We Did It!

In 1960 the high-fidelity field was in a period of stasis. The hi-fi boom was starting to crest out, and there were three magazines for audiophiles: High Fidelity, Stereo Review, and Audio. The first two were (and still are) little more than vehicles for their advertising, more dedicated to promoting their advertisers' wares than in advancing the state of the art. Audio was more into equipment testing than either of the mass-hi-fi magazines, but it too was contributing to the stagnation by listening to its test results rather than to the components.

In the early 1960s, an angry young audiophile named J. Gordon Holt was seething with frustration because he could hear differences between components that none of the hi-fi magazines were measuring or hearing. He had quit High Fidelity a few years back because they refused to allow him to describe the extramusical things he heard in components he was testing for them, and he went to work for a manufacturer who also heard things no-one could measure. That proved frustrating too, for there seemed no point in making better products than anyone else if none of the magazines that tested them could tell the difference. "Damnit," said J. Gordon Holt. "If nobody else will report what an audio component sounds like, I'll do it myself!" And Stereophile was born.

Fifteen years later, High Fidelity and Stereo Review are still trying to conceal from their subscribers the fact that some components sound better than others which measure identically. But Stereophile is no longer alone in espousing that heretical view. There are now at least 12 other small magazines all devoted to Stereophile-style testing: By simply listening to the components and describing how they sound. And it is clear, from the defensive tone with which the establishment magazines deny that anyone can hear unmeasurable differences, that they are coming under increasing attack from readers who can hear those differences themselves but who never trusted their ears until the underground press confirmed their observations. Audio magazine has acknowledged our existence by slipping an occasional subjective comment or two into their equipment reports, and by parodying our reviewing style in a put-on component report in their April 1977 issue.

Perhaps it is ungracious of us to toot our own horn, but what we are about to say needs to be said by someone, and no one else will do it for us: Stereophile was responsible for the rise of so-called "high-end audio." We were the first to point out that the ear is a far more discriminating device than a meter for analyzing the sound of a component, and we developed the lexicon of imagery for describing reproduced sound that is now the lingo of all the magazines that use what we came to call "subjective testing."

We were the first to observe that the premature switch to solid-state componentry may have cost us dearly in terms of sheer musicality of reproduced sound, and to call attention to an erstwhile-obscure little manufacturer of tubed equipment that called itself Audio Research Corp. Now some of our American imitators are taking up the cudgels for tubes (now that all major US manufacturers have abandoned them), and even the leading English audio publications (which, it should be mentioned, subscribe to Stereophile) are now climbing on the tubes-sound-better bandwagon.

We were the first publication to point the finger at commercial recordings, rather than the hardware, as the major source of the poor sound from reproducing systems, and to urge our now-vast (relatively) readership to deluge the record manufacturers with complaints about bad sound and praise for the good. Today we are seeing a proliferation of the highest-quality recordings that have ever been available to us: direct-to-disc recordings, PCM-mastered recordings, and conventional tape-mastered recordings in which the quality was obtained through loving care and attention to every detail in the production from start to finish.

We don't claim we could have done all of this alone. Our style of reporting isn't every audiophile's cup of tea. But other similar publications, patterned after ours but with other styles, have attracted readers who don't care for Stereophile but are nonetheless just as dedicated as we to the pursuit of that Holy Grail of Absolute Perfection in reproduced sound. Ultimately, it was impossible for the manufacturers—of equipment and recordings—to ignore us all. And when we gave credit where it was due, to components that had been made better than ever before be cause appreciative consumers were willing to shell out more for them than ever before, it finally started to dawn on the industry—which had been previously encouraged by the "establishment" magazines just to try for status-quo quality at lower prices—that there was a vast untapped market out there for really high-priced merchandise, as long as it offered really high-caliber performance.

Now we are starting to get recordings that really can do justice to all this high-priced hardware we've sweated blood to put together and indications are there will be many more of them. PCM mastering will eventually rid us of the restrictions imposed by direct-to-disc, but with little loss of sound quality. And the knowledge that "the audiophile market" will pay real money for real advances in the state of the art has prompted at least two manufacturers—Sony and Mitsubishi—to consider making PCM technology available to amateur recordists, at prices they can afford (circa $2000) instead of just to the commercial record companies that can afford a $40,000 outlay for a mastering machine. We will probably never again have to settle for the kind of sonic garbage that has, been foisted onto us by the cynical audiophilophobes at RCA and CBS. And, quite modestly, we take most of the credit for that too.

The worm has turned, at last. High fidelity is off and running again, in the direction in which it started: Toward perfection. Stereophile could probably, at this time, fold its tent and steal softly into the night, knowing that what we started will now continue without us—haltingly, perhaps, because not all of the magazines which speak for audiophiles speak knowingly or from great judgment or experience, but ultimately in the right direction. But we think we'll stay with it for awhile longer at least; we're having too much fun to quit now.

Then We Did It Again: We invite you to take note of the fact that this issue of Stereophile has appeared almost exactly three months after the last. And the next issue is far enough along to make us suspect that it too will be out on time. We may just become the first undergrounder to meet its claimed schedule!