Sporting an “HD Tracks” baseball cap, a gray cashmere jacket and khakis, he assists in rocking and rotating a KEF Ref 5 speaker weighing — the emcee announces — 136 lbs. into optimum position, as demarcated by thin strips of black tape. Johan — The KEF demo guru with whom he shares the room — is captivating some 50 aficionados.
“Is that good?” Hill asks. Later, chewing his thick cigar, he quips, “When you’re from the Midwest, if something needs doing, you just do it.”
Like many here, he started his company in his garage, braiding cables with a former partner in 1984. The partner is long gone, but in 2015, Straight Wire’s business is booming.
“We have a diverse line of over 80 cables – so no particular cable comprises such a significant share of our sales,” he says. “Over 70% of our cables are made in USA. Virtually all IC (interconnect) and SC (speaker cables). Our top shelf cables offer great engineering, materials, build qualities and sonic attributes – that are fairly priced. We base all pricing on cost plus and, with over 30 years expertise, value engineering.”
One of their new products is their “USBF,” a high end USB 2.0 cable that retails at $160.
It has discrete filter circuits for both power and data signals which, their literature says, “greatly reduce noise and data errors that come from most notebook computers and most USB source devices.” It also features compressed, silver plated conductors to enhance the accuracy of their signal.
In addition, Straight Wire does a lot of Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) work for the likes of Harmon International and others. “We mainly provide internal bulk speaker wires for Wisdom, Triad and others,” he states, adding, “We used to do Thiel and the Sony M series.”
“For JBL Synthesis and Mark Levinson – we make completed cables assemblies for external connections.” Straight Wire, he says, also makes headphone cables and provides external wires for a number of companies who prefer to remain anonymous.
Hill has served as Chair of the Specialty Audio subdivision of the Consumer Electronics Association circa 1995-1996 and then on their audio board and various other committees.
Strength in Diversity: Industry and Beautiful Music
He was born an alpha male in the making — but with a twist — in Chicago in 1957, the firstborn son of a firstborn father, Herbert, an investment banker who bred and raised racehorses, while his mother, Ruth, was a homemaker, artist, creative cook and singer.
Raised in Morton Grove and, later, Highland Park, Illinois with two younger siblings, he played sports like baseball, football and tennis until he was 45; in fact, he was a top level racquetball player and teacher from 1978 to 1983.
He played viola from ages 9 to 11, and with his parents introducing him to many live music performances, and it wasn’t long before he began catching the audiophile bug. He built a crystal radio somewhere between ages 10 and 11.
Then, he began working at 12, delivering newspapers, mowing lawns. Later, he was delivering pizzas and serving as an “Andy Frain” usher at Highland Park’s acclaimed Ravinia Festival at age 15.
“Success (to me) was working and making money,” he says.
But he wasn’t all about work. He enjoyed taking in live sessions of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Beverly Sills, Van Clyborn, Ravi Shankar, and many pop groups, and somewhere in between music, sports, and academia, he became a championship foosball and pool player.
And then, there was high fidelity music.
“It was falling into the music back in the 70’s. There was no internet, video games, or cable TV,” he recalls. “Music has many soothing and refreshing qualities – especially when presented with great quality. My brother and I heard Thiel loudspeakers back in the 70’s and were amazed.” Getting into hi-fi equipment at 14, his first serious system consisted of a Sansui integrated Amp, Ohm & RTR electrostatic speakers, and a Rabco ST-7 turntable.
His obsession with audio blossomed when he attended the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania (where he studied Accounting and Finance and took courses in Electrical Engineering “just for fun”) thanks, in part, to a professor, Dr. Salati, who stoked his passion. But, it was more than that.
“I enjoyed selling hi-fi equipment in college,” he quips. “It was more fun than my CPA days. I got to chat and advise about Hi-fi all day.”
Then love struck. His best friend introduced him to his wife, Goldie (who earned degrees in education, botany and medical records, and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa) “via a ‘Bid for Bachelors Charity’ event in April 87. They married seven months later.
Always one to return favors, the affable Hill says ,“I introduced the same friend to his wife in 1990.”
Goldie, now a retired medical records consultant and former director, (who isn’t involved in day-to-day operations at Straight Wire but is always willing to help, he says) has provided Steven with three uber-talented children.
Their oldest, Julie, 26, has accolades as a singer, composer and voice teacher, as well as in musical theater (see www.iamjuliehill.com).
“He was always present at my performances, showing support, even when it meant traveling far distances,” Julie says of her dad. “He was extremely helpful with regard to financing my education, and his love for hi-fi helped me develop an appreciation for sound recording and production quality early on. The more I mature, the more admiration I have for his work.”
