Book Review: Sound Bites: 50 Years of Hi-Fi News
By Ken Kessler and Steve Harris. London, IPC Media, 2005; paperback, 224 pages, 8.25" by 5.75", indexed. $29.95. Available in the US from Music Direct, www.musicdirect.com, (800) 449-8333.
David A. Wilson, of Wilson Audio Specialties, must have an even better ear than I have given him credit for, or at least he has an enviable ear for language. On p.214 of Ken Kessler and Steve Harris' Sound Bites: 50 Years of Hi-Fi News, Wilson coins one of the most striking onomatopoeias that I have read in a dog's age: "Foink, foink. " In that terse spondee, Wilson unforgettably conveys the sound made by budget vinyl during his album-buying forays in the early 1960s. RCA Red Seals, you can be sure, did not go foink, foink when flexed.
I am delighted to report that this is only one of the countless enlightening, thought-provoking aperçus to be savored while traversing the temporal, geographical, and philosophical dominions encompassed within Sound Bites. With this tightly written, fact-packed retrospective, Kessler and Harris have done an immense service for everyone who cares about high-end audio, and especially about its future. Perhaps by having a better grasp on the past, we can be better prepared to meet that future's challenges. Over and above that, Ken and Steve's compilation of historical articles and newly written reminiscences is just plain entertaining to read—a nostalgia-inducing trip if you remember those days, an important education if you don't.
The occasion and impetus for this book is the 50th anniversary, this year, of the British journal Hi-Fi News (or Hi-Fi News & Record Review, its title from 1972 to 2000). But Sound Bites has a larger significance: As far as I know, it is the only systematic attempt to chart, from its inception to the present, the history of the audio hobby. One need not fear a Brit-centric approach; US pioneers such as Edgar Villchur, Roy Allison, Paul Klipsch, and David Hafler are all generously covered.
Sound Bites falls roughly into three unequal sections. First, prehistory (ie, the time before the 1956 launch of Hi-Fi News by Miles Henslow), characterized by the development of vacuum tubes, the first electrical recordings, and the first home loudspeakers. Next, the golden age of high fidelity, beginning with the launches of the long-playing vinyl disc, FM radio, stereo tape, and then of the stereo LP, up through the launch of the CD. Finally, the maturing of the hi-fi industry through the 1980s and 1990s and up to the present.
It is the recent past that proves the most problematic. Through no fault of the authors, starting at about 2001 the narrative seems to lose its forward momentum and perhaps even its sense of self-confidence. As Harris comments, "Mind-boggling advances in technology have often led us nowhere, except perhaps into periods of cliff-hanging uncertainty about the future." But that is getting ahead of ourselves.
While the hobby of home audio can trace its roots back to the purely mechanical 19th-century inventions of Edison and Berliner, it is probably more productive to place the beginnings of hi-fi in the pre-WWI period of the development of radio, as a pursuit of first experimenters and then amateurs. Paul G.A.H. Voigt, who started his radio R&D job one week before the birth of the BBC, is the link between the pre-WWI world of radio receivers and the aborning world of hi-fi amplifiers and loudspeakers.
Sound Bites carefully, even lovingly, details the connections between those whose efforts were so important to the development of hi-fi. Ralph West, a hi-fi pioneer whose wife, Betty, graciously guaranteed the loans that made possible Miles Henslow's launch of Hi-Fi News, not only knew Voigt; he built his own knockoff of Voigt's corner horn loudspeaker. Voigt admired it so much that he returned with a factory metal badge for it.
Time and again, reading these pages, I was struck by not only the creativity and the dedication, but also the decency and generosity of so many of these people. And, of course, there are the quintessentially British pursuits, such as building an exponential horn out of varnished packing tape...
Standout sections deal with Edgar Villchur, any one of whose inventions—of the acoustic-suspension enclosure, the dome tweeter, the three-point turntable suspension—would alone have been remarkable; Peter Walker, whose electrostatic loudspeaker has been in continuous production since 1956; and Dynaco's David Hafler, whose ST70 amplifier and A25 loudspeaker made true high fidelity affordable to countless people.
The BBC's influence on hi-fi is of course treated, not only as regards broadcast quality but also the industry-wide influence of broadcast monitor speakers such as the LS3/5a. Brief, fascinating journeys into nooks and crannies abound. Some might even think that the 1977 HFN/RR cover shot of a young and very long-haired John Atkinson playing the viola da gamba will alone justify the purchase price. JA's 10-year history at HFN/RR is covered forthrightly, as is his departure, in 1986, for Stereophile. Reading those sections gives a fly-on-the-wall view of important developments in audio journalism, just as Dave Wilson's memoirs give an uncanny insight into his development as a listener and designer.
For me, the centerpiece—and strongest part—of the book is Ken Kessler's 1984 cross-USA hejira on behalf of HFN/RR to visit about a dozen US high-end personages, mostly manufacturers, but also including Harvey Rosenberg and Harry Pearson. It is not only the fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpses of important high-end-audio companies in their first flushes of success; the contrast between 1984's sense of wonderment at unbounded possibilities and today's hunkering in the bunkers could not be more pronounced or distressing.
My educated guess is that 50 years of Hi-Fi News would account for at least 12 million words of editorial copy. Selecting from that, and soliciting new contributions, must have been a mammoth task. In nearly every case I found the selections worthwhile; in many cases I found them unforgettable. I will leave you with one such.
The Pink Triangle turntable was named after the badge Germany's Third Reich made homosexuals wear in the concentration camps. PT's Arthur Khoubessarian contributed a brief vignette of the brand's first exposure to the public at an early 1980s Audio T show in London. By that time, the company's principals had no more than £5 left between them, but their gamble paid off: the turntable was a smashing success. One older gentleman stayed and listened for an hour. He then went up to Khoubessarian and his partner and simply said, "It's a good thing Hitler didn't get rid of all of you."
Most highly recommended.