A Babel, a Babble . . . Letters part 3
What mystifies your staff, and what underlies most of their resentment, since Stereophile is in the driver's seat, is why The Abso!ute Sound is still setting the pace for the industry and giving it direction toward more musical-sounding gear? That's what all the name-calling is about, and nothing more.
The Abso!ute Sound is still by far the more influential of the two journals. Gordon Holt's opening remarks were a brilliant way of getting the discussion on to what to do about that. Instead, your staff aired its ignorance. There's much to criticize about TAS, but instead of hitting us between the eyes, your writers shot themselves in the foot.
Ending on a brighter note for your newer readers, as a long-time subscriber to both Stereophile and The Abso!ute Sound, I can confidently state that Stereophile does a better job of reviewing equipment than it does magazines. Perhaps not much so, but better
.—Michael Fremer, The Abso!ute Sound, Seacliff, NY
I don't intend to respond to Mr. Benjamin's letter (the same Andrew Benjamin who, I believe, is a TAS contributor). The only substantive point he makes is to accuse this magazine of lèse-majesté. I plead guilty. But before examining the specifics of Mr. Fremer's letter, let me digress slightly. In the three and a half years since I took the editorial helm at this magazine, my technical competence and ethical standards and those of Stereophile's reviewers, Stereophile's publisher's business practices, Stereophile's published circulation figures, and the role of Stereophile vis-à-vis the other publications and its involvement in promoting hi-fi shows, have all been critically examined at length by other high-end magazines, by TAS in particular, but also by The Audio Critic, International Audio Review, and The Boston Audio Society Speaker. Even CD Review's publisher Wayne Green leapt into the act last summer.
That is their right, of course. The First Amendment guarantees everyone in the US the right to his or her published opinion (something I heartily approve of). Yet all through this flak, I have remembered the advice given me by a wise old journalist: "Never respond in print," he said, "never give them the satisfaction of you giving their specious criticism credibility by taking it seriously. Just be happy they spelled your name right."
Mr. Fremer talks about "infantile name-calling going on in both magazines," yet from when I joined this magazine I have not written one negative word in Stereophile about any other magazine. Yet the general perception of what is actually very one-sided name-calling seems to be that Stereophile is as guilty as the others. Is "truth" that which is true, or that which is perceived to be true? It appears to be the latter in this instance.
Which brings me to last November's "As We All See It." The transcript was intended to be an opportunity for Stereophile's editorial philosophy—indeed it has one—to emerge, phantom-like, from behind the general dialog. I thought that it had, which makes me smile at Mr. Fremer's assumption that the magazine has any kind of problem. (For a less subtle exposition of the philosophical basis behind our equipment reports, our "guiding principles," as it were, turn to J. Gordon Holt's "As We See It" starting on p.5.)
From its nadir in the early '80s, when circulation was below 3000 and dropping, Stereophile has risen to become the most commercially successful high-end hi-fi publication in the US. Without sacrificing the principles upon which J. Gordon Holt founded it in 1962. Without acting in a cynical or unethical manner. Without "selling out." I had thought, therefore, that its position in the high end's "driver's seat," acknowledged by both J. Gordon Holt and Michael Fremer, would justify some candid discussion of where we had been and where we were going.
Whenever you gather together a number of intelligent, highly opinionated, and creative people, not everything said will be polite, diplomatic, or inoffensive. Such would probably be the case if you gathered together the staff of any magazine where the contributors care passionately about their subject. Even TAS. Such was the case at the Stereophile writers' conference, but as I intended the transcript to be a true reflection of what was said—unlike Mr. Fremer, I do not hold with censorship to make life more comfortable—everything that was said appeared in print. Including the specific criticisms of TAS by Peter Mitchell, Lewis Lipnick, and Gary Galo. As you will have gathered, I personally wouldn't have expressed those criticisms in print. But as my writers felt strongly enough to go on record in that way, I saw my editorial responsibility to be to ensure that their opinions appeared in these pages as accurately expressed as possible, just as with any other interview, review, or feature that is published by this magazine.
What worries me is that sensation-mongers will seize on what was a very small percentage of the overall conversation and ignore the far more important points made. Them's the breaks, I suppose.
A specific point made by Mr. Fremer to which I will respond concerns his denial that TAS "speaks with one voice." In TAS No.57, Harry Pearson felt obliged to join the debate that has been running in Stereophile over the apparent dichotomy between "accuracy" and "musicality" with the following words: "That Stereo-review-phile (I like that) "feels" so, [that there is an apparent dichotomy] shows just how sorely missed is some sort of editorial leadership and a guiding concept about what sound should be. The magazine these days reminds me of what happens in a classroom when all 35 children babble at once." I think it a fair implication to deduce from this statement that if the leading creative force at TAS feels a focus of criticism and a major weakness of Stereophile to be that it appears to speak with many voices, he must feel the opposite to be true of his own magazine: ie, that it speaks with one voice, and should do so.
To be fair, the last three years or so have seen an apparent loosening-up of such attitudes at TAS, and the presence of such writers as Mr. Fremer, Sid Marks, Frank Doris, and Richard Marsh (as well as the excellent John Nork) in its pages do render this implication less valid than I believe it used to be. But as anyone in the publishing business will no doubt be aware, a magazine's image has considerable momentum—its readers' general perception may lag behind reality by two or three years. If Stereophile were suddenly to change editorial direction completely, it would probably be at least six issues down the road before people in general began to realize that things had changed.
I know this to be the case from my experience when I joined this magazine. For the first six months or so, until I could find domestic writers in tune with Stereophile's ethos, I had to commission more reviews and articles from English writers than, strictly speaking, I would have liked. By mid-1987, this temporary reliance on imported talent was over, yet if you reread the "Letters" columns in those issues, you will note that this didn't become a public issue until the end of 1987 and the beginning of 1988, and only tapered off a few months ago. In the matter of The Abso!ute Sound's "technical incompetence" and "speaking with one voice," I am sure that Mr. Fremer is correct in that things are different now. But my writers couldn't help but respond to TAS's overall momentum, with the inevitable time lag.
Regarding Yip Mang Meng's letter about Stereophile's not owning an IRS V-based reference system having a negative effect on the authority with which we speak: If we wanted an IRS V, or a WAMM for that matter, we would buy it. We don't; we haven't.
This point reveals a major philosophical difference between the two magazines, one that actually sufficiently differentiates them that they cannot really be considered to directly compete. (At least in that I agree with Mr. Benjamin.) The thrust of the reviews in TAS seems, to my eyes at least, to be concerned with the best, the ultimate, yes, the absolute sound, without any compromise, financial or otherwise. Stereophile's philosophy, however, one that dates from its founding, is to relate the performance of all components to that accessible to the magazine's readers. I intend this magazine's writers to try to discuss the musical and technical performance of products in contexts that will be more familiar and thus more meaningful than an ivory-tower "reference" available only to a lucky few.
Consider Yip Mang Meng's example of the way in which the Mark Levinson No.23 was reviewed in the two journals: You're not comfortable with Lewis's use of the B&W 801 Matrix speaker to form a value judgment? That's fine by Lewis and me: there are many dealers (in the US at least, and probably in the entire world) where you can audition exactly that combination of amp and speaker. Listen for yourself. But if you want to hear the No.23 with the IRS V? Putting aside such events as the Stereophile hi-fi shows (which we promote to give you just this opportunity), you will probably have to travel to Lyric Hi-Fi in New York or The Audible Difference in Palo Alto—even if you live in Singapore. Listen for yourself? The intention here is, I am sure, that you have to take such review opinions as received wisdom.