Hill’s son, Robert, 23, was on the Deans List at NYU, where he studied Finance and computer science. Working for KPMG, he composes his own music on the side, plays bass in the New York City-based progressive rock band, Jarflower (see https://jarflower.bandcamp.com).
And Leslie, 20, who is on the Deans List studying engineering as a junior at Columbia University in New York City, also plays piano and the flute.
All three started playing the piano when they were six years old.
Their Bread and Butter
Nowadays, Hill arrives at his office “at the crack of 10:30 A.M. or later”, working until 7:30 P.M. and on some nights, much later. He spends most weekends at the office. He focuses most of his energies on checking technical issues, production, administration, suppliers and foreign distributors. “I’m not as active in domestic sales as I used to be,” he says, “but I’m always glad to speak directly with consumers.”
Twenty-five to 35 percent of their sales are generated outside the U.S. — which Hill nurtures with “good communication and occasional visits for shows and events,” he says. “Many come to Florida (especially in the winter) for visits to us.”
It is these relationships and talking to consumers, dealers and distributors worldwide that keep his fire going.
“Over the years, I have made many personal relationships through business ones – it’s hard to distinguish. If you have common passions – not just hi-fi (friendships blossom). Many foreign distributors and dealers have stayed at my home and reciprocate when I visit,” he effuses. “We have seen our/their kids grow up.”
Straight Wire’s strength, as he sees it, is their “wide selection with different sonic characteristics, value, system analysis, build quality consistency and our honesty in suggesting many times that they do not need to ‘upgrade’ or change cables.”
Elaborating, he says, “Jerry Willsie (sales director) and I have over 75 years as “high end” and AV experts – we know the sonic character and nuances of almost any equipment made in the past 30 plus years – so we chat with dealers and consumers on cable suggestions and other AV issues.”
Now and again, he gets exotic orders outside the norm, which include, “huge yachts like Fedship, Boeing Business jets for private use, many of the IASCA sound quality award winning cars and commercial /studio applications,” he shares. “High roller casino suites and South beach clubs, many “billionaire” homes around the world – we cannot disclose their names or specifics.”
To decompress from it all, he says, “Most nights I’m shooting billiards from 11P.M. to 2 A.M.”
Ever personable, Hill offers a unique service to the customer in helping them select the proper cable for their home system: room evaluation. This is a service I took advantage of when I acquired my Straight Wire cables. On the systems analysis portion of their website, they have posted photos of three different rooms as a starting point. Then, they ask a bunch of questions to fine-tune their evaluation.
“Size, floor coverings, furniture, non symmetrical opening, windows, doors and listening position are all taken into consideration,” he says. “Certain enthusiasts have preferred tonality and volume ranges – we ask them what they have used or tried and try to dig deep to make the best suggestions.”
Did You Say Research?
“When a new material or manufacturing process comes to light – I explore the possibilities via research and prototypes,” he confides. “We do not changes models frequently (like some companies). Innovations and breakthroughs do not come with periodic regularity like some companies may lead you to believe.
“For years, I’ve had a listening advisory board with diverse components, rooms and musical tastes,” he continues. “We do not focus on making cables to optimize just one set of components – because there’s so many good/great components in the market. Do we give special consideration to the high end market leaders of sources, Amps, preamps, speakers? Of course!”
Through the years, he has drawn on special testing equipment via a friend in Sonar and Phase Array Development, as well as another in the cell phone industry. What exactly are these devices?
“Extremely accurate low impedance probes/ complex load simulators and other custom built devices to mimic real life speaker and electronics behavior,” he responds. “For years we’ve had a Wayne Kerr bridge and other good equipment, but their equipment and resources are world class. I cannot comment with more specifics other than to say – these people and their companies acknowledge that cables can make a notable, measurable difference and improvement in performance.”
You Say High Res, I Say Low
When asked whether he felt where the audio industry is going nowadays — is it bifurcated to either low or really high resolution? — he had the following to say:
“Yes and no. Largely, the so-called high res of audio will be dictated by main stream technology application at a low cost. Let’s face it: Younger people use their phones for everything. As a new generation of phones has incredible storage capacity, people will no longer have to have MP3 level files stored on their phones, and they’ll be able to move to at least CD quality, which is a major improvement upward because most of the listening that they’re doing is on a portable basis.
“For audiophiles and enthusiasts at home, the issue of streaming versus downloading will be interesting, because I still don’t believe that in the streaming model, they’re going to get to anything anywhere beyond CD quality in a broad based market. They’re merely appealing to the masses, mainly again for mobile and other applications. But I feel that there’s still more life to the download market than they give credit for, for a variety of reasons.
“As I mentioned before, I’m not biased in regards to the Chesky Brothers and HD Tracks (I’ve been close to them for over 28 years).”
