Communities

I was having breakfast in my hotel room on December 13, 2008, finally getting down to preparing the presentation I was to give at the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society scant hours later (footnote 1). I procrastinated a little more by checking my e-mail one more time. The message from Ivor Humphreys, once my deputy editor at the UK's Hi-Fi News & Record Review magazine (now just plain Hi-Fi News), and for many years technical editor at Gramophone magazine, was typically terse: "John Crabbe has died. He had a fall on the wintry ice a few days ago and broke an arm. He died at home yesterday. He was 79."

I went quiet. Not only had John Crabbe been my predecessor as editor of Hi-Fi News & Record Review, he had also been my mentor. I had known nothing about publishing or editing (and not as much as I pretended about audio) when I joined HFN/RR as a lowly editorial assistant in September 1976, yet that very first morning, John had given me his editorial leader to copy-edit.

I had been reading John since the late 1960s. The lab I worked at back then subscribed to scientific journals, of course, but among the periodicals available was Hi-Fi News (incorporating Tape and Tape Recorders, Audio News, Stereo News, and Record News). I added my name to the lab's (long) distribution list and, several months in arrears, began to devour the magazine. (When the February 1966 issue finally reached me and I found Ralph West's review of the Thorens TD-150 turntable, I reread it so often I almost wore the ink off the page.)

"I can't touch your copy, Mr. Crabbe," I stuttered. "I have been reading you for 10 years."

"Nonsense," was John's reply. "There isn't a writer whose copy can't be improved by editing."

And John was right, as he so often was. From John, I learned that a magazine must have integrity—must put the interests of its readers first. Soon after becoming HFN's editor in 1964, John had written that a magazine's reviewers "have a mandate to write what they think, even if some feelings are hurt." John taught me that this is the ground on which a review-based magazine stands.

It was John Crabbe who defined for me the relationship between a magazine's editorial integrity and the advertisers who financially support it (readers, sadly, are never a significant source of income, given the high costs of distribution): "If you tell the truth about components you review, there will always be a small percentage of companies at any one time who are not advertising in your pages. But if you publish the truth, you will have a good magazine. And if you have a good magazine, you will have readers. And as long as you have readers, disgruntled advertisers will eventually return. But if you don't tell the truth, you won't have a good magazine. And if you don't have a good magazine, you won't have readers, at least not for long. And if you don't have readers, you won't have advertisers."

In his heyday, John was a firebrand, though he was slowed down by triple-bypass heart surgery in 1976. Even so, he remained one of the clearest thinkers in audio I have encountered, and the six years I spent learning my craft under his tutelage directly led to where and who I am today. I make no secret of the fact that my editorial model for Stereophile, combining assessments of sound quality with measurements and technical articles, was John's late-1960s issues of HFN, before its merger with Audio & Record Review—although, of course, the details are vastly different.

Paul Messenger, who was John's deputy editor from 1976 to 1978, offers an appreciation on p.11, but I offer my own thanks to JC here. John's editorial direction of HFN, and the magazine's wide circulation, strengthened the bonds that held together the UK's audio community in the 1960s.

My system at the time I began reading HFN comprised the then-ubiquitous Garrard SP25 turntable with an Audio-Technica cartridge, a Kenwood KA-2000 solid-state integrated amplifier, and a pair of Wharfedale Super Linton loudspeakers, all of which I bought, of course, from a regular HFN advertiser, JJ Francis (Wood Green) Ltd. ("specialists in Nagra equipment"). I still had the Wharfedales when I joined the magazine, but the Kenwood had given way to a Sony integrated (with matching Sony tuner), and the turntable had long since been upgraded to a Thorens TD-150aB with its own tonearm and a Shure M75EJ MM cartridge.

Forty years ago, things were very much easier for a newly coined audiophile than they are now. We had just two high-quality sources in 1969, LP and FM radio, though open-reel tape lurked in the background. Other than the Quad ESL, speakers used moving-coil drivers in boxes. Amplifiers, whether tubed or solid-state, were just amplifiers. Who knew they could sound different from one another? We used the cables that came in the box. And, most important, we—newbie and veteran alike—were all part of a single audio community, reading the same magazines and listening to the same music.

When I became HFN/RR's editor in October 1982, audiophiles still had two primary sources, though some of us had already played around with pre-production CD players. We now knew that front-end quality was paramount and that amplifiers made a difference, and my system had evolved accordingly. The front-end was now a Linn Sondek LP12 turntable with an Ittok arm and a Koetsu Black cartridge. Preamp was a modified Meridian 101, power amp a Michaelson and Austin TVA-10, and speakers Celestion SL6es. I still used the cables that came in the box, though I was experimenting with using 300 ohm FM download wire from RadioShack as an interconnect.

But we were still one community (though in 1982, the audio industry was in the depth of a recession not dissimilar to the one it finds itself in in 2009). Even though what would come to be called high-end audio magazines—Stereophile, The Abso!ute Sound, The Audio Critic, etc.—were growing in influence if not yet in circulation, audiophiles saw no conflict between reading them and mainstream magazines such as HFN/RR.

As I showered and dressed for the LA&OC Audio Society event, I mused on how different things are now. Although Stereophile has become the mainstream audio magazine in the US, like all print media, it is under threat as a source of information from the Web. We have a confusing multiplicity of music media. We even have a confusing multiplicity of cables. We no longer have one audio community, but a balkanized state of many walled communities, each of which appears to be convinced that it alone possesses the truth about how to achieve musical fulfillment from an audio system.

Witnessing the constant online factional fights, I sometimes despair. But when I walked into the ballroom of the Buena Park Holiday Inn that Saturday afternoon in December and saw upward of 240 audiophiles, manufacturers, dealers, and audio writers gathered in celebration of their shared passion for music reproduced with the highest possible quality, I realized that our community is as strong as it ever was—the difference is that, now, it is wider and more diverse. And in audio as in society, in diversity is strength.



Footnote 1: Bob Levi, the genial dynamo behind the LA&OC Audio Society, can be contacted at bob@boblevi.com.
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