45 Years of Stereophile

It was 45 years ago this month that the first issue of Stereophile, just 20 pages in length, went in the mail. It had been founded by one J. Gordon Holt. Gordon had been technical editor of High Fidelity magazine in the 1950s, 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 looking back at those dark times. And if a company didn't buy advertising, they didn't get reviewed at all. 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.

The issue you hold in your hands is No.334, and the 252nd I have edited since I took over from Gordon as the magazine's editor in May 1986 (footnote 1). Gordon remained with us as Chief Tester until his resignation in August 1999, and I believe Stereophile still hews true to the goals he established in 1962: to review audio components by doing exactly what its purchasers will do—listen to them—and to publish the truth about what its writers hear and think. Gordon called 'em as he heard 'em: we still do and always will.

To celebrate Stereophile's 30th anniversary, Gordon gave a speech at a dinner the magazine hosted at the 1992 Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. The text of that speech was reprinted in our September 1992 issue, and it makes for disturbing reading:

"We seem to have come to a tacit agreement that it's no longer necessary, or even desirable, for a home music system to sound like the real thing. We speak in hushed and reverent tones about reproducing the ineffable beauty of music, when in fact much real music is harsh and vulgar and ugly. We design the all-important musical midrange out of our equipment in order to try—vainly, I might add—to recreate the illusion of three-dimensional space through what is essentially a two-dimensional reproducer. And whenever we hear a loudspeaker or a CD player that shows subversive signs of sounding more 'alive' or 'realistic' than most, we dismiss it out of hand as being too 'forward' or 'aggressive.' As if a lot of real music isn't forward and aggressive!

"The idea that all we are trying to do is make equipment that gives the listener some sort of magical emotional response to a mystical experience called 'music' is all well and good, but it isn't what High End is all about. In fact, high fidelity was originally a reaction to the gorgeously rich-sounding console 'boom boxes' that dominated the home-music market during the 1940s!

"We've lost our direction....The High End in 1992 is a multi-million-dollar business. But it's an empty triumph, because we haven't accomplished what we set out to do. The playback still doesn't sound 'just like the real thing.' People, let's start getting back to basics. Let's put the 're' back into 'reproduction.' Let's promote products that dare to sound as 'alive' and 'aggressive' as the music they are trying to reproduce."

Strong stuff. Fifteen years later, Gordon is comfortably retired in Boulder, Colorado. I e-mailed him Labor Day to ask him about that 1992 polemic. My questions are in italics, followed by Gordon's unexpurgated answers.

Do you still feel the high-end audio industry has lost its way in the manner you described 15 years ago?

Not in the same manner; there's no hope now. Audio actually used to have a goal: perfect reproduction of the sound of real music performed in a real space. That was found difficult to achieve, and it was abandoned when most music lovers, who almost never heard anything except amplified music anyway, forgot what "the real thing" had sounded like. Today, "good" sound is whatever one likes. As Art Dudley so succinctly said [in his January 2004 "Listening," see "Letters," p.9], fidelity is irrelevant to music.

Since the only measure of sound quality is that the listener likes it, that has pretty well put an end to audio advancement, because different people rarely agree about sound quality. Abandoning the acoustical-instrument standard, and the mindless acceptance of voodoo science, were not parts of my original vision.

I remember you strongly feeling back in 1992 that multichannel/surround reproduction was the only chance the industry had for getting back on course.

With fidelity in stagnation, spatiality was the only area of improvement left.

As you were so committed to surround, do you feel that the commercial failures of DVD-Audio and SACD could have been avoided?

I doubt it. No audio product has ever succeeded because it was better, only because it was cheaper, smaller, or easier to use. Your generation of music lovers will probably be the last that even think about fidelity.

Judging by online forums and by the e-mail I receive, there are currently three areas of passion for audiophiles: vinyl playback, headphone listening, and music servers. Are you surprised by this?

I find them all boring, but nothing surprises me any more.

Do you see any signs of future vitality in high-end audio?

Vitality? Don't make me laugh. Audio as a hobby is dying, largely by its own hand. As far as the real world is concerned, high-end audio lost its credibility during the 1980s, when it flatly refused to submit to the kind of basic honesty controls (double-blind testing, for example) that had legitimized every other serious scientific endeavor since Pascal. [This refusal] is a source of endless derisive amusement among rational people and of perpetual embarrassment for me, because I am associated by so many people with the mess my disciples made of spreading my gospel. For the record: I never, ever claimed that measurements don't matter. What I said (and very often, at that) was, they don't always tell the whole story. Not quite the same thing.

Remember those loudspeaker shoot-outs we used to have during our annual writer gatherings in Santa Fe? The frequent occasions when various reviewers would repeatedly choose the same loudspeaker as their favorite (or least-favorite) model? That was all the proof needed that [blind] testing does work, aside from the fact that it's (still) the only honest kind. It also suggested that simple ear training, with DBT confirmation, could have built the kind of listening confidence among talented reviewers that might have made a world of difference in the outcome of high-end audio.

Yet you achieved so much, Gordon.

I know I did, and my whole excuse for it—a love for the sound of live classical music—lost its relevance in the US within 10 years. I was done in by time, history, and the most spoiled, destructive generation of irresponsible brats the world has ever seen. (I refer, of course, to the Boomers.)

Footnote 1: You can find a complete history of the magazine at www.stereophile.com/features/708, an appreciation of Gordon by Ed Dell at www.stereophile.com/historical/712/index.html and a photo album at http://www.stereophile.com/galleries-category/337.