Ralph—The Real Dog
I'm finding it very hard to get used to the post-Ralph era. My history with Stereophile was only four months old when my daughter Rachel and I happened across Ralph at the Santa Fe Animal Shelter in June 1982. I was still operating my repair shop for needy Mercedes-Benzes, Porsches, and BMWs, and can well remember the fateful message from the Animal Shelter that "Ralph" (as Rachel and I had named him before even getting to take him home) had not been picked up by his owner during the Shelter's three-day waiting period. Our joy at this new and exceedingly friendly animal was hard to contain, though Rachel had a hard time handling her anxiety that Ralph would abandon us in the same manner he had abandoned his previous owners—or had they abandoned him?
We didn't know, but her anxieties proved unfounded. Ralph enjoyed a rambunctious nine years with me, Rachel, Laura Chancellor, Stereophile, and all visitors, spending only four days "at large" back in 1987 when he got sidetracked by a kind man on Santa Fe's plaza, perhaps led astray by a gourmet hot dog. (Ralph was not the kind of fellow who looked a gift hot dog in the mouth, not to mention seriously lesser fare.) Ralph's absence those four days provoked near-paralysis at Stereophile, with virtually the entire staff doing shifts on tour around Santa Fe and on patrol at the plaza, in hopes that Ralph would reappear. Fortunately, the $75 reward proclaimed on numerous posters caught the attention of Ralph's "captor," and he came home.
His presence since has been an anchor for Stereophile and for me. Once, when asked about my relationship with Ralph, I responded that we were mutual role models. He picked up a lot from me, and I was entertained, sustained, and loved by him. He tried to respond to my provocations and playing; I tried to model myself after his enormous tolerance and good humor.
Stereophile's relationship with Ralph was more strange. After all, how many magazines about high-end audio (or anything else, for that matter) incorporate articles by the Publisher about his dog, or feature that dog on the covers of two separate issues (Vol.8 No.4 and Vol.10 No.12), or record that dog's bark for posterity on a Test CD?
Our fascination with Ralph's uniqueness may be a bit over-the-top, but he was an OTT dog if ever there was one. Ralph's voice on the Stereophile Test CD is there just as a lark, but, other than successfully identifying in no uncertain fashion your left and right channels, it turned out to be an excellent test signal for midrange loudness capability (footnote 1). I couldn't figure out why no loudspeaker could come close to duplicating the live sound of Ralph—he would graciously chime in with howls identical to the test signal whenever we played the Test CD bark repeatedly on a good enough system—until J. Gordon Holt noted that Ralph's live bark hit 108dB measured at a distance of 6'. Neither home loudspeakers nor home amplifiers feel very comfortable producing 108dB in the midrange.
Ralph was more than a loud voice at Stereophile, though. During our 1107 Early Street years (through March 1987), he lay in the dirt of the parking lot out front, a great slab of dog. Periodically he would reenter the office, shedding the dirt he'd acquired—John Atkinson liked to refer to Ralph's job as moving the dirt in the parking lot into JA's office, a job Ralph took most seriously.
Since moving to our current quarters at Delgado Street, Ralph has been content to lie on his L.L. Bean dog bed by the front door and greet visitors. This was appropriate, as the first person most visitors wanted to see was Ralph! Although soundbites would have been more appropriate in this case than in most, he was more likely to grant photo ops. Sonic demonstrations were reserved for Stereophile birthday parties, when Ralph's howl would come forth during the middle of the birthday song.
Life is different now; there seems to be less unreserved tolerance and goodwill in the world. Mark Fisher, Stereophile's Director of Foreign Circulation Development, Schwann's Publisher, and one of Ralph's great friends (footnote 2), said it best: "Ralph always epitomised for me how all dogs should behave: he was a devoted hound, never one to miss a good meal, loyal, and always good humoured." I, my family, the entire Stereophile staff, and visitors past and future mourn his passing. He was The Best.
Footnote 1: The booklet cover illustration is the waveform of Ralph's bark.—John Atkinson
Footnote 2: In 2008 publisher of The Absolute Sound.—John Atkinson