The Price is Right

In recent months, Stereophile's "Letters" column has been filled with complaints about the equipment we choose to review. "Too rich for my pocketbook" is the universal sentiment. This puzzles me, considering that Stereophile does review many "affordable" components. In part, I think this reaction is due to the high profile invariably associated with very expensive gear. Although we did put both speakers on our cover, one review of a Wilson Grand SLAMM or a JMlab Grand Utopia seems to outweigh 10 reviews of more realistically priced products. Our writers love to cover the cutting edge of audio—witness Martin Colloms's report from HI-FI '96 in this issue—because progress is more easily made when a designer is freed from budget constraints. But without the Grand SLAMM or Utopia, would Wilson have been able to produce the $9000/pair WITT, or JMlab the $900/pair Micron Carat, to name two high-value, high-performance designs recently reviewed in the magazine?

Another reason for this reaction is that value-for-money is a highly subjective concept—one that is individual and nontransportable. As Daniel Brown describes in his excellent letter on p.11, what each of us is willing to pay for a component and regard as "good value" depends both on our desires and on how our tastes have been conditioned by our experience. What I may consider to be "entry-level," for example, someone else may regard as outrageously expensive. And vice versa.

The automotive world doesn't seem to share this dichotomy. Car magazines aren't condemned for putting a Dodge Viper or a Ferrari on their cover. Would you say that buying a Mercedes represents a sensible, if expensive, purchase, while condemning the purchase of a Ferrari as pure self-indulgence? Or would you say that to purchase either is immoral when a Hyundai gets you to the mall in about the same time and uses less gasoline to do so?

We recuse ourselves from making moral judgments over price considered on its own. Stereophile's function must be to tell its readers what exists, what it costs, and how it performs; each reader then has to make his or her own decision about whether or not to buy those components. But we do get excited when we find products that sound very much better than is normal at their price. The $600/pair Energy Connoisseur C-2 and the $3500/pair Sony SS-M9 loudspeakers reviewed in this issue, for example, are going to make it harder for equally good but more expensive products to compete in the dealer's sound room. And we draw special attention to such products in our biannual "Recommended Components" feature (published in our April and October issues).

As you will see from the Show report in this issue, the emphasis of many exhibitors at HI-FI '96 was on the ultimate audio experience. Which is as it should be. The High End should always try to blow listeners' socks off. But the sound that had Stereophile writers asking each other the "Did you hear..." question in the corridors of the Waldorf was the Creek/Epos/Cabletalk system on display in the Music Hall room. Total cost? $2890 plus stands and cables. That certainly blows my socks and my shoes off!—John Atkinson

Personal Notes
First, the winner of the drawing held at HI-FI '96 is LP enthusiast J.A. Rahl of New York, who gets an expense-paid trip to Santa Fe to hang out with JA, WP, LA, and TJN in their listening rooms for a weekend. We look forward to playing you some music, Mr. Rahl.

Next, the music section in this issue is the last to have been put together by Richard Lehnert. Richard joined the magazine as Music Editor in June 1987, and he has played a major role in forging the magazine's current identity, both regarding the superb team of music writers he put together and his influence on our style and use of English. Richard left our full-time staff at the end of June 1996 to work on his Master of Fine Arts degree—he is an accomplished and published poet—but he will continue with us as a freelance copy editor.

I am pleased to announce that joining us this month as Music Editor is Robert Baird, until recently Editor-in-Chief of CD Review and the Editorial Director of the launch of a new classical music magazine. Holder of a BA in Creative Writing/English and an MA in Journalism, both from the University of Arizona at Tucson, Robert has seen, heard, and written about music for over 10 years, first as Music Editor of two alternative weeklies, Tucson Weekly and Phoenix New Times, and later as a freelancer for Rolling Stone, Pulse!, Request, and other national music magazines.

A lifelong devotee of classical music and jazz, Robert tells me that he adores Janacek operas, Boukman Eksperyans, Gram Parsons, Satch Plays Fats, everything 'Fess ever said, did, or recorded, and (ahem) Metallica's Load. Starting with the November issue, Robert will be bringing fresh energy, ideas, and voices to Stereophile's music section. As always, he will appreciate your letters about what he's doing right and, of course, what he's done wrong.

With an insightful review of the Audio Alchemy DDS•Pro CD transport in this issue, Manhattan-based audiophile, writer for Audio Amateur, and denizen of The Audiophile Network Kalman Rubinson joins Stereophile's reviewing team. Kal's biography appears on p.116, but one thing omitted from that official piece of prose is that Kal is known to his friends as Skepti-Kal. He may be an audiophile with open ears, but, as befits the scientist he is by profession, he has no time for anyone who lacks appropriate rigor, both in their auditioning and in their thinking. Welcome aboard, Kal.

