So, why were most of Stereophile's full-time editorial staff fighting their way through rain, fog, and springtime sleet to the Athens of the South? The magnet drawing them toward the land of peanuts'n'pines was the first-ever Awards Dinner to be held by the Academy for the Advancement of High End Audio.
The what for the what?
The Academy for the Advancement of High End Audio, or AAHEA, is the first attempt in many years by specialist audio manufacturers to act as a group for the benefit of all.
Now I'm always suspicious of organizations that label themselves "Academies." True, definition #3 in Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary reads: "a society of learned persons organized to advance art, science, or literature," which is a worthy enough philosophy. But definition #4 has it as "a body of established opinion widely accepted as authoritative in a particular field"—and if there is one group of people who react badly to both authority and "established opinion," it is those creative iconoclasts, loners, and freethinkers who constitute audio's High End. A cynic once divided the world into "leaders" and "joiners." Why then should the former start to act like the latter?
Historically, The Absolute Sound's Harry Pearson was the key figure in the founding of the Academy. In the fall of 1988, Harry celebrated his magazine's 15th anniversary by inviting just about every face in the world of high-end audio to his Long Island home for Columbus Day cocktails. A formal dinner followed the next day to honor, in HP's words, "The 15th anniversary of the high end in honor of the designers of the equipment, the authors of the recordings, and the movers and shakers who brought it into being." At the dinner, a number of "Golden Ear Awards," or "High End Design Achievement Awards," were presented to those judged as having produced the seminal products since 1973, the year of TAS's founding.
Forty members of the high-end audio community—writers, editors, and retailers—voted from a list of nominees chosen by Harry Pearson; the winners were Audio Research's William Z. Johnson, Quad's Peter Walker, Doug Sax and Lincoln Mayorga of Sheffield Lab, Koetsu designer Yoshiaki Sugano, MIT's Bruce Brisson, Ivor Tiefenbrun of Linn Sondek fame, and SME's Alastair Robertson-Aikman. Lifetime Achievement Awards were also presented to those who, it was felt, had a seminal influence on the high end. The five recipients were Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt, Joe Grado, Stuart Hegeman, recording engineer Bill Porter, and Mercury's Wilma Cozart Fine.
Though Harry had intended the dinner and awards to be a one-off event, such was the air of bonhomie generated that he asked Wendell Diller of Magnepan, Joyce Fleming of The Mod Squad and McCormack, Karen Sumner of Transparent Audio Marketing, and Kathy Gornik of Thiel to be members of a Steering Committee to put together some kind of trade organization for the High End. "I named the Committee and told them that Niagara was ahead," Sallie Reynolds reported him as saying in TAS No.67. These four put much thought into the concept, and, with the aid of audiophile attorney and Stereophile contributor Steve Watkinson, drew up a set of bylaws, appointed both a Board of Governors and an Executive Director (William Peugh II of Goldmund importer International Audio Technologies), changed their name to the Executive Committee, and set about bringing AAHEA (footnote 1) into the world.
Not without pain.
The Board of Governors initially consisted of Mark Glazier (Madrigal), Marcia Martin (Reference Recordings), John Russell (Bryston Vermont), Gayle Sanders (MartinLogan), Kevin Voecks (Snell Acoustics)—and Stereophile's Larry Archibald. "What's he doing on the board?" came the cry of some who feel that members of the press do not belong in a trade organization intended to further the business interests of manufacturers if they are to retain their professional disinterest, and from others who feel that writers whose function it is to criticize member's products should necessarily be excluded.
Other controversies involved whether the existence of a trade organization is itself unethical, and, indeed, who should belong at all? If companies in general were allowed to join, wouldn't the AAHEA become controlled by the domestic branches of overseas manufacturers, as happened to the old Institute of High Fidelity (IHF) and the Electronic Industries Association (EIA)? And if you restricted membership to High End companies, what do those two words mean? Everyone knows what the "High End" is until they try to define it. As Magnepan's Jim Winey said in Atlanta, defining High End "is as subjective as listening to music."
Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn about these various squabbles. What seems important to me is that AAHEA first exist, then invent itself along optimum lines. If prenatal criticism is allowed to abort the birth, then the only certain outcome is no outcome. The question of press involvement—and I feel the press should be involved, it being without a doubt that in some ways the press is a major driving force behind the existence of the High End—was easily resolved by allowing writers, editors, and other members of the press to become nonvoting Associate Members, thus allowing them to observe, criticize, and offer ideas without actually having direct influence. (LA accordingly resigned as a Governor, to join an expanded, nonvoting Executive Committee. Sallie Reynolds of TAS and The Perfect Vision also joined that Committee.) Dealers, too, who have much worldly experience to offer the Academy, can become Associate Members. Companies and individuals who contribute services to AAHEA, such as Steve Watkinson, can become Contributing Members.
The general question as to who should be a member was resolved by allowing individuals, not companies, to join, with a proposed member having to be in business for three years to be eligible, needing five nominations from existing members to be considered, then 75% of the votes when his or her proposed membership is put to existing members. In this way, although no one can define High End, the membership itself, by its voting pattern, will result in an ipso facto definition. "We know who we are!" said Naim Audio's Alexis Arnold in Atlanta.
As of the Atlanta weekend, 145 members had joined AAHEA, 50 of whom had made the Georgia trek and, once there, had conducted a spirited debate about the organization's membership criteria and aims. The underlying question is: Why is there a need for such an organization?
Elsewhere in this issue, George Tice in effect accuses Stereophile of wanting to reach a wider readership. Yes, we do. We believe that the market for high-end audio components could be much wider than it now is. There are literally millions of music-lovers in the US who take their music seriously. It is these people who buy most of the records sold—$7.5 billion worth in 1990, according to this month's "Industry Update"—and who, as mentioned in a reader's letter this month, support the multiplicity of live music-making in the US. The tragedy is that these people spend $4 billion annually on hi-fi components that offer features, remote-control convenience, and aesthetically satisfying styling, but not necessarily a sound quality to match. And do not assume that these components are all cheap. A top-specification rack system from a leading Japanese company can cost considerably more than a true high-end-sounding, under-$1000 system that I recently heard at Phoenix dealer Sounds Like Music Real Hi-Fi Systems—Philips CD player, Rotel amplifier, Energy loudspeakers, and Sound Organisation stands.
It was this widespread ignorance that led Congress last Fall to propose a luxury tax on hi-fi components costing more than $1000. "Hey!" seemed to be the politicians' attitude, "So what if the Japanese sell fewer expensive hi-fi products than they used to?" And as the one skill any politician has is to reflect the thinking of his or her constituents, what better evidence could you have that the High End has a profile so low as to be non-existent?
When I interviewed loudspeaker designer and erstwhile audio critic David Wilson in 1990 about, among other things, his WATT/Puppy speaker/woofer combination reviewed in this issue, he remarked that the high-end industry is the true American audio industry of the '90s. David Wilson is correct. The names of Fisher, Marantz, H.H. Scott, and Sherwood may have become mere badges attached to Far Eastern sell-on-price-alone gear, but there is a healthy, viable alternative virtually unknown to the man in the street. The High End represents a newly mature renaissance of the American consumer electronics industry. Companies like Vandersteen, Thiel, Madrigal, Krell, Audio Research, Counterpoint, and Magnepan may not have existed 10, 15, or 20 years ago, but all of them are healthy businesses with both consistent rates of growth and sales heavily based on export in an age when the US regards itself as a purchaser of other countries' products.
Healthy such companies may be, but they're small—Far Eastern companies spend more each year on promoting than the High End grosses. Only if they get together can they generate enough light and heat to be noticed.
That this can actually happen is demonstrated by the events of last Fall. Of all the luxury taxes proposed, all but one went into effect. That exception was the tax on audio components. It was the efforts of Bill Peugh and the fledgling Academy that spearheaded a lobbying effort to educate 435 Congressmen and 100 Senators in the high-end facts of life—that 61% of components costing more than $1000 are manufactured ratcheer in the US of A—that led to the tax being dropped from the final package. And the newfound strength in numbers has persuaded the organizers of the Consumer Electronics Show, the EIA, at last to offer suitable facilities to companies wanting to demonstrate sound quality at this month's Summer CES; ie, at the Chicago Hilton rather than the execrable booths of the 1990 show.
Footnote 1: The Academy for the Advancement of High End Audio can be contacted at P.O. Box 220866, Chantilly, VA 22022 (1991).