We Get Letters

One of my mentors, John Crabbe—my predecessor as editor of the English magazine Hi-Fi News—used to insist that a magazine's soul is its "Letters" column. If a magazine was able to publish a lively collection of readers' letters, said John, it would enjoy a lengthy life. Conversely, if its letters column was dull or nonexistent, then no matter how much advertising it had or how many readers it could boast, it was just a matter of time before it had the lid shut on it. In the 28 years since John told me this, I have not found an exception. The kicker, of course, is that there's no easy way of ensuring that a magazine has lively letters to publish.

I therefore owe an ongoing debt to Stereophile's readers for their continuing energy and enthusiasm, as expressed in their letters to the editor. We have room to publish less than 10% of the e-mails I receive—perhaps one day we'll launch the Stereophile equivalent to Penthouse Letters—but this month's selection (pp.9-11) is as lively a bunch as you'll find in any magazine. Though, given the effort that we all put into preparing the January 2004 Stereophile, I was disconcerted to read Judge Laurence Wayne's comment that the best writing in that issue was by Tyll Hertsens in his HeadRoom advertisement! Not that Tyll isn't an excellent writer, but he does come from the pay-to-play side of the creativity-vs-commerce fence.

When editor-at-large Art Dudley joined our writing staff in January 2003, I had an inkling that his views would provoke our readers into banging away at their keyboards. Art has fulfilled that promise, even devoting his "Listening" column this month (p.35) to issues raised by some of our correspondents. What I had not anticipated was that Art would stimulate Stereophile's founder, J. Gordon Holt, into emerging from retirement to argue his case for midrange accuracy being more important than any other aspect of music reproduction. Gordon's latest thoughts appear on p.11, but I can't help thinking that his latest comment devolves to a statement that bad colorations are merely the ones he personally doesn't like.

The venerable JGH was responding to Ray Garrison's statement that he loves "the big old, fully horn-loaded Klipsch speakers," though Ray admits that these half-century-old behemoths might have some major measured problems compared with modern speakers. Intrigued by Ray's and Gordon's advocacy for these speakers, I am trying to arrange a full Stereophile review of a Klipschorn from Art, who is certainly a listener "who knows what live music sounds like," in Gordon's words. And, as you can see from his review of the Antique Sound Laboratory amplifier in this issue, Art is not one to be intimidated by dreadful measurements.

Shaun Kennedy's letter raises that old bugbear (for some readers): how we choose products for review. "If you're not buying mass-market crap through dealers or products from a company spending big advertising dollars with Stereophile, nobody will hear about real-value equipment," he splutters, and instances Tyler Acoustics and ACI (Audio Concepts, Inc.), both of whom sell direct to the public, as brands that we have not reviewed. Putting to one side the fact that we have reviewed some ACI products over the years, I last discussed how we choose what products to review in January 2003. It basically comes down to my feeling that a) a product's manufacturer is real, not just someone taking his first steps by working up some sweat equity in his garage, and b) the component is one to which it is worth devoting some of the magazine's always limited space.

As I wrote last January, the basic selection mechanism for deciding what products are selected for review in Stereophile is my writers' enthusiasm for the components that get their creative juices flowing. The products that get ink spilled on them are not those made by manufacturers who advertise, Mr. Kennedy. Instead, they are those that hold the most promise of sounding good. And shows, whether they be the trade-only CEDIA and CES events, or consumer fairs—such as those held in Montreal, Toronto, Milan, Frankfurt, and London, and our own Home Entertainment Shows (New York in May, San Francisco in November)—play an important role in exposing the magazine's writers to hot-sounding new products.

As I write these words, I have just returned from the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. With an estimated attendance of 129,328, it was the largest CES ever. It was also the most geographically sprawling show I have ever attended, with exhibits not only at the vast, mile-wide Convention Center, but also at the Hilton and the Alexis Park hotels. And that's not counting the unofficial exhibitors in suites at the Mirage and the Bellagio, or the outboarding THE Show, which had exhibits at the St. Tropez and two different locations at the San Remo. Of the five full days I spent at CES, I estimate I spend more than eight hours in buses and cabs, or waiting in line for the same.

In the time I did have to visit exhibits, I was astonished by the number of new audio manufacturers on display. Yes, Tyler Acoustics was demming their latest system, but so were hundreds of other companies. The last three years have been the toughest in history for audio manufacturers. Although the Consumer Electronics Association predicts that the consumer-electronics market will be worth $101 billion in 2004, the vast majority of the products sold will be digital and flat-panel TVs, DVD and portable MP3/CD players, and those woefully underperforming "home theater in a box" systems. I find it hard to envisage who is buying all the new products from all the new companies, let alone those from established manufacturers.

One thing I am sure of, however: Stereophile readers will write to let me know who they think is doing so.

When I took the editorial reins of Stereophile in May 1986, the magazine was digest-sized and published eight times a year. Our business plan was first to move to monthly publication, which we did in October 1987, then to go to a large format, which we did with our January 1994 issue. In the decade since then, we have set the size of each issue by matching each page of advertising with a page of editorial material. Starting with this issue, however, Stereophile's owner, Primedia, is allowing us to print 16 extra editorial pages each month. My thanks to my bosses for demonstrating their faith in Stereophile and its readers.

Erstwhile Stereophile writer Chip Stern recently wrote that "when one of John Atkinson's audiophile recording projects is hot off the presses, you can bet your life there'll be a full-length feature taking up page after page in Stereophile, exhaustively detailed and annotated down to the last microphone cable." I therefore beg your forgiveness, dear reader, for using some of the extra space this month to describe the making of the new Deep River CD from Minnesotan choir Cantus, which is indeed annotated "down to the last microphone cable" (p.53).

Not only was being involved in the making of Deep River a milestone in my musical life last year; I strongly feel that such features are worthwhile—they help readers comprehend how the sound they hear in their listening rooms comes to be inscribed in the grooves or pits. Wes Phillips described it best in this space in August 1997: "As audiophiles and music lovers, we are fascinated by the process of trying to capture lightning in a bottle—of giving permanence to something as elusive as the experience of live music....We could present what we learn making our recordings in a series of tutorial articles describing how to record solo, chamber, and orchestral musicians in a reverberant environment....[But] by describing our projects as the adventures of human beings attempting to preserve the musical moment, we...present the information in as entertaining a manner as possible."

I'm sure you'll let me know if you're entertained.