James Bongiorno Great American Sound, Sumo, Ampzilla 2000
By Robert Harley
James Bongiorno’s long and storied career spans two entirely distinct eras, from Hadley, Dynaco, Marantz, and SAE in the 1960s, to Constellation Audio in the second decade of the 21st century. Bongiorno designed amplifiers in six different decades, working alongside other industry legends such as Richard Sequerra, Sidney Smith, David Hafler, Morris Kessler, John Curl, and Bascom King.
But Bongiorno will best be remembered for Great American Sound (GAS), the company he founded in 1974 after leaving SAE. The GAS Ampzilla power amplifier was an instant classic, outperforming many much more expensive amplifiers and sending ripples through the industry. This was the dawn of the high-end renaissance, right about the time of Phase Linear and Audio Research, when the demand for relatively high-powered amplifiers was exploding. The 200Wpc Ampzilla was the first to feature a full dual-differential complementary amplifier circuit, a topology that is the basis for nearly every modern solid-state power amplifier. The Ampzilla not only sounded terrific and sold in huge numbers, but Bongiorno exemplified the maverick entrepreneurial designer who created his company from nothing but talent, a dream, and (literally) a kitchen table.
Great American Sound was like a star that burns brightly but briefly; after selling part of the company to fund an expansion, Bongiorno was forced out and the company folded a few years later. Bongiorno quickly founded a new company, Sumo Electric Company, Ltd., to bring his circuits to moderately priced products. In typical Bongiorno fashion, Sumo’s launch was announced with a full-page ad in Audio magazine that depicted an ape (the GAS company symbol) hanging on a crucifix, accompanied by this inscription, in French: “The end of an era.” As with GAS, disputes between business partners led to Sumo’s premature demise.
What Bongiorno and his two companies left behind, however, is a rich legacy of innovative designs and a loyal following that continues to this day. There’s a cadre of audiophiles who still venerate the Ampzilla and GAS’s legendary preamplifier, the Thaedra. In fact, a company called Bettinger Audio Design is dedicated to restoring and refurbishing GAS and Sumo products with modern parts.
In 2008 Bongiorno launched a new company, Spread Spectrum Technologies, and another Ampzilla amplifier, the Ampzilla 2000. The new Ampzilla was widely praised and commercially successful, although the amp was entirely different from the original.
To call Jim Bongiorno a colorful character is not only a monumental understatement, but both figuratively and literally true; the accompanying photo reflects his daily dress. Audacious and flamboyant in the extreme, any encounter with Bongiorno was bound to be a memorable experience. He had a penchant for making sweeping pronouncements such as “I haven’t seen a single preamp in the history of the world that I would ever consider using other than my Thaedra.” When asked about the merits of specific transistor types, he replied, “It doesn’t matter whether a product is made with donkey manure. The only thing that is important is the final performance.” In responding to a negative review (of the Son of Ampzilla in TAS Issue 10), Bongiorno questioned the reviewer’s qualifications: “Our industry’s attempts may be compared to violin-making. Unfortunately, the performance of a Stradivarius can be clouded by the abilities of a questionable virtuoso.”
As passionate as Bongiorno was about designing amplifiers, he was even more passionate about playing the piano. He was torn throughout his entire life between amplifier design and working as a professional musician. Bongiorno was an accomplished jazz pianist who performed semi-regularly, and made four recordings that were released on CD. A journalist colleague of mine who visited Jim in the 1980s reported finding a house virtually devoid of furniture along with an empty refrigerator, but a living room filled with an audio system, a massive music collection, a stockpile of fine wine, and a 90-year-old, $100,000-plus, 9' Steinway concert grand. The man’s priorities were writ large in his decor.
Bongiorno’s life and career is all the more remarkable when you consider that he was diagnosed with liver cancer at the age of 34 and told that he had just months to live. He fought that disease valiantly for an astonishing 35 years before succumbing to it in January 2013, at the age of 69. He lived and breathed amplifier design, contributing right up to the end as part of the team that created the Constellation Reference Series electronics, which launched in 2010. Jim Bongiorno was one-of-a-kind amplifier (and tuner) designer, and a one-of-a-kind human being.