jac, as he is usually known, is a legend in audiophile circles, a co-creator of the popular canuckaudiomart.com, and inventor of the Black Hat Desperaudios

jac and his wife Janita on a recent fishing trip in the Rockies

Jac Zylstra has always been enamored by all things audio. From organizing his monthly high school dances in the late 60s, to working as a concert runner for much of the 70s and 80s, jac (as he prefers to be known) has undoubtedly made music a central part of his life.

jac settled down in Edmonton in 1979, and joined its audio community with his home-based repair shop, Revival Audio, as a “self-taught electronics repair guy”. At that time, Edmonton’s audio scene wasn’t nearly as developed as it is today. “There wasn’t much in the way of ‘community’. There were audio stores and a few guys that knew each other, but nothing I saw that resembled either a ‘community’ or ‘congregation’.”

A long-time vinyl collector, jac has over 5,000 titles in his personal library. When asked what draws him to the format most, jac replied, “Vinyl? Perhaps because I think it sounds better for serious listening.” Expounding further, he added, “Collecting records and doing it properly is a bit of process. Knowing what to look for. Learning how to visually and aurally grade the music. If you want to be serious about it, know this – it’s intense work to learn it! And there’s no end to it. After 40+ years of collecting, you can believe me on that!”

However, with a busy schedule of troubleshooting his clients’ audio gear, jac doesn’t listen to his collection as much as he’d like to.

“I’m busy with a lot of things and I just can’t set down my soldering iron every 22 minutes to flip a record. It’s just not fair to the music. So it’s a computer loaded with a few terabytes of music set to play a 100 random songs while I’m at the work bench. But given the choice, it would be vinyl every time!”

Outside of music, jac enjoys birdwatching and wildlife photography. He’s also just realized a five decade wish to fly-fish, a hobby he’s always been curious about, but never got around to trying. At home, jac does most of the cooking for him and his wife, Janita. After nearly three decades working in the hospitality field, jac’s interest in food creation has almost matched his love for music.

ospreys photographed by jac
©2020 Jac Zylstra

“Putting a dinner menu together is just as hard as creating a good music playlist. Finding things that work well together requires some attention to detail, as you can imagine.”

jac is also the co-creator of Canuck Audio Mart, a free online marketplace where Canadians can buy, sell, or trade used audio gear. The concept for Canuck Audio Mart started in 1998 when Jac replied to a thread on Audio Asylum (a US audio forum), suggesting that there should be a site dedicated to Canadians. At the time, Kijiji wasn’t invented yet, and sites like eBay and Audiogon were still exclusive to the US. While Craigslist existed in Canada, it had a bad reputation for scams and fraud, and was seen as unreliable by many.

“So a guy by the name of Rick McIntyre, based out of Regina, saw my post and liked the concept. He had some web building skills and contacted me. We tossed around some ideas, he built the site, and we tweaked it here and there. Mind you, however, that this was a basic form of what CAM is now. I did some marketing, and away it went!”

One key differentiator was that listing on Canuck Audio Mart was free, compared to larger competitors that enlisted a “pay-to-play” format.

“Mention ‘free’ to Canadian audio folk and they’re all over it!”

After a few years of growing the site, Rick, who owned the site, sold Canuck Audio Mart. Since then, the site has had several different owners who have expanded it to new markets, including US Audio Mart. Regarding the sale, jac has no regrets, “I had no financial interest in any of this. It’s doing what I hoped it would and I’m happy with that. I’ve occasionally contributed an idea here and there, but for the most part it’s ticking along nicely. I can still see the old basic format hiding in there and peeking out occasionally.”

In 2010, Jac created Black Hat Desperaudios, an online forum where local audio enthusiasts could discuss their setups, buy and sell equipment, and help each other with technical problems. Initially starting as a Google Group, Black Hat Desperaudios has since transitioned to Facebook, which now serves as its primary platform.

Speaking about the creation of the group, jac remarked, “Lots of the locals knew who I was, but the problem was that they didn’t know each other. So Janita and I launched a platform where like-minded ‘audiots’ could talk to each other and leave third wheel middlemen, like me, out of the way.”

While jac and Janita occasionally grant membership to non-residents, Black Hat Desperaudios is largely a regional entity for northern Alberta. Even the group’s namesake derives from the rivalry between the province’s two major cities.

“If you’re an Alberta resident, you’ll know that Calgary (and the Stampede) is ‘white hat’ territory. Edmonton (and Klondike Days) is ‘black hat’ country. ‘Desperaudios’ was a reflection of the wild west term ‘desperados’ – outlaws and highwaymen. Sort of has a nice feel to it.”

Making Black Hat Desperaudios bigger was never the goal for jac. Instead, making sure that members receive the help they need is much more important to him.

“Would I care for more participation? Sure I would! But it’s no different than almost every other ‘Group’. A certain percentage of members are overtly active, and a greater percentage are ‘lurkers’. But I know they’re there, and I know they’re getting what they need.”

jac has been content to let the group grow at its own pace, and this strategy has worked well for him. Currently, Black Hat Desperaudios has over 500 members between Google and Facebook. “I suppose I could do more. But I think I’ve done plenty, and time does become a factor. Sometimes the members need to be the ones to keep things moving.”

