Must We Test? Yes, We Must! High Fidelity Is Dead

Sidebar: "High Fidelity Is Dead," from August 1989 (Vol.12 No.8)

High Fidelity magazine is dead. The July 1989 issue was the last. Diamandis Communications Inc., the owner of Stereo Review and Audio, eliminated its competitor in the simplest way: it bought the magazine from its owner, ABC, and killed it. In effect, since Diamandis didn't want to publish High Fidelity, it simply purchased the title, trademark, and subscription list. The title and subscription list are being merged with Stereo Review. High Fidelity's editors, technical writers, and record reviewers were immediately terminated.

High Fidelity was founded in 1951 in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts, a few miles from the Boston Symphony's summer home at Tanglewood, by a group of music-loving hi-fi enthusiasts. It was the first American magazine devoted to hi-fi equipment and recordings. (Audio began in 1948 as an engineering journal. It evolved into a consumer magazine a few years later when the Audio Engineering Society launched its own Journal for audio professionals.)

One of the earliest issues of HF featured a description of the FAS Acoustic Coupler, a tuned subwoofer cabinet that could be concealed under a sofa; it was designed by Roy Allison and the magazine's first publisher. Another featured a scheme, reinvented many times since, for giving an inherently beamy tweeter a horizontally omnidirectional radiation pattern: the tweeter was aimed upward at the apex of a 90 degree cone that reflected the sound in all directions. (If you're thinking that some things haven't changed much in 38 years, you're right.)

J. Gordon Holt reviewed hi-fi equipment for HF during the late '50s. But he was frustrated by the magazine's insistence that reviews be based mainly on measurements and specifications instead of the product's actual sound quality. [He also found it irksome that products chosen for review invariably were manufactured by the magazine's advertisers—Ed.] JGH finally quit in 1962 in order to found Stereophile, the first magazine dedicated to evaluating hi-fi products according to their sound.

While the beginnings of both High Fidelity and Stereophile exemplify the American tradition of entrepreneurial capitalism—anybody with a good idea can start a company and make the idea a reality—the end of HF was part of the pattern of leveraged buy-outs (LBOs) and merger-mania that has infected Wall Street in this decade. The end began about a dozen years ago, when the three big hi-fi magazines lost their independence. CBS bought Audio from its Philadelphia publisher and moved the magazine to New York; ABC responded by purchasing High Fidelity from its founders and moved the magazine from a red Massachusetts barn to a marble New York skyscraper. Then CBS enlarged its publishing empire by purchasing a large group of magazines from Ziff-Davis; as a result, Stereo Review found itself sharing office space with Audio. Except for very large "network buys"—single bulk purchases of multi-page advertising commitments in both magazines—the advertising and editorial departments of Audio and SR remain separate.

By 1987 the CBS empire was so large that it became a tempting target for takeover attempts by Ted Turner and other moguls. Parts of the empire went up for sale: CBS Records went to Sony for $2 billion, and the magazines went to Peter Diamandis in a $650 million LBO. Six months later Diamandis repaid his bankers by selling ownership of the magazine group for $712 million to a French conglomerate, Hachette S.A. But he retained operating control of the group, which includes two hi-fi magazines, two photography magazines, and a women's magazine.

In mid-May Diamandis went gunning for the competition. First he tried to buy another women's magazine but failed. A week later he bought Modern Photography and High Fidelity from ABC and killed both; Modern Photography subscribers will receive Popular Photography and High Fidelity subscribers will get Stereo Review.

According to Michael Riggs, erstwhile editor of High Fidelity, the fate of both magazines, though unfortunate for writers and readers, made economic sense. The advent of electronically operated auto-exposure 35mm cameras has severely diminished the market for the more sophisticated 35mm cameras that have historically been the main interest of Modern Photography's subscribers. As for High Fidelity, it was caught in a squeeze between Stereo Review's appeal to hi-fi novices and Audio's hard-core enthusiast readership. Mainstream hi-fi manufacturers, already pinched by sluggish sales and high importing costs, were increasingly reluctant to advertise in HF, especially in the face of network buys that allowed them to advertise in both SR and Audio for little more than the cost of SR alone. (But now that the competition has been banished and HF's readers have been combined with SR's, ad rates in Stereo Review are likely to rise steeply.)

