As I See It: From London to Santa Fe

From London, England, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a pretty big jump, both geographically and culturally. From Hi-Fi News & Record Review to Stereophile, however, is a mere hop; the similarities overwhelm the differences. Unlike the US, mainstream magazines in the UK have managed to keep in touch with the fact that hi-fi components sound different; to edit and to write for an ostensibly "underground" American magazine presented no major philosophical problems. (I say "to edit," but as mentioned in "The Big Announcement," Vol.9 No.3, my editing is done in harness with Stereophile's founder and guiding light, J. Gordon Holt.)

So who is this Limey who has joined JGH and LA in pushing back the subjective frontiers? Well, I studied pure science and math at university more years ago than I care to think, ending up with a University of London honors degree in physics and chemistry. I also acquired a postgraduate teaching qualification, but, as I very quickly discovered that the fun of teaching was spoilt by the presence of children, I ended up in research, working on more efficient ways of extracting metals from their ores, and also on the development of more efficient, multicolored LEDs. (I still get a twinge of nostalgia every time I see a green one.)

There I would have stayed, content with a slow but steady upward climb in the world of science—spitting out an academic paper every so often—but for one thing: I was bored silly by the endlessly repetitive nature of experimental chemistry. Not wanting to suffer premature brain death, therefore, I jumped at an opportunity to escape when a singer/songwriter friend needed a bass player for a touring band he was putting together to promote an album in the early 1970s. (Coming from a home where live music was regarded as important, I had learned violin, then switched to guitar, then to bass guitar, keeping up my playing at weekends. Even if I say so myself, I was quite good.) That gig very quickly fell through, however, and the next five years were spent touring, doing broadcasts, and making records—for a while I probably appeared on more poorly-selling singles than any other bassist in the UK!—for anyone who would pay me.

As a professional musician, I accepted any kind of work—disco, soul, c&w, rock, jazz, even the very occasional classical—and quickly learned that there were really only two kinds of music: good and bad, the inspired and the hack. Those who put down the music of a nonclassical genius like, say, Jimi Hendrix or Miles Davis, in favor of a routine "classical" potboiler from the likes of Franz Lehar or Hector Berlioz, come pretty low in my book. Give me Mozart, Bach, Elgar, or Otis Redding!

Once again, though, I started getting bored—a musician's life is not all drink, drugs, and groupies, you know—and the financial collapse of the record producer for whom I was doing most of my work triggered a career change, the alternative being to collect unemployment. Having always been a hi-fi enthusiast, I was naturally a reader of the UK's leading magazine, so when I saw an ad for a staff writer at Hi-Fi News & Record Review, again I jumped. That was some 10 years ago, and, becoming a Member of the Audio Engineering Society somewhere along the way, I ended up as the magazine's Editor in 1982, around the time Larry Archibald became publisher of Stereophile.

LA and I got to know one another as we met at the various shows—actually, I used to crash the notorious Stereophile CES parties—and those who know LA will appreciate that when, at the 1986 Las Vegas CES, he asked me to leave HFN/RR, I had very little choice. I mean, the guy is persuasive. He said that New Mexico was full of attractive, intelligent, single women. He told me the streets of Santa Fe flowed with music. He told me that the margaritas would be cold and the green chile hot. He even said I could bring my CD collection!. (A big concession that, I now realize.)

So, putting the women, music, and Margaritas temporarily to one side, how do I feel about Stereophile?

Having been an avid reader of JGH since his magazine (intermittently) reached the British shores, I must confess that his writings have had a formative influence on me, particularly his insistence on separating, in what you hear, the problems due to the recording and those due to the system. However, there is one aspect of hi-fi that has bothered me more and more: whether reproduced music need bear any relation to a live event. And, if indeed it does so, does this make that bit of reproduced music more suitable for assessing the performance of hi-fi equipment than a totally artificial recording?

As far as JGH is concerned, he feels that both are very much the case, making it clear in "The Absolute Sound of What?" ("As We See It," Vol.8 No.2) that the yardstick should be live music. In actual fact I have found that it doesn't seem to matter what music you play to get an opinion on a hi-fi component. As I write this I have been listening to the Beach Boys, Clannad, Laurie Anderson, Joni Mitchell, Andreas Vollenweider, and the Wilson Audio Beethoven violin sonata recording. Only the last is meant to sound like a real musical event, but both high and low points of the equipment I am using are pretty much evident on all these pieces.

Judge a system with just one rock album, and you'll probably be led into error, as JGH pointed out in that editorial. But listen to many and you won't go wrong. The one thing they have in common is the thread of musical communication running through them, and it is how hi-fi handles musical communication that enables the listener to make a value judgment. The fact that there is a live reference is to some extent a non-sequitur, and can even develop into audio snobbery, as with Frank Van Alstine's put-down of Krell's Dan D'Agostino (see Dick Olsher's CES report on p.58).

JGH's insistence on a live reference also lies behind his oft-quoted maxim that "If a component cannot properly reproduce the musical middle range, then its other performance attributes are irrelevant," printed on the cover of one of the first issues of Stereophile I ever read, Vol.4 No.3, and expanded upon by JGH in Vol.8 No.7. (BS also refers to it in this issue.) In other words, a recorded clarinet should sound just like a real one for a hi-fi system to possess any merit. I wouldn't argue with this. But surely it can't be the only criterion for judging a hi-fi system. I am listening to a pair of Celestion SL600s that accompanied me to the USA. They have a less accurate midrange than the Spendor BC1, which was reviewed in that early issue of Stereophile, but they do everything else better—including the reproduction of music. So where does that leave me, JGH?

There are, in fact, a lot of high-end systems that don't reproduce music very well, even though, being tonally accurate, they seem to have no trouble coping with the sound of music. Certainly these systems pass the JGH test, to a greater or lesser degree (footnote 1). But, in the words of the cliche, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." CD, in particular, seems to suffer from this problem, appealing to the head but nearly always bypassing the rest of the body. Don't get me wrong, I have a growing CD collection, the head needing stimulation quite as much as the feet. But when I want to relax and drift downstream, an LP finds its way on to my Linn. And if I want to party, then on goes a 12" 45. (Check out Aretha Franklin's "Who's Zoomin' Who?" remix for total, nonintellectual, communication.)

You can see now why I called this piece, my first contribution to Stereophile, "As I, not We, see it." I can't help feeling that there is no absolute sound, only music!

Footnote 1: Ah, but this ignores the JGH "goosebump" test; no matter how fine a component—particularly a speaker—if it doesn't raise goosebumps on Ye Editor's arm it will never rise above merely good, in his opinion. Sort of gives JGH an out, doesn't it?—Larry Archibald