Within Edmonton, there are various other online groups devoted to record collecting. Most notably, there’s the Dead Vinyl Society and #yegdigs – both of which have larger followings and target a broader geographic region. But Jac doesn’t see either group as competition to Black Hat Desperaudios.

“We all co-exist amicably. They are, as their names indicate, about ‘vinyl’. The BHD is a bit more gear oriented. I am a member of those groups, as are many other BHD members, and their members (and owners) are BHD members.”

As for future plans, jac hopes to attract more members from the high-end segment of audio to join Black Hat Desperaudios.

“I sometimes feel there’s a trifle too much reference to vintage audio gear. I don’t see where that leads to a lot of growth in audio enthusiasm. I’d like to have our members spend an hour or two at a local audio boutique and see how that changes their perception.”

Additionally, once the pandemic is over, Jac would like to hold more face-to-face events.

“But I want the members to create those. I’ve done a couple of big ones, and they were enjoyable, but they take 6-8 weeks to put together, cost a lot, and if I break even that’s about as good as it gets.”

More recently, jac has been taking a leadership role in Edmonton’s audio scene – namely, acting as the emcee and promoter for the annual Edmonton Music Collector’s Show. Although many Edmontonians hold jac in high regard, he’s never seen himself at the forefront of the city’s audio scene.

“I prefer to be a more ‘behind the scenes’ type of organizer. I don’t have enough ego and I’m not much of an ‘A’ type personality, so I prefer seeing events go smoothly and care to step up only if necessary.”

Edmonton Music Collector’s Show

Nonetheless, Jac isn’t oblivious to the impact he’s had on Edmonton’s audio scene over the years.

“I don’t know that I’ve had any overt or specific direction. Although, I might say that I’ve had some influence. Meaning that I hope I’ve created some sense of community.”

While jac sees his influence as largely positive, he does recognize that it comes with some drawbacks. One example is a growing trend towards vintage audio equipment, which is something he hadn’t hoped for.

“While the old stuff looks nice and it’s affordable, it really isn’t as good as some entry-level or mid-price gear. And some of it is my own fault. I started out by sourcing and repairing old gear for resale. But once I started listening to some good modern gear, the difference was very obvious.”

The recent resurgence in vinyl has attracted more and more millennials to the world of audio. But for the most part, the industry is still dominated by an older demographic.

Commenting on this trend, Jac observed, “It seems like that’s around the time people start to discover audio, and can afford to discover audio. Younger people have other things on their mind – getting an education, getting a decent job, partying on the weekend, getting laid, buying homes, paying off mortgages, having offspring and so on. None of that leaves a lot of room for a good $20,000 start to higher-end audio.”

When asked whether Edmonton’s audio community could do a better job of recruiting younger members, jac gave a more candid response, “I think the onus is on the newcomer to ask questions. There is no reason to feel intimidated. No more than when you kissed someone for the first time. You may have been intimidated then, but you got over it and moved on to other fun stuff. And let’s remember this – ‘younger people’ are the customers of the future. If you’re in the business of selling audio gear, you’d be wise to pin that on the sales office wall!”

A tube tester inside jac’s workshop

In regard to the pandemic, jac sympathizes with Edmonton’s struggling audio stores, as he knows many of the owners personally.

“This COVID thing is a bitch for many in and around the audio enthusiast end of things. Of course the sticks and bricks vinyl shops are hurting. All sorts of restrictions make browsing through the racks a near impossibility.”

Still, jac keeps an optimistic outlook, mentioning the positive effects COVID-19 has had on businesses.

“On the one hand, the pandemic has driven audio folk to remain at home, listen to their music collection, and seek out better quality gear. I know of more than a few audio dealers who are doing some rather steady business these days.”

While physical restrictions have made public interactions difficult, jac believes that communication with like-minded people has actually gotten stronger since lockdown.

“The social media river I see is reaching white water levels. People are talking about their music collections now more than ever. An enthusiastic collector will ask about the best version of a composition to find, and the responses will flood in within minutes!”

But spending more time online does have its caveats, Jac says, “If I can offer this opinion, there might be too many rooms and groups. I get a half dozen, or more, invitations to join something in audio every week. However, it’s not a bad thing. It simply means that there’s something for everyone.”

Ending off the conversation, Jac mentioned that the lockdown really hasn’t changed the listening habits of audio lovers.

“Audiophile level listening has pretty much always been a solitary endeavour. One person sitting in a listening area, with ready access to other like-minded folk, was already our ‘new normal’.”

He also stressed that while the pandemic poses new and unique challenges to Edmonton’s audio community, he believes the city is in really good shape overall.

Here’s how I see it – the audio community in our region didn’t really have to make a lot of changes to deal with the pandemic. We were already ready! The only difference is that we’re using the pipelines more than we used to.”