HF's original strength, its authoritative record reviews and informed classical music articles, had no commercial value and were cut back several years ago in favor of video equipment coverage [see JA's comments.—Ed.]. That outraged HF's former cadre of music writers, who quit and launched another magazine, Opus; but in a preview of HF's own fate, Opus was taken over by HF's sister magazine Musical America, and its staff was fired. [In a twist of fate, Opus became part of the Schwann group of publications and was owned by Stereophile from 1991 to 1997.—Ed.]

The equipment-review vacuum left by the demise of HF will shortly be filled. CurtCo Publishing, which was founded by ex-Stereo Review staffers and now publishes Car Audio & Electronics and Audio Video Interiors, is to launch a new magazine tentatively titled Audio-Video Reports. David Ranada, formerly technical editor of Stereo Review and then of High Fidelity, will be the new magazine's principal tester.—Peter W. Mitchell

JA Comments: As a long-term reader of HF but also as a competing editor, I was continually astonished that High Fidelity's editors paid so much attention to video (even though David Ranada's technical writings on the subject were among the most erudite). If there is a golden rule of publishing—apart from the essential requisite that your publication be interesting—it is that a specialist magazine's contents should reflect its title.

For example, the fact that HF's list of the seven 1987 "Products of the Year" (December 1987, pp.50-54) broke down into three video components, one in-car product, a cassette deck, a CD player, and a pair of loudspeakers, caused me a great deal of concern as a reader. I know Michael Riggs to be an intelligent, technically aware writer. And unlike the editors of Audio and Stereo Review, he still thought it important for a magazine to carry an editorial leader every month. But as the editor of a magazine ostensibly concerned with sound reproduction—Michael, Michael, what were you thinking of?

In my professional opinion, HF's non-hi-fi emphasis, coupled with a "Bostonian" editorial platform that appeared cynical when it came to high-quality sound reproduction—reading HF always left me with the impression that the magazine's editors felt that there actually weren't any justifiable reasons for its readers to buy hi-fi components—sufficiently diluted the magazine's appeal that its readers weren't particularly bothered whether or not they read it. This is exemplified by the fact that, despite HF selling, I believe, upward of 250,000 copies each month, this circulation was not "real," in the sense that Audio's or The Absolute Sound's or HFN/RR's or Stereophile's circulations are real.

Readers of these magazines buy them because they are interested in the contents, and therefore will tend to take out or renew subscriptions on their own account. I understand, however, that the majority of HF readers would not renew their subscriptions. New readers had to be continually sought, typically by the "12 issues for $5.99" approach which, far from increasing a magazine's income, can ultimately cost the magazine a considerable sum for each additional reader.

Combine what therefore must have been ever-increasing subscription-renewal costs to maintain the magazine's "unreal" circulation, and ever-falling advertisement revenues (despite an apparent editorial direction that gave advertisers' interests a higher priority than those of the readers), and it is actually surprising that HF survived as long as it did.

I will not mourn the passing of High Fidelity: the worthy magazine of that name ceased to exist many years ago; its recent incarnation can stand as an example of what happens to a magazine that fails to put its readers' best interests first.—John Atkinson

Larry Archibald adds a "Final Word": Differences have been on my mind of late. The halls at the Summer 1989 CES were rife with talk of High Fidelity's demise (aptly eulogized by Peter Mitchell and JA in "Industry Update"), a magazine whose Editor saw "difference-hearing," as practiced by the subjective press, as a source of real danger (footnote 1).

Apparently he was right: HF goes down and Stereophile goes up; the perceived danger was real, though his announcing it doesn't seem to have had the intended effect. This same Editor has now been hired by Stereo Review—a magazine which hears differences but discounts their importance—where he should find a comfortable home.—Larry Archibald



Footnote 1: Michael Riggs: "Test We Must, Yes, We Must!," High Fidelity, January 1989, p.5.
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