We Are What We Are

As I write these words, it is exactly 15 years to the day since I left the English magazine Hi-Fi News (then Hi-Fi News & Record Review) to take the editorial helm of Stereophile. What has driven my editing of both magazines (and, Carol Baugh, p.10, I certainly do "edit" them) has been the view that the traditional model of a magazine—that it dispense and the readers receive wisdom—is fundamentally wrong. Instead, I strongly believe that a magazine's editors, writers, and readers are involved in an ongoing dialog about their shared enthusiasms. Stereophile's involvement in Shows stems from this belief, and it is in this light that its "Letters" column should be regarded as the heart of each issue.

Two subjects are examined at length in this issue's "Letters": Robert Deutsch's review of the Wavelength Gemini SET amplifier in May, and an exchange I had in the same issue with reader John Wingertsman about his decision to cancel his Stereophile subscription because of the language used by some writers, interviewees, and correspondents. These two topics may appear unrelated, but they are in fact intimately intertwined.

Rob Damm has a serious point when he asks (p.11) why Stereophile devoted space to an amplifier that needed the services of a consultant before the review could proceed. Bob Deutsch addresses this and other issues in his response, but I add here that the magazine is the prisoner of its own policy. Once we decide that a product should be reviewed—in the case of the Wavelength, the designer's track record, the sound Wavelength had gotten at shows, etc., were all factors involved in that decision—the review proceeds to publication. Period. Regardless of what happens along the way, and with all that happened reported in the published review.

I adopted this hard-line policy when I joined Stereophile. I had become disillusioned back in the 1970s and '80s by how much at other audio magazines went on behind closed doors. Magazines, reviewers, and editors often appeared to collude in producing a published review that was nothing more than promotional copy. It is not like that at Stereophile. Unlike other magazines, everything that occurs during the review process is "on the record." There is no burying of problems, no submitting of second or third samples without the readers knowing about it, and no reviewers acting as unpaid—let alone paid—design consultants. This policy may not be popular with manufacturers, but readers need to know when a product is a moving target, and when the designer has not sufficiently thought through his or her design goals or has not managed to solve all the design problems.

The downside of this policy, of course, is that each year a few of the magazine's precious pages are wasted on a product that is not ready for prime time—as appeared to be the case with the Wavelength, something we cannot discover until after the review is underway. I would much rather waste the space than quietly collude with the manufacturer to keep the magazine's readers unaware of the product's problems—or even, in this case, keep you unaware that the designer was unable to fix a fundamental design flaw (its suboptimal grounding) without outside assistance.

But I'm sure you're wondering how this correlates with my permissive attitude regarding language that some readers might find offensive. First, it must be understood that, as an editor, the avoidance of giving offense cannot be a primary concern of mine. Over the 19 years I have edited audio review magazines, I have found that pretty much everything I publish gives offense to someone, somewhere. It is the content of what is said that matters, and it is that content that should be judged critically, not the language used.

Second, I agree with Mr. Saliba (p.10) in that it is hard to believe someone when they say they support freedom of speech, yet at the same time condemn others for the choice of language with which they express that speech. And third, I published my exchange with Mr. Wingertsman because I thought it would reveal Stereophile's philosophy: that just as we don't censor what our readers say in "Letters" or what our interview subjects say, we don't cover up or ignore things that go wrong in our equipment reports, or are not found palatable by the component's manufacturer.

The late pianist Glenn Gould was often condemned for singing while he played. "If only Gould wouldn't sing, what a pianist he would be," went the critical refrain. Yet the vocalizing and the pianism were both external aspects of a single inner reality. One went in hand with the other. If you want honesty in Stereophile's equipment reports, you have to accept it elsewhere in the magazine's content. If the cost is occasional embarrassment or offense, it seems a small price to pay.