Stereophile's Writers on an Audio Quest

One Saturday afternoon in August 1990, a number of Stereophile's writers—John Atkinson, Arnis Balgalvis, Robert Deutsch, Larry Greenhill, Robert Harley, J. Gordon Holt, Richard Lehnert, Guy Lemcoe, Lewis Lipnick, Peter Mitchell, Tom Norton, Dick Olsher, Don Scott, and Bill Sommerwerck—gathered together in the magazine's Santa Fe, NM listening room to discuss the "Recommended Components" listing that was due to appear in the October 1990 issue. To add a little Tabasco to the proceedings, JA had invited AudioQuest's main man Bill Low to give a short talk on whatever subject was uppermost in his mind that weekend, to be followed by an open discussion.

The last time Bill had visited Santa Fe, he had subjected JA to what amounted to a mental Rolfing, examining pretty much every aspect of the magazine and its worth to both its readers and the industry that advertises in it. JA had therefore thought it worth inflicting the same kind of inquisition on a representative group of Stereophile reviewers, with the hope that the unexpurgated transcript (footnote 1) would throw more than a little light on how the opinions you read and presumably value come to be formed and to appear in print. Okay, Bill, it's all yours:

Bill Low: There is an analogy between automobile magazines and the audio community. You all base your involvement with Stereophile on the idea that hi-fi is worthwhile, hi-fi is enjoyable. Whether you criticize a product or whether you love a product, there's a bottom line that this is something that's worth doing. It's even fun! In that sense, Stereophile is like Car and Driver...

I don't know what Stereo Review should be termed as—there's nothing analogous in the rest of the publishing world where the number one publication is written and run by people who basically seem to hate the business, who have a vested interest in proving that differences don't exist, that hi-fi is not fun. I think it's too bad that it's looked on as though we are the people who believe in voodoo, that we have some strange ritual, and that those people are rational. I think the proper perspective—as I think you'll agree—is that we are rational, that they have some strange religion that forces them into perpetuating the remarkably absurd concept that while it's somehow worth paying attention to hi-fi, at the same time you shouldn't like it, that any differences are not important. That is really weird.

The editor of High Fidelity magazine—now on the staff of Stereo Review [and editor in chief of Audio in 1999]—once made an amazing statement to me. We were on the subject of cables, and I thought, well, one step back from cables is amplifiers—people who don't believe in cable differences are not that likely to believe in amplifier differences. So I was asking him about amplifiers, and he said, "I used to hear differences until it was proven to me that I couldn't."

J. Gordon Holt: He flunked his AB test. [laughter]

Low: Well, I agree. I would never subject myself to a blind AB test, because I know that it has nothing to do with listening to music. It's a lot like judging cars by counting the number of tires they have and saying, "Well, they all go to the supermarket so all cars are the same." It's not a context that's relevant. I'm comfortable in knowing that, but it's hard to argue about it with the people who think that it's the absolute test. But here is somebody who all his life had assumed differences existed. He'd gone through his earlier years, hearing differences and believing what he heard, until peer pressure caused him to change religions. This is unfortunate, but this is the world that we live in. As a minority interest, we just need to be as vocal, as adamant about the truth of our minority position as possible.



Footnote 1: The conversation was recorded in stereo using a pair of AKG D190E cardioid mikes, an EAR tube microphone preamplifier, and a JVC DAT recorder. My thanks to Anne Peacocke for handling the thankless task of transcribing the tape. A note on the editing of the transcript: I conformed to Stereophile's usual style with interviews, which is to correct grammar, remove all the verbal throat-clearing that clutters and obscures spoken English, and eliminate the occasional repetition and irrelevance. Two complete discussions were excised intact—one on CD SoundRings, the other on Stereophile's "Recommended Components" listing—on the grounds that both subjects have been debated to death in the magazine during the last year or so. Otherwise, significant omissions (in terms of length) are indicated with ellipses (...), and where something was not clear, the editorial interjection is contained in square brackets.—JA
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