Fifty years ago this month, Vol.1 No.1, Issue No.1 of The Stereophile, published, edited, and mostly written by J. Gordon Holt out of Wallingford, Pennsylvania, hit the newsstands. Gordon had worked for two major audio magazines, High Fidelity and HiFi/Stereo Review (later renamed Stereo Review), and had been disgusted by those magazines' pandering to advertisers. Not only was The Stereophile going to tell it like it was, it was going to judge audio components by listening to thema heretical idea in those days of meters and measurements. "Dammit," said Gordon, who died in 2009, "if nobody else will report what an audio component sounds like, I'll do it myself!"
It's a jungle out there. The shrinking shelves of your neighborhood newsstand drip with the blood and corpses of magazines that have gone under in the intense battle for browsers' eyeballs. And only if we can make our latest issue's cover sufficiently eye-catching to get enough newsstand browsers to pick up and buy a copy do we get to play another round of the game. (Conventional publishing wisdom holds that, at most, a magazine's cover has six seconds to get its message across.)
There has always been something uniquely satisfying about holding a paper magazine in your hand and riffling through its pages. Images and textures are of higher resolution than any video screen, and the ease of use of the paper-page bundle can not easily be replaced. People are developing electronic substitutes for paper, but the interesting thing is that these researchers are endeavoring to imitate the look, feel, and functionality of paper—but with digital inks and charged surfaces. For now, plain old paper and ink are just too perfect a medium to toss when it comes to packing information into a compact, portable, high-quality package.
Twice a year, Stereophile brings some of its writers out to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to discuss the compilation of the magazine's "Recommended Components" listing, the most recent of which appeared in the October issue. Following a comment from Will Hammond, John Atkinson's collaborator on the recent amplifier blind listening tests, that the magazine's readers would love to eavesdrop on the conversations that take place on these occasions, it seemed a good idea to tape (footnote 1) some of the discussions and publish the transcript as this month's "As We See It" (footnote 2). Accordingly, Lewis Lipnick, Gary A. Galo, Robert Harley, Thomas J. Norton, Guy Lemcoe, Richard Lehnert, Dick Olsher, Peter Mitchell, Robert Deutsch, J. Gordon Holt, Larry Greenhill, John Atkinson, and Arnis Balgalvis all gathered in LA's palatial listening room one August Saturday. JA set the ball rolling by asking the assembled writers where they thought Stereophile had been, where it was, and where they thought it should be going, particularly in view of Robert Harley joining the magazine as Technical Editor.
As the May issue was being put to bed, the Internet was all aflutter over a proposal by digital strategy consultant Jim Griffin to have Internet Service Providers (ISPs) levy a $5 surcharge—a "network licensing model"—on all broadband users. Under this model, Griffin proposes that ISPs collect the fee, which would then be paid into a pool to "compensate music-copyright holders." Griffin says that consumers who do not download digital music files would not be forced to pay the surcharge, but that he anticipates "70–80% would pay" for all the content they could download.
Though the January 2010 issue of Stereophile will be hitting newsstands before the holidays, this is nominally the last issue of 2009. But already in October, on my return flight from Denver to New York following this year's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, it struck me that 2009 had not been a good year for the world of high-end audio. Yes, the worldwide recession has bit deep into the economic health of audio manufacturers and retailers, but in the past 12 months too many of those who have helped make our hobby great, and have helped promote our shared passion for listening to music with as high a quality as possible, have breathed their last.
Children, for the most part, are normal human beings who like to make believe that they're extraordinary, just for fun. Adults, on the other hand, are delusional creatures who enjoy pretending that they're normal, simply for their own peace of mind.
In the April 1992 Stereophile, reader Hilary Paprocki expressed his belief that recording engineers are unconcerned about sound quality. Indeed, he went so far as to allege that engineers intentionally use inferior miking techniques so that they can bill clients for additional time spent trying to fix the sound. The example he used was the engineer who places a microphone directly in front of a guitar amplifier, a technique Mr. Paprocki felt captured only "4%" of the sound. Mr. Paprocki also likened recording engineers to "featherbedders."
Tom Swift is a talented young loudspeaker designer. Tom believes that he has never been able to prove exactly how talented he is, because the company he works for refuses to build the cost-no-object loudspeaker he's been doodling designs for (on company time).
I have been reading a lot of late. Whether it is due to the reduced appeal of recorded music owing to the ever-decreasing shelves of LPs in our local specialty record store (the owner explains that he still wants to sell LPs; it's the record companies that make it increasingly harder for him to do so with punitive returns policies and deaf ears to back orders), or the fact that it's Spring, I don't know. But the fact remains that I have recently found myself devouring a shelf-full of titles sometimes only vaguely related—horrors!—to high fidelity. Stuart Chase's The Tyranny of Words, for example, first published in 1938 and a finer examination of what came to be called semantics you wouldn't want to find, should be essential reading for anyone involved in writing articles that are still intended to communicate some meaning.
Beginning with this issue, Stereophile readers will notice that more of the subjective equipment reviews are augmented with technical reports describing certain aspects of the component's measured performance. Although test data have lately been increasingly included in reviews, Stereophile has recently made a major commitment to providing readers with relevant measurements of products under review. We have just finished building an audio test laboratory featuring the Audio Precision System One, a sophisticated, computer-based audio test measurement system.
I was watching Mr. Holland's Opus on the tube the other day and was surprised to find myself teary-eyed, even though the film lost me by subjecting me to Michael Kamen's atrocious "symphony" in the finale. Why had I become all choked up? Because I had a Mr. Holland of my own.
A few years ago, while on vacation in Puerto Rico, I found myself sitting at a nearly empty beach bar, discussing music with Cassie Ramone, singer and guitarist for one of my favorite bands, Brooklyn's Vivian Girls. (I was as surprised as anyone by the strangeness of this chance encounter, but that's another story.) When the conversation turned to the topic of so-called "lo-fi" bands, Cassie's tone became critical, almost bitter: "No one wants to make 'lo-fi' records," she said.
A letter in the April 1988 issue (Vol.11 No.4) from reader Harold Goldman, MD, decried the seemingly appalling failure rate of high-end products, citing a $10,000/pair power amplifier, an $11,000 turntable, and a $1500 CD player which had all been reported in recent issues as having failed during or shortly after testing by Stereophile. And Dr. Goldman's list was far from complete. We have also experienced during the past couple of years the failure, or inoperation upon delivery, of two $2500 solid-state power amplifiers, a $1700 subwoofer, a $5000 hybrid amplifier, two pairs of $1200 loudspeakers, several pairs of under-$1000 loudspeakers, and many CD players costing over $1000 each, mainly those based on Philips transports.
I've been wondering whether we who write about audio will ever agree on a sensible way to express the scale of the differences we hear. If magazines like Stereophile and The Abso!ute Sound lack credibility among the broader audience of music lovers and hi-fi shoppers—and we do—one important reason may be our habit of greatly exaggerating the importance of differences that in fact are very small. A subtle improvement, one that most people wouldn't notice except in a carefully arranged comparison, is often described by audiophile reviewers in language that makes it seem like the contrast between a whisper and a thunderclap.