Keeper of the keys: De Leon in 78-45-33; Photograph by Artu Nepomuceno 
Culture Music

This vinyl collector is San Agustin Street's proprietor of cool

Amidst bottles of booze and the smell of truffle oil, Tonyboy de Leon tells us about how he got hooked on vinyl and fell deep for the subtleties of sound.
Paolo Vergara | Sep 20 2018

It’s raining outside, and the notorious Makati traffic has piled up even in this Salcedo backstreet—but no outside sounds are heard here, in 78-45-33, Tonyboy de Leon’s bar-cum-bachelor pad.

Instead, Aretha Franklin is serenading us from the vintage JBL Hartsfield speakers, likely produced in 1964, which de Leon purchased from audio equipment collectors. The only light source in this Japanese jazz kissaten-inspired joint comes from the shelf where his 2000+ record collection sits just above the bottles.

He’s irreverent and gregarious, the inflections of his voice upbeat. This entrepreneur isn’t trying to sell me something, but is more of a next-door neighbor excited to have you over for drinks and check out his music collection.

There are wine connoisseurs, cars collectors, and art hunters. De Leon, meanwhile, doesn’t mind spending close to seven figures on audio equipment. For him, words like “provenance” and “heritage” belong to vintage turntables and speaker components, and vinyl record pressings. He and his friends can tell the nuances between American and German pressings and parts, between Filipino and Japanese. There is a marked difference between analog and digital audio, and it’s not just nostalgia. A visit to the bar suggests that, but de Leon’s enthusiasm puts it into words.

De Leon flanked by his vintage JBL Hartsfield speakers. Below him, a 45 vacuum tube JE Lab design built by Joel Esmilla and Joel Villanueva.

This bar, along with another project, is his paean to analog audio. “Don’t expect to get rich here, let’s share what we have, let’s teach people how to listen again,” he told his friends and investors-to-be as he pitched the bar concept. Every now and then, elements of the sound system changes: needles, preamplifiers, the like, with the barkada collection rotating.

The place plays just jazz music, though de Leon has a lot of new wave, house music, and punk rock, too. “Chill na ’ko, eh, there can be a tugs-tugs bar over there, but people will have their pre-game here.”

He recalls the communal ritual of unwrapping a new record back in the day. “When we get a record, you call your friends. Pare, I have the latest album, punta kayo dito mamayang gabi. Everyone gathers in your house, you open the record, excited lahat, they look at the album cover, they read the text, galing ‘di ba? Linis konti, ilagay sa plaka, play!” As he recalls these minutiae, his expression softens. It’s not wistfulness. He’s not back in high school, but brimming with the energy of a high schooler.

It all started with a juvenile pot session many, many years back. During one family lunch, a close family friend took him aside and took out a bong. Like many during that age, de Leon was not new to the substance but trying it on the pipe was—no pun intended—enlightening. Playing at that moment was the Dave Grusin and The GRP All-Stars Live in Japan album.

A pair of cream Garrard 301, schedule 1 from the 50s by the bar; detail of the Hartsfield speakers

That was when he realized music wasn’t just for the background, but an immersive experience, and the medium delivering it counted as much as the product.

Part of a family of land developers, De Leon had a headstart with life, but it didn’t mean being handed a silver platter. He first made a living trading high-risk stocks after graduating from Finance in De La Salle Manila. It was the early 90s and the rave scene was peaking. He and his friends would leave at midnight to party, and often, they threw their own, playing exclusively punk rock and new wave sets as part of a DJ mobile called Social Distortion.

The bubble eventually burst with the rest of the Asian economy in the 1997 financial crisis. Today, he manages a company that repairs building leaks. At home, he employs no maids, preferring to do the housekeeping himself. He is a bachelor, but with two daughters, “It’s complicated,” he laughs, “can I get you a drink?” Today, “quality of life” is his focus, “I’m not interested in a gazillion pesos as before.”

He found love again in the early 2000s, stumbling across the same Dave Grusin album at a thrift shop. He had stopped buying vinyl since, moving into CDs. Recalling the high, he was compelled to hear the album again, but it was on vinyl. He promptly purchased a vintage gramophone just for it.

The rest is history.

Just a fraction of his 2000+ vinyl collection

Aside from the bar, another audio-related project is the annual November Hi Fi show, a record and audio equipment exposition held at entire floors of the Dusit. People from around the country and abroad have noted that the displays are comparable to what’s at Singapore or New York. This is De Leon’s way of not just spreading analog audio appreciation but giving back to the community of audiophiles. Spending months preparing for the event, he subsidizes the rooms of up-and-coming local audio makers.

De Leon starts geeking out over the Hartsfield speakers. I’m honestly not sure if he’s joking when he says the bar was created just to see how the speakers sound. He doesn’t say “hear” the sound. He asks us to “feel” it. “Why am I using such low-powered watts today? The theory in audio is not how many watts you have but the quality.” Back then, his focus was more on “power than on quality. I didn’t know what sound quality was.”

He’s on a roll. “Your first watt is the most important. The cleanest, purest sound is the best sound. You don’t need a thousand watts,” he says, despite what many makers today like to advertise. If you can fine-tune one watt to get the subtleties out, you’ve done well.

De Leon: "Let's teach people how to listen again."

The rain has stopped. The traffic has considerably lightened. Now it’s Frank Sinatra singing. The speakers highlight the nuances of his voice as much as the voice highlights that of the speakers. There’s a brief pause in the conversation, but it’s not awkward. It’s an interlude track in a concept album. De Leon raises his glass and I follow. “I believe Sinatra was at his peak in his 40s and 50s,” he says. Some of us gathered on the bar raise our eyebrows. “His raspy voice sounds better,” de Leon confesses, better than the smooth baritone of the crooner’s youth.

 

Photographs by Artu Nepomuceno