35 Years and Just Getting Started: The J. Gordon Holt Interview Page 6

Stone: Do you find that your own recordings are very useful to you in evaluating equipment?
Holt: Oh yes. Even though they're never going to sound absolutely real, knowing exactly what the orchestra sounds like in its performing space gives me a good handle on just how close the system is coming to that sound. I don't think that's an essential reviewer's tool, but I think it's very helpful. Because, well, it depends on what a reviewer wants. I'm not necessarily looking for the same thing that some of our other reviewers are. In other words, I love the sound of live music; that, to me, is the ultimate. I'm not looking for a system that just makes nice noises at me. I'm looking for something which can simulate to some extent the sound of live music. Which means that it can sound very sweet and very lush, but it should also be able to sound ugly and nasty when the music does. The thing is, with my own recordings I'm fairly familiar with the mikes I'm using. I know what the orchestra sounds like in the hall, and I heard the orchestra in the hall a number of times during rehearsals and some of the concerts. I think I have a fairly good idea of what is on the tapes. And I expect to hear that, or something like that, when I listen through a system. I remember an assistant publisher at High Fidelity while I was there. He said to me one time, "I don't care if you play the damn record with your fingernail. If it sounds good to me, it's good."

Stone: And you took umbrage with that?
Holt: I disagree. Basically, what he was saying was, "I don't care whether it sounds like anything, all I care is how good it sounds to me."

Stone: So you think that school of thought is wrong?
Holt: No. I don't think it's wrong. It's just not the way I approach it. I'm old-fashioned in that I still hold on to the idea of fidelity defined as truth of reproduction. In other words, reproduction which is true to the original. Now, you can interpret this one of two ways. You say, okay, it sounds as musical as possible. That's musicality, you'd say. The other would be---this is the approach I take---that it should sound as musical as possible on the best recordings. Because if you have a system that makes the majority of recordings, most of which are not very good, sound very musical, you can be certain that it's going to penalize really good recordings that have the capability of sounding at least as musical and a lot more detailed, smooth, whatever.

Stone: In the '80s, you briefly published a Home Theater magazine, Videofax.
Holt: I was subscribing to a small magazine called Laser News that folded. I thought it was a crying shame to see it die, so I bought its circulation list and picked up most of the writers. I started putting the thing out in late 1986. It was actually coming out reasonably on schedule for a while, believe me or not [laughs]. The biggest problem I had with it was that I had no money behind it. I had my own small bank account, that's all. But...it was kind of a labor of love, and I threw a lot of money at my love. And it was actually making a little bit of profit. The problem was I couldn't pay my writers enough. Every time I would pick up a really good writer, Harry Pearson would cherry-pick him for The Perfect Vision. After that happened about four times, I figured, screw it---I'm not going to bang my head against a wall. So I just let it die. I published six or seven quarterly issues.

Stone: Was that when your interest in Home Theater began?
Holt: My interest in Home Theater began with an interest in color television. I got hooked in 1970 when friend of mine built a Heathkit color TV and it actually worked! One of the few that did, I recall. I was impressed with the picture on it but I couldn't afford to buy one, and I didn't have the time or the patience to put one together. So I picked up a used RCA color chassis---a CTC-7, as I recall. No cabinet, just the naked chassis with the picture tube attached to it. It must have weighed close to 100 lbs. It had a round, 15" picture tube that was, like, 2½' deep.

When I got it it was completely out of adjustment. So I picked up a couple of books about color TV servicing, and I spent months just messing with it, tweaking it into shape. I taught myself the basics of doing setups, gray-scale, convergence, and some of the other hideous adjustments that you had to do on those sets---like actually adjusting the color matrix in the thing! You had to twiddle two tuning screws inside a pair of transformers in there to get the colors to matrix out properly. And if they were mis-set, it seemed the first thing you lost was green. So you watch a PGA tournament on TV and the lawns would be gray with a greenish tint. I always knew I had it right on the nose when greens like that were actually bright green.

That's how I got started. I started watching the first color TV programs on TV, but soon I was watching movies on it. When VCRs first came out, I bought one. It was a natural progression. It's been a second hobby, running parallel with audio, ever since then.

I foresaw Home Theater originally as something that would develop into a hobbyist-type thing, like audio. But it doesn't seem to be going that way. It seems most of the people who are buying really good Home Theater systems buy the system for their family, because they're too busy making that kind of money to be able to enjoy it. They never get into the thing as a hobby. They have a great system, they have somebody else install it, and then it just quietly goes down the drain because they don't maintain it---especially the sophisticated and expensive systems.

Right now, however, it's really difficult to even know how to do it yourself because many manufacturers of projectors, for instance, will not sell a service manual to a consumer because they don't want them messing around in there. They're worried about lawsuits.

Things are getting more and more complex. Home Theater brought us surround sound, with several more channels and surround processors that are extremely versatile and configurable. You can use them with four channels, five channels, or seven channels, whatever. Two subwoofer channels, stereo and mono. And you can have the front channels operating full-range or attenuated---rolling-off the low end, and all this kind of thing.

It's reached the point where a complete system setup is becoming the kind of job that no one except a sophisticated audiophile is going to be able to handle. And when we get into the matter of bad instructions and lousy user interfaces, some of these things are an absolute mess. So, Trend Number One: Things is gettin' confusing. [laughs]

Stone: Do you see most people just having one system primarily for Home Theater rather than a stereo system and a separate Home Theater system?
Holt: Everybody except high-end audiophiles is going to end up doing it that way. There will still be people in the High End who continue to argue until the cows come home that Home Theater and high-end audio don't mix.

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