Listening #92

Over the years, Stereophile and its writers have been taken to task for doing, thinking, and saying any number of things. We've been raked over the coals for enjoying acoustic music, electric music, old music, new music, light music, serious music, and music God put here as a test, just to see if we're smart enough to hate it. We've been taken to the woodshed for comparing new products to known references; for failing to compare new products with known references; for borrowing known references for the purpose of such comparisons; for taking advantage of professional discounts so that we can buy and keep known references for the purpose of such comparisons; for being out-of-touch naïfs who haven't owned enough gear in our lives to know anything about anything; and for being spoiled, materialistic pigs who have owned so many things that we've lost touch with The Common Man. We've been assaulted for loving analog, dissed for loving digital, tasered for loving tubes, sucker-slapped for loving solid-state, and mauled for loving mono. We've even been impeached, indicted, secretly reassigned to a new diocese, and flown back to Russia without an adult guardian for being overly concerned with current events.

We're big boys. We can take it. We know that being on top means we're also the most visible target. But in March of this year, things finally . . . well, I was going to say things finally reached fever pitch, but that would be true only if your definition of fever is "stupid," your definition of pitch is "stupid," and your definition of reached is "got very stupid:" In March of this year, we were roundly and soundly condemned for not writing about vintage gear.

I know what you're thinking: That's just crazy. In the past few years alone you've published columns about Quad II amplifiers from the early 1950s, Quad ESL loudspeakers from the late 1950s, and Thorens TD 124 turntables from the mid-1960s, not to mention monophonic LPs, 78rpm shellacs, and the coelacanthic cartridges with which they are played.

True. But some herd animals can't see what it is they don't want to see; consequently, they can become irritable when others try to confuse them with reality.

No, the really stupid part is the recent suggestion that Stereophile avoids covering vintage products in an effort to protect our advertisers, whose new products would be embarrassed by being compared against their antecedents.

I'll put a subhead here so you can pause for a dry-trousers break.

The bloody thirst for cash
But before you get too comfortable, consider the "thoughts" of a subset of the above critics: the idea that Stereophile's no-vintage policy exists because reviews of old gear do not bring with them the prospect of new advertising dollars.

I cannot deny that the promotional budgets of Garrard, Leak, EPI, Miracord, Klangfilm, Western Electric, Altec, Telefunken, Advent, Fidelity Research, Vocalion, and Bluebird have not, in recent years, contributed to quenching our bloody thirst for cash. Then again, the same can be said of several companies that aren't dead. Our last "Recommended Components" issue featured products from Shindo, EMT, Schick, Allaerts, Miyajima, and Auditorium 23, and my colleagues and I are forever recommending gear from such manufacturing megalodons as Fi, Feickert, 47 Laboratory, and darTZeel. No offense, but anyone who thinks that Stereophile has written about any of those products in the hope that their manufacturers or distributors will advertise in our pages is an imbecile. In fact, you can pretty much forget the no offense part.

That said, I'll share with you three things that really have affected Stereophile's editorial policy: First, as we've seen in our reader surveys, only a small percentage of our base is interested in reading about vintage gear. (I wish there were many more such readers, but that's life.) Second, for a variety of reasons, we don't believe that significant numbers of new readers would be attracted by more frequent vintage features in Stereophile. Third, writing well about vintage gear is a lot more difficult than you might think. The first two are self-evident; the third deserves an explanation.

As you may already know, the vintage audio community is itself diverse. Some members prefer old products that have been reconditioned and rebuilt with modern parts: the amplifier whose circuits have been "improved" with modern polymer capacitors and metal-film resistors, the monaural cartridge that's been retipped with a small, hyper-elliptical stylus, and so forth. Other anachrophiles are interested only in those rare vintage gems that have been maintained in fully original condition, or that have been repaired, if and whenever necessary, with only the correct new-old-stock parts. Still other vintage enthusiasts are less concerned with sound than with collectibility, cosmetics, and sheer cool factor.