoyed a big break when he created a console for Jesse James of Monster Garage and West Coast Choppers fame. Jesse wanted some higher end electronics in his console, and after this project Shea started a new division of his company: Tonenhaus. At Tonenhaus, they make retro-inspired cabinets customized specifically for components from the renowned audio brand McIntosh.
I recently chatted with Shea about his business and what the future holds.
GEORGE: Where did you draw inspiration from to create your companies?
SHEA: As a kid, I watched Jesse James on TV shows, and when I saw him building custom motorcycles I thought, “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” I started working at a body shop and got into doing custom cars. I did four years in the Air Force, got out, moved to Austin and then realized there’s no money in custom cars unless you’re a big-name guy.
At one point I saw a lot of my friends getting record players. Then I remembered these cool-looking wood box things that people used to have, and I started cruising Craigslist. Finally I found the one with the pointy legs that I was thinking about, bought it and started messing around and realized, “Hey, this old audio equipment doesn’t quite work.”
First, I tried to take it to the local audio shop and get things fixed, but they’d just break again the next week. Or a tube or fuse would blow. Finally I figured, maybe I can just put new equipment into it so it works and sounds great. So I did that and put the unit on Etsy, the first one, and boom, it sold on the first day. Then I refined the whole process and figured out, “Oh, there are German consoles — those are really cool-looking.” And I just focused and narrowed my niche down to just German components. I kept going, doing them over and over and over again, improving the whole process.
So I quit my job and was dealing record player consoles on Craigslist out of my living room. I started thinking about contacting Jesse James because he’s here in Austin. Finally, I said, “Eh, what the hell — I’ll just give it a shot.” So I texted him. I sent him a picture of me when I was 12 and had just chopped my bicycle up and made it into a chopper after watching his TV show. I sent that to him, and said, “Hey. You were my childhood hero. I’m doing this weird thing with record consoles now.” And then, about a week later, he contacts me and says, “Dude, I want one.” So I went and delivered it, and when I was there, he says, “You’ve got to build your own brand. You’ve got to use my woodworkers. You should be making really nice ones.”
After he told me that, I was like, “Oh, wow. This is actually cool.” If Jesse says it’s cool, it is actually cool. Because I thought I was just some guy in my living room doing this weird thing. So yeah, all of a sudden, a client called, and I said, “What if I did this custom one with Jesse James’s woodworker, and high-end McIntosh electronics?” I pitched it, and he said okay. I sold this $30,000 record player, and I thought, “Wow, I did it. It actually works.” Now we’ve refined the process, and I’m selling more of those.
JESSE JAMES AND SHEA HENNINGS.
GEORGE: And how many of these custom Tonenhaus ones do you do in a year?
SHEA: We’re doing around 15 a year right now, until we can get these furniture makers producing faster, which is a much harder challenge than we thought. Some people think, “Hey, it’s just a wood box. How hard could it be?” So we had some other woodworkers give it a shot, and it was just not the same quality of the fine craftsmen’s work.
It just shows that it’s way more than just a wood box. We took all the issues in those German consoles and we tried to eliminate the problems we were having with vibration coming through and isolating the turntable and everything inside the unit. Just all those little details that we found. After restoring hundreds and hundreds of them, we got a good idea what styles are the best, what wood grains, what little issues we’ve always had. Just taking it one step further. But also, I don’t want to do a modern one. I like doing the more classic thing. We took the German style, and we basically just replicated it into a new functionality.
GEORGE: How has your sales model changed?
SHEA: After I sold that one console for $30,000, I started thinking about it. I remembered Jesse saying, “Hey, if you ever need anything, I’ve got a Rolodex that goes around the world. If you ever need to get ahold of someone.” And that just stuck in my mind. And then, finally, it hit me: We need to build our own exchange, because I don’t want to sell my stuff on eBay or Etsy. So I texted him out of the blue one day and said, “Hey, we need to build our own exchange that’s better than Etsy.” And he said, “Oh, like a craftsman exchange?” I’m like, “Yeah, exactly.
We played around with the idea and created a website:
CrafstmanExchange.com. We sold a bunch of stuff last year, and now we’re getting ready to do live auctions. We want to be the Sotheby’s or the Christie’s of the craftsman world. We want to sell physical products from craftsmen, to a different audience of people. Hopefully, we can just make a really awesome place where, say, some guy in Nebraska, who’s building amazing stuff, can get access to the people who want to buy cool things.
For the first live auction, I wanted something to blow people away, and I thought, “Well, what’s the best record console that existed?” And it was the JBL Paragon. Finally, one became available, and I snatched it up. I bought all the best McIntosh gear and the best turntable I could find. I went as far as I could get to just put together the greatest record console I think that’s ever been put together. So we got a couple of McIntosh monoblock amplifiers, retro ones, because I just thought they would look cool. It’s got a brand new preamp from McIntosh and a really nice Swiss-made Thorens turntable. I think it’s the best piece I’ve ever done.