35 Years...And Just Getting Started

Thirty-five years ago this month, the first issue of a new audio magazine—cover price 50 cents—cautiously made its way out of a Philadelphia suburb. Its black'n'white cover featured a chessboard adorned with tubes and XLR plugs. Its 20 advertising-free pages included a feature on how to write an ad for an audio product, which had been penned by one Lucius Wordburger, a footnote helpfully pointing out that this was the nom de plume for one J. Gordon Holt, "who wishes to remain anonymous."

Gordon was a refugee from mainstream audio publishing—he had been technical editor at High Fidelity magazine in the '50s—and was tired of being asked to pander to the demands of advertisers. "I watched, first with incredulity and then with growing disgust, how the purchase of a year's advertising contract could virtually insure a manufacturer against publication of an unfavorable report," he said in a 1974 article raging about those dark times. And if a company didn't buy advertising, then they didn't get reviewed at all: "Not only were the Big Advertisers' products immune from serious criticism, they were also shielded from the threat of comparison with competing products that were better but were not so heavily advertised." the stereophile, as it was then called, was Gordon's answer to audiophiles' need for an honest, reliable source of information. "Okay, if no one else will publish a magazine that calls the shots as it sees them, I'll do it myself," he later wrote, adding, "I must have been out of my mind!"

The fundamental policy of "honesty, integrity, and all that," as JGH described it in that September/October 1962 issue's "As We See It," has been a major factor in Stereophile's 35 years of growth. Now, as then, we don't hold back from giving a bad review to a company that advertises, or a good review to one that doesn't. We call 'em as we hear 'em. But to my mind, as important a factor is a philosophy Gordon mentioned in a throwaway remark at the end of that first editorial leader: "Other things that need looking into are...equipment-testing standards [and] subjective criteria for evaluating fidelity." [JGH's italics]. This, of course, was the small rock on which first this magazine, then the entire high-end audio industry was founded: the optimum way in which to judge the performance of an audio component is to listen to it. How could it be any other way?

However, to judge from recent discussions on the Internet newsgroups rec.audio.high-end and rec.audio.opinion, it seems that many people do want it another way. To loosely paraphrase their position, revealed by various postings over the past few months and by articles in other magazines: a) measured performance fully characterizes how a component will sound; b) listening is unreliable unless performed using a double-blind protocol called ABX (see, for example, Jeff Ryan's communication in this month's "Letters," p.15); c) audible differences between components of all kinds except loudspeakers tend to be nonexistent, as "proved" by ABX tests; d) even if loudspeakers do sound different, most of that difference is due to the room; and e) as a result of the above, shouldn't audiophiles be turning their attention to home theater, say, or to multimedia? "At the very least they shouldn't be wasting their money on high-end audio components" seems to be the overriding sentiment on the audio newsgroups.

I admit that characterizing the sounds of components by listening is not a trivial pursuit. "All lies and jest/still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest," Paul Simon sang not long after this magazine's birth. But it is a necessary pursuit—someone who listens will be open to new experiences. No matter how much they know, they can still be surprised, both at the sonic importance of what they hitherto felt to be a small, unimportant difference and the subjective unimportance of what appears to be an enormous measured difference.

I am presenting a paper in New York on September 29 to the Audio Engineering Society on the correlation between the measured performance of loudspeakers and what is heard. Immediately after I sent my preprint text to the AES, I measured the Artemis and EgglestonWorks speakers reviewed in this issue. Had I not listened to these speakers, their measured performance would have put me off recommending either model. But I did listen. And as much as I thought I knew about assessing loudspeakers, it became apparent that there is still a lot I don't know. Which is how it should be. Education is a lifelong process—but only if you can keep your ears unblocked by dogma.

This 292-page issue of Stereophile—No.213—includes our latest "Recommended Components" listing, fully revised. Based on the original review auditioning and on the continuing experience of the magazine's 25 editors and hardware reviewers, "Recommended Components" distills that collective wisdom into 30 pages of tiny type. The first "Recommended Components" appeared in issue No.5 of The Stereophile, cover-dated May–June 1963, and introduced audiophiles to our Class A through Class D rating system. Fifty products were featured then, in a list that took up less than one page, whereas there are well over 300 in this 1997 list. (One product appears in both "Recommended Components"—the Marantz 7 control preamplifier, though it is the 1997 reissue that is listed currently.)

If you want to know what the best-sounding D/A converter is for under $1000, you'll find the answer in "Recommended Components." If you want to put together a shortlist of loudspeakers to audition in the $2000–$3000 region, this is where you'll find pocket descriptions of contenders. But don't blindly take what we write as gospel. You must listen for yourselves, just as Gordon told the nascent high-end community 35 years ago.

And J. Gordon Holt? I'm proud to note that he is still associated with the magazine he founded in 1962 (footnote 1). He still believes in listening to components, and he still opposes prevailing orthodoxy in that he now passionately advocates surround-sound playback for music. Here's to the next 35 years JGH. Keep raging against the machine!

Footnote 1: Sadly, Gordon left Stereophile at the end of July, 1999.—John Atkinson