Sea Changes in Audio
“Everybody was sort of running by the seat of their pants,” he explains when asked how the audio industry has changed since he got started in this business some 32 years ago. “There were many different so to speak technologies or solutions, but probably a lot of raw emotion.” But now, many who founded companies are in their twilight years.
“We’re seeing an influx of many younger people who are coming in, doing a lot of work and creating new products (and means of delivery)… I think the old approach was really one-on-one where, without the internet, without certain distribution (or) other channels — it involved getting to know, going out to meet the high end audio dealers.”
And, then there’s the matter of the press. “You had a handful of magazines, such as Stereophile, Absolute Sound, Audio Magazine, I think Audio Voice, maybe — it started off way back when as an offshoot of the Westchester Audio Society,” he points out. Now, we have a proliferation of media outlets on audio, of which he says, “in some ways that the press can be a bit of noise — good and bad — but (in the past) it was largely by word of mouth, and certain enthusiasts to experience it.”
And, today, he adds, we have so many different options open to consumers. “Many companies offering great values, going factory direct,” He notes while cautioning, “By the same token, you have to listen to the equipment — everything: speakers, electronic sources and cable — before making (a more informed) purchasing decision. And the beauty of a specialty audio retailer is they’re taking the time to help guide you. Not just so they can make a lot of money, but so they can do the best job possible to understand your tastes, your room environment and what you’re looking for — and make that journey a little more direct than trial and error.”
Through the Years — Filling Voids and Integrity
“Going back over 30 years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many of the old guard manufacturers, and rather than name specific big names or share some wild anecdotes of experiences at shows and conferences, I’ll just say that we all had one thing in common: most of us had a strong educational or entrepreneurial background and could have probably made a lot more money in other fields, but we had a specific passion for high quality audio and felt that there was a void there that could be filled,” Hill asserts.
“Many people have subsequently retired, gone on, but there is new blood coming in with a lot of younger people who have that same passion and enthusiasm. And the important thing to remember is that you see the name of a company and it stood for something, but behind the scenes, it was the integrity of just one or two individuals,” he says. “Almost all of these companies were privately owned, and the passion they had for putting out quality before they put their name on something. The warranties, et cetera were largely based on their decisions to say, ‘look, we want to keep the customers happy.’ And, if something went wrong, even if it was out of a so-called warranty period, many of the manufacturers would honor it and try to do right by the clients and customers.”
And from the early days of all the audio shows, he says that the industry has evolved quite a lot. “It’s a lot more shows, a lot more presentation — but it still gets down to the same thing,” he asserts, “where people are setting up stuff to get good sound and try to convey the emotional experience from good quality source material that offers you a sense of total relaxation or escape so you can just get entranced in the music. And that hasn’t really changed.”
Headphones — a Portal Into the New Generation
Steven Hill makes no bones about something he sees as key in passing the Golden Chalice of Hi-Fi to the next generation: “These days, I’m a big fan of all the headphone rooms because we’re going to have to capture the younger market first through the headphones.”
Referring to dealers at the Ear Expo and elsewhere, he says, “There’s an enormous number — all good — of headphone makers, and we have to understand that younger people may not be set; they have little space. Even if they wanted to get a dedicated system, it would have to be for very near field listening.”
He’s especially excited about the caliber of products being offered, such as the “shift over to electrostatic or planar magnetic headphones. “It’s quite remarkable,” he says. “And a lot of the crossover headphone amps and other devices are so important because if they can experience good quality sound on that level, when they’re ready and able, they will move on to more standard high end components, such as high quality integrated amps, speakers, source material,” he notes with that cigar chomping smile, “and hopefully, a few high-end cables.”
Kudos and Optimism
Throughout my visit with Steven Hill, I found him to be extremely outgoing and gregarious, greeting attendees and merchants alike, striking up conversations, passing out business cards and taking a genuine interest in others experiences. My personal experience in owning Straight Wire cables and interconnects has been amazing (my Mark Levinson ML-9 amp, previously a touch dark, produces new detail, lightness and oomph). It’s no wonder that Straight Wire is doing so well. Now, relaxing at a lounge chair in an alcove, away from the noise of the crowded halls, Hill adjusts his hat, rotates his cigar, and talks about his appreciation for the guests and producers AXPONA.
“It has an energy level that I think has been accumulating for a while. We have a crowd of people who are genuinely enthusiastic, the size has not yet overgrown the facility, and I want to give Steve Davis and all the people at AXPONA all the credit in the world for what they’ve created. I hope the people from the whole Chicagoland and extended areas — or at least a few states extended for those who travel from far away — I appreciate the effort that went into it by both the show organizers, the equipment manufacturers, et cetera, and hope we continue to be here for years to come!”