Wes Phillips Bids a (Temporary) Farewell

The March 1999 issue of Stereophile is my last as the magazine's Equipment Reports Editor. I have accepted a job elsewhere in the industry, and, as a public relations consultant, will be actively promoting this wonderful hobby of ours in a different capacity.

It's hard to leave. I love this job, and I adore the people I've been working with. I'll miss 'em. But most of all, I'm going to miss being exposed to Stereophile's vocal, frequently cantankerous, but always passionate readership.

One thing I loved about my job was that I always knew exactly who I was writing for: people just like me. Not identical to me, but folks who shared my priorities. People who thought a day spent without listening to music just wasn't worth getting out of bed for. People who didn't find it odd to own multiple recorded performances of the same piece—or, for that matter, duplicate copies of the same pressing.

It's easy to forget how much we audiofolks have in common. All the fussin' an' fightin' reminds me of an old blues song, "Denomination Blues" (there's a great performance on Ry Cooder's Into the Purple Valley, Warner Bros. 2052-2): "The denominations have no right to fight / They ought to go on and treat each other right / It's right to stand together and wrong to stand apart / When none shall enter heaven but the pure in heart."

I'm not proposing that audiophiles stop arguing completely. Being a fan means having strong opinions, and the give-and-take of a spirited discussion is much of the pleasure inherent in fandom. But there's a tone of spitefulness in the "audio wars" these days that I don't hear when, say, baseball fans argue. They remember that the game is greater than their differences. I wish I could say the same about my particular band of obsessives.

Check out the rec.audio.high-end or rec.audio.opinion forums on the Internet—or ramble through the Stereophile mailbag—and this pernicious trend becomes obvious. For lack of a better name, I'll call it "rightism," as in "I'm right, so you're wrong." At its most extreme, this attitude allows no room for differences of opinion; its bearer "knows" his opinion is the truth, and that anyone who adheres to a different tenet is not merely wrong, but is spreading falsehoods—or is a moron. (Name-calling, too, seems to be on the rise.)

Maybe the overall level of discourse in our society has simply become more abrasive. As Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners) has said, "Honesty has come to mean the privilege of insulting you to your face without expecting redress." But the shrillness and mean-spiritedness of so much of what passes for audio bonding have become repulsive. If I were an outsider, I wouldn't expose myself to any group that carried on like this.

I worry that while we're indulging in all this squabbling about audio minutiae, the very idea of sitting down and listening intently to music is becoming an anachronism. John Atkinson also explores this subject in the February 1999 issue's "As We See It": As life speeds up and people feel compelled to accomplish several things simultaneously, "just" sitting and listening to music is beginning to seem as quaintly odd as something described in a Jane Austen novel—or as odd as reading a Jane Austen novel. "I know people used to do that, but it sounds boring."

Faced with such incomprehension, the differences between tube fanciers and solid-state advocates, classical listeners and rock fans, or scientific objectivists and impassioned subjectivists, pale to naught. When I used to sell hi-fi, I believed that anyone who heard the difference between a great-sounding system and a mass-market rack would just naturally want the better sound. These days, I'm not so sure.

With a few exceptions, the brochures piled on my desk promoting new products to be unveiled at the 1999 ICES extol the virtues of multiroom systems, computer convergence, or custom installation compatibility. While none of these goals is objectionable per se, they have little to do with my passion for engaged music listening—or yours either, if you're a typical Stereophile reader.

Is the audiophile obsession destined to wither away, the victim of changing times and revved-up lifestyles? I doubt it. Music is a life-enhancing energy. It has the power to communicate across cultures and through the centuries. It can be (has been, for me) a powerfully restorative force—the very antidote for the pressures of an ever more hectic era. Perhaps, given the temper of the times, listening attentively to music could even be considered an act of rebellion.

Let's make it a civil one.—Wes Phillips

Postscript: Following his departure from the magazine's full-time staff at the start of 1999, Wes Phillips continued writing CD reviews, music features, and musician interviews, such as his article on composer Jake Heggie and playwright Terrence McNally, after his departure. He rejoined Stereophile as an equipment reviewer and a Senior Contributing Editor in January 2005.—Ed.