10 Years After
Larry Archibald was moving office. As Stereophile's CEO believes that whatever you need should be close to hand and that you will always need everything, a knot of interested staffers gathered to see what archaeological items would be unearthed from the shrinking piles of paper on and around his desk. My haul? I managed to rescue some otherwise dumpster-destined 1986 issues of PC Magazine.
Browsing through those magazines, I stumbled across a writer referring to a 286 PC with a 12MHz clock as "blindingly fast"—compared with the 166MHz Pentium machine the same $3000 could buy today, the best of 1986 would appear brain-dead! An ad for an add-on 60Mb hard drive promoted how affordable it was at just $1350—I just paid $179 for a second 512Mb drive for my 486! The Radio Shack Model-100 was the professional writer's laptop of choice—its meager 24kb of user RAM, about 4000 words' worth, was considered a lot in '86. And Microsoft's Windows and Word for Windows were being reviewed against strong competitors like GEM Desktop, DESQview, Volkswriter, Wordstar 2000 Plus, and other contenders for the "Where Are They Now?" Club. (The exception was XYWrite III Plus, which I still use, except that I now run it in a Windows window so I can toggle between it and Word 6.0.)
It was in May 1986 that I left the UK magazine I had been working at for 10 years, Hi-Fi News & Record Review, to join Larry Archibald and J. Gordon Holt at Stereophile. While HFN/RR was commercially successful, the fact that it was owned by a large conglomerate meant that it was not as flexible as I needed it to be to push it toward the goal I had envisioned. However, Stereophile had the seeds within it of what I wanted to achieve: In the same way that the nascent High End's commitment to sound quality would eventually make it the Audio Establishment in the '90s, I wanted to take the magazine J. Gordon Holt had founded—on the seminal idea of judging an audio component by how it sounds—and steer it into the mainstream. Without losing sight of the publication's roots, compromising its integrity, or dumbing down the words it published, I believed that it was possible to produce a high-circulation audio magazine that would enroll its readers in its world of ideas to a much greater degree than had previously existed in the field of hi-fi publishing.
I was lucky enough to find, one by one, a team of talented writers and editors who shared my vision. Guys and gals, you're the best! I was also lucky enough to find you—the best, most perceptive readers in the world. My thanks to all of you, writers and readers alike. You've changed the world of audio.
From this vantage point of 10 years after I crossed the pond, that world has certainly appeared to change. The stable of US magazines in 1986 included The Abso!ute Sound, Audio, Stereo Review, Hi-Fi Heretic, High Fidelity, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The Audio Amateur, Speaker Builder, and The $ensible Sound. Stereophile was a digest-sized publication appearing eight times a year and averaging around 150 pages per issue. Between 90 and 100 of these pages were editorial, the 50,000 or so words being written by a team of 20 editors and reviewers. Its readers were as vocal and involved as they are now, but there were only around 25,000 of them. (When Larry bought the magazine in 1982, it had fewer than 3000 readers and the number was falling. For LA to establish a rate of circulation growth sufficient to reach 25,000 in just four years with only minimal capitalization is a tribute to his street smarts and business integrity.) I was Stereophile, Inc.'s full-time employee No.3!
The magazine you hold is the first of my second 10 years. To date, I have contributed about a million and a quarter words to 116 issues of Stereophile, as well as producing eight recordings for the magazine. In 1996, Stereophile, Inc. employs around 45 full-time staffers, with 60 editors and writers contributing an average of 120,000 words to each of 12 full-size issues every year. Our average magazine size in '96 is 300 pages, 150 of them editorial, and each issue is devoured by more than 80,000 audiophiles and music lovers.
Other than High Fidelity and Hi-Fi Heretic, the 1986 magazines are still around, but have been joined by Stereophile Guide to Home Theater, Fi, The Audio Adventure, Tracking Angle, Listener, The Audiophile Voice, Sound Practices, Glass Audio, Positive Feedback, Home Theater, Bound For Sound, Vacuum Tube Valley, Widescreen Review, and The Audio Critic. To judge by the sheer volume of words published each year, high-end audio in 1996 is healthier than ever.
But words alone are not necessarily a good indicator of health. As the High End has grown over the past 10 years, it has also fragmented. Who'd have thought in 1986 that anachronistic single-ended tube amplifiers would be the hot thing in 1996? While the sound quality of today's best gear is significantly higher than what could be achieved 10 years ago, so is its price! And are Home Theater and Car Audio really threatening the High End? Or are they bringing new people, with new voices, to our often too-insular world?
Whatever the answers, I'm sure that I'll meet you here in 10 years' time. And however the world will have changed, there will still be a place for music lovers to escape into the best kind of virtual reality—that created in one's own mind via the magic of music! Because, in the words of the sadly mortal Lowell George, "If you like the sound of shufflin' feet, it cain't be beat!"—John Atkinson