The Collectible Stereophile

Stereophile is finally collectible. Either that, or I'm the biggest audiophile sucker out there. A few weeks back, I finally caved into temptation and signed up for an account on eBay, the website via which millions of folks buy and sell stuff in an online auction, and on which someone once tried to sell a human kidney. (It was not allowed.)

I was looking for mint copies of original Liberty Records pressings of Martin Denny LPs from the late 1950s (a long story for another time). But eBay is addictive: I began entering all kinds of words into the search engine to see how much people would pay for various LPs. A mint, sealed copy of the original mono pressing of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band went for almost $2400 last week, while "Exotica, Yma Sumac's 45 Boxed Set RARE Lounge," from 40 years ago, went for $33.

Of course, I eventually typed in "Stereophile," and back came a list of 29 current auctions. Most were of equipment whose sellers used Stereophile as a reference for quality, as in "recommended by Stereophile's Chip Stern," but buried among the amps and speakers for sale were assorted back issues from the last few years.

One listing stood out like crazy: "Stereophile: First Twelve Issues. J. Gordon Holt's Stereophile. Still going strong almost 38 years down the road. Issue 1, Sep./Oct. 1962 through Issue 12, Dec. 1964. In mostly good to excellent condition. Issue 7 has a small (2" by ¼") patch of white where a piece of tape was pulled off, and a 1½" split on the top folded seam...that's the worst of it. All have very slight wear, Issue 1 has a slight dogear on the upper seam. Lots of reviews and articles, mostly on tube equipment and late-'50s to early-'60s speakers."

Back when I was in retail, we had the reprinted versions of these elusive issues, but nobody I knew had the real thing. I called the Stereophile office right away and found that they have only two complete sets, and no, they weren't of a mind to sell even one issue (footnote 1).

Three days before the auction ended, I entered an offer of $50 and quickly took the lead among several bidders. That didn't last long, and before I knew it, others were competing. Bidding eventually shot up to over $120, with 12 of us going at it. Some of you reading this may even have been in on the hunt.

To make a long story short, giving up was out of the question—even on my meager writer's wages. I ended up paying the seller $180 for the short stack of stapled pages. He was a nice guy, very into retro tubes and horns, and a week later the issues arrived, in astonishingly good condition; they'd obviously been preserved with loving care and kept someplace dry and dark. The original address labels read John D. Schick of San Francisco.

For the last several days I've picked through the magazines, reading a few articles and letters, and have been amazed to discover that a lot of it could have been written last week. In response to Stereophile's very first subscription solicitation, several readers sent in notes with their checks. A sample from the very first issue:

"Sirs: You are out of your minds. Your magazine is a failure before it starts, and I'll tell you why. First, everyone knows that the hi-fi fad is dead. The do-it-yourselfers who used to sustain magazines like Audiocraft have turned to other, newer ways of wasting time and money....The last thing this business needs right now is a publication that is going to criticize what the manufacturers do. The hi-fi industry is supposed to be in trouble already. Your condemnations of it can only worsen an already bad situation."—R. Johnson, Newark, NJ

Funny thing—if, by chance, R. Johnson's son (grandson?) is now into audio, he could very well have written the same letter this month, and prompted a concerned reply from John Atkinson.

Or how about this gem, from an article in Vol.1 No.6, written by Philip C. Geraci and titled "The Home Recordist...Hobbyist or Hoodlum?":

"Back about 1953, when the first of the 'sophisticated' home tape recorders began to appear, I had an idea for a nationwide club of tape enthusiasts who would record events indigenous to their localities and exchange the tapes by mail."

Geraci goes on to describe how he traded tapes with folks from all around the world, sending out playlists of what he had and hooking up everyone involved so that they could trade with each other. Most of the tapes were of music recorded from LPs or radio broadcasts. Substitute "MP3 codecs" for "tape recorders," "MP3s" for "tapes," and "e-mail" for "mail," and you've practically got an article that just appeared on, decrying the death of the music business at the hands of young MP3 pirates. Geraci continues:

"My concept of the legalities of such a tape exchange doubtless was that of the average amateur. I know it was unlawful to sell recordings made from discs or copied from the radio. But since profit never was a goal of my tape exchange, I innocently assumed that was all that mattered."

Grad-student Geraci found out—as have some of our most recent generation of college students—that copying music infuriates The Man, who will flash a lawyer at anyone brazen enough to go public with their activities.

"The law undoubtedly will, however, make things a lot tougher for the genuine infringer," concludes Geraci. "Stiff fines almost certainly will be levied against the out-and-out record pirates. If anybody tries to threaten you, tell him to sue you. He just might."

Also scattered throughout the first 12 issues are ruminations about why women aren't interested in hi-fi, and what manufacturers should do to get them involved. "Blend equipment in with the décor," is one suggestion.

Finally, from Vol.1 No.2, an article about a 1962 audio show in New York complains: "Year after year...the fact that nobody can really demonstrate much of anything at an audio show discourages few of the participants. Gabbling crowds, the booms and thuds from adjacent rooms, and the acoustic absorption of hordes of jostling people raise hod with the ambient noise level and the room acoustics to the point where the exhibitor whose stuff sounds even passably good considers himself twice blessed by fortune. Some exhibitors request specific rooms, but there are never enough good ones to go around, so the maker of really topnotch equipment is just as likely as not to find himself across from a loudspeaker manufacturer who has just discovered the tremendous emotional impact of pistol shots reproduced at three times their original volume."

Hmmmm...maybe I could use that in my next CES report and get my Stereophile investment to really pay off...

Footnote 1: Eat your heart out JI. I retrieved those issues from a dumpster when J. Gordon Holt relocated to Boulder, CO in 1989.—John Atkinson