35 Years and Just Getting Started: The J. Gordon Holt Interview Page 4
Holt: Not really---except for the fact that they're a hell of a lot more sophisticated now than they used to be. We get letters now from manufacturers and electrical engineers, and people who can write three and a half pages about the smallest imaginable corner of specialized physics as it relates to audio. Put that down to the fact that a lot of them are learning a lot from the magazine, and a lot of them are coming to the magazine from a scientific background. But back in those days, most of the letters we got were just from consumers. They were very knowledgeable about things like how to solder, and how to put on a nut and bolt and tighten it. But most of them had no technical smarts.
We had one construction article in Stereophile---I think it was the only one. It was a six-page article: photos, diagrams, everything about turning a stock Dynaco Stereo 70 into something comparable to the kind of equipment that Bill Johnson was putting together in those days. The author of the article was Ed Dell. You wouldn't believe the amount of hate mail we got from that article. They said, "I don't build stuff. I'm not interested in that shit. I don't want to see any more space in the magazine wasted on construction articles." Six bleeding pages. Blah, blah, blah.
The same thing happens now if we have anything in there about video. So times haven't changed all that much. Except that, well, Ed Dell's reaction to that was, "To hell with 'em, I'll start my own magazine." Which he did---Audio Amateur [now Audio Electronics---Ed.].
Stone: What were some of the breakthrough products that really impressed you?
Holt: The condenser microphone. I don't know where that originated, whether it was Bell Telephone, or Telefunken in Germany. But anyway, the condenser mike was one major breakthrough. And, of course, the CD and the DAT. I recognize that. The Advent Model 101 Dolby cassette unit was a breakthrough. I had one of those. I either bought it or I stole it. [laughs] I mean, I may have reviewed it and never returned it. No, I think I did buy it, actually. But yeah, I was impressed with that. One of the things that impressed me about it was, it had real meters instead of little tuning eyes. You know, I still have a number of the cassettes that I made on that. By today's standards they are primitive---very primitive. You can follow the tune, but that's about it.
Stone: Any FM tuners impress you?
Holt: I didn't get into those very much, mainly because there was only one FM station that I could receive that had programming that I liked, and the signal quality was lousy. So I reviewed very few tuners for the magazine. I think actually I did have somebody else reviewing tuners for me for a while. I don't remember who. Maybe it was Allen. He used to get to review everything I did not want to do. [laughs]
Stone: You were never a big fan of stereo LPs, were you?
Holt: No, I preferred tapes. They didn't have surface noise or tracing distortion. The thing is, cartridges were not really very good then. They were high-mass, not very compliant, and peaky. Then you take the garbage that was being put out by those things from your average LP, which was also badly made, and pipe it through a preamp stage with a quarter percent distortion, which would produce all sorts of sum-and-difference effects that would exaggerate all the crud that was coming into it. You had something that you really didn't want to listen to.
Stone: You weren't a big fan of RCA's Dynagroove recordings, either.
Holt: I thought practically everything that they did was misguided, or just wrong. I thought they sounded awful. I mean, what they were doing was compressing dynamic range during loud parts and pulling up the volume during quiet parts. That's compression. Then, at the same time, they were changing the equalization signal so it would kind of simulate what the ear's frequency response would be like if the sound was actually varying by a normal amount.
Stone: What early LPs did you like?
Holt: Bartók records, for one. They were being made by the son of Béla Bartók after they moved to the States. Westminsters were good, and Londons and Deccas were very good then. Actually, English Deccas were quite a bit better than some of the major American labels.
One outstanding American label was Cook Records. Emory Cook was a genius and a famous nut. He put out one recording called The Complete Infidelity. It had mostly natural sounds on it. One side of it was nothing but wind, different wind sounds. On the other side, it had weirdities like a whole bunch of chickens clucking, roosters crowing at dawn, a single-cylinder pump...let's see, what else? A baby crying, a telephone ringing, and Chinese firecrackers.
Emory also invented a new LP pressing process he called "microfusion." Instead of putting a biscuit of vinyl in the middle of the stamper and causing it to spread with the heat and the pressure, he would take vinyl powder and spread it all over the stamper. When the press came together, the vinyl didn't have to force its way sideways across the groove. He claimed the vinyl would adhere to the shape of the ridges better, and it would reduce wear on the stamper itself. His releases were extremely quiet. They were also a little softer than regular vinyl, so they wore out faster. The other distinguishing thing about them was that they were a deep red, or blue, with suspicious-looking flecks of black inside if you held them up to the light.
Stone: How do you think the high-end industry has changed since you started Stereophile?
Holt: Well, for one thing, when I got into it, just about everyone in it was operating a cottage industry. There were no things like start-up companies then, there were start-up people. The usual pattern was, someone would build something in his home for himself. A friend would hear it and want one. He made one for him. The friend's two friends would want them. So he'd make some more. It would sort of spread, like breeding rats. Eventually the guy ended up with a factory and a production line and all that kind of thing. My recollection is that, at the time I started Stereophile, the only major manufacturers were Fisher, Scott, Marantz, AR, and McIntosh. I didn't care for the sound of Fisher's stuff---I thought they were much too shrill. In retrospect, I think maybe a lot of the problems I was hearing with those things was the fact that I didn't like a lot of the loudspeakers they were being used with.
Stone: Looking back over your reviews, what are some of the ones you were most proud of?
Holt: Reviews I'm proud of? I can't think of any. But I can think of some I'm not proud of. One was the Dynaco PAT-4. It was the first solid-state preamp that I had heard, and it did all these marvelous things. It was detailed and quick and crisp, and it had this fabulous deep-type low end. I wrote the review accordingly and it appeared in Vol.2 No.6. It was several weeks later that I started hearing that it was doing other things less well than the tube stuff I had. [The Follow-Up appeared in Vol.2 No.8.---Ed.]
The same thing happened to me again with the first CD player that I reviewed, the Sony CDP-101 [in Vol.5 No.10.] Again, I heard all of the good points, but I didn't hear the bad things until later. The problem is, when you have a new medium or a new technology, it very often brings with it new kinds of distortions that you're not used to listening for. Even though some of those distortions were pretty gross, it took me a while to sort them out from the good things. It's a learning process, hearing distortion.