Finally, I would like to add my voice to that of Larry Archibald in this month's "Final Word," where he mourns the passing of journalist and news anchor John Chancellor. In an age where political fragmentation increasingly seems to be accompanied by intolerance for views other than one's own, John Chancellor's reporting invariably was respectful and balanced. His informed, compassionate TV commentaries set the reasonable tone of political discourse for a generation. Mr. Chancellor was a valued member of the extended Stereophile family and will be missed.—John Atkinson

Larry Archibald on Shows & John Chancellor
As we commence our report on HI-FI '96 in this issue, I'd like to clarify our stance on show reportage—not just of HI-FI '96, but of all shows. Back in our July issue (p.230), John Poulifi of SimAudio wrote in to say "As a Stereophile customer, I expect, at the minimum, to be visited and written a little about. I think that a business relationship is two-way; if it is not, one should drop the relationship."

I also believe in two-way business relationships, but not in the way Mr. Poulifi means two-way. SimAudio may advertise if they wish, but our part of the bargain is to deliver the highest quality readers in the known universe to read their advertisement. Which we do. We have no responsibility to deliver favorable product reviews, or any show coverage, in return for their advertising.

Mr. Poulifi's comment concerned our coverage of the 1996 WCES, but the same is equally true of HI-FI '96. Each year, a number of exhibitors feel that their participation entitles them to coverage by one of the many Stereophile writers on hand. There is no such entitlement. Money buys advertising space, and money buys exhibit space, but it doesn't buy editorial.

JA's brief to his writers is to cover that which is newsworthy and that which the writer finds interesting. If a manufacturer meets either of those standards, coverage appears; if he or she doesn't, no coverage appears. No matter what show we're covering. That way you, the reader—our most important customer—know that you're reading unbought commentary.

On a completely different note, but related somehow journalistically, my father-in-law, John Chancellor, died two weeks ago after a long, bitter, never-give-up-'til-the-end battle with cancer. Jack, as he was known to friends—he was still Mr. Chancellor to me, at my insistence, not his—offered many lessons to journalists of all stripes through his work and his life.

He had a fervent desire to know what actually happened in the history with which he was involved. Not how it could be spun, or used to advantage in arguing a political point, or how it could make him look better, but what the events really were—who said what, in what tone of voice, in what order, and in what context. He worked extraordinarily hard, and thought hard as well, so that the events he reported and the opinions he offered were evenhanded and fair.

There's a big risk in that: the result won't necessarily be attention-getting or exciting. Your ratings might go down, and there is no business as popularity-sensitive as the nightly news. Yet year after year John Chancellor's inherent fairness, reliability, and accuracy managed to bolster the ratings of the programs he was associated with rather than depress them.

When I first met John Chancellor, not long after I met the woman who's now my beloved wife (Laura Chancellor), I was impressed by his voice. You don't become a fixture in television news without an easy, authoritative voice, and here was his coming at me across the dining-room table, just the way it sounded on TV. At the same time, there wasn't a touch of pretentiousness or condescension in his conversation. He was just as interested in my background in civil rights work and my foreground in hi-fi publishing as I was in his status as a certified famous person wonderfully experienced in world affairs.

That keen interest in just about everything, combined with fanatical vocational thoroughness, stood him in good stead not only in his professional life, but also in his personal, intellectual life. I will miss many things now that he's gone, but most of all I'll miss the many books and columns he would have written, and the conversations we would have had. He'd been preparing all his professional life for what he would get to do once freed of the yoke of several weekly broadcasts, and now that won't happen.

I was privileged to have the most intimate of conversations with him two days before he died. "The doctors aren't optimistic," he said, in a voice reminiscent of his old self, but weaker and pained. "I guess I'm checking out. There doesn't seem to be any alternative." I was most struck by the idea that there might have been an alternative in his mind, and thought back on the many changes that he'd seen in his life (just as I did, at a similar time, with my own father). When John Chancellor started out in life, life offered a huge number of irresistible things, but he'd seen humankind come up with tons of alternatives.

I was tremendously honored that he'd given me the benefit of those thoughts at a time when he truly was facing no alternative. Laura, her mother Barbara, and I will miss him greatly.

Each of the three-minute commentaries John Chancellor offered on the NBC evening news represented 8–12 hours of focused study and research, along with 40 years of reporting background. All of us in the field of hi-fi journalism could use that kind of depth and care in what we do. Although the stakes are laughably smaller than a presidential election or the Cold War, there is something about fanatical commitment to what actually is happening that crosses the boundaries of subject matter. Does amplifier A really sound different than amplifier B? And, if so, why? Are cables really different? Is the nature of sound analog or digital, and what does that say about how we store its representation? How subjective is objective evaluation, and how useful is subjective?

Perhaps our consideration of those questions is what made John Chancellor interested in Stereophile—along with his lifelong fascination with gadgets of all types. His dedication to evenhandedness and fairness is an inspiration to all journalists, both audio and regular.—Larry Archibald