A Bad Year

Though the January 2010 issue of Stereophile will be hitting newsstands before the holidays, this is nominally the last issue of 2009. But already in October, on my return flight from Denver to New York following this year's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, it struck me that 2009 had not been a good year for the world of high-end audio. Yes, the worldwide recession has bit deep into the economic health of audio manufacturers and retailers, but in the past 12 months too many of those who have helped make our hobby great, and have helped promote our shared passion for listening to music with as high a quality as possible, have breathed their last.

As I wrote in this space last March, John Crabbe—one of my mentors, the editor of the UK's Hi-Fi News magazine from 1965 to 1982, and arguably the man who made it possible for me to sit in Stereophile's editorial chair for almost 24 years now—passed away on December 12, 2008, after a fall. John's death was quickly followed by that of John Potis, a reviewer for SoundStage!, www.6moons.com, and Positive Feedback Online, who passed away at the age of 49 (see "Letters" in August). Then, on January 27, Al Stiefel, 66, who cofounded the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in 2004 (footnote 1) died suddenly and unexpectedly. In February, dCS owner David Steven died. Then, in March, singer/songwriter Michael Cox, who gave me my first break as a musician in 1972, died, aged just 60. In July, Stereophile's founder, J. Gordon Holt, passed away after a fight with emphysema and cancer. (See the tributes from Jeff Wong and Larry Archibald and from readers in the October 2009 issue, as well as "Letters" in this issue.) In August, electric guitarist and multi-track recording pioneer Les Paul died. And September saw the passing of first Erich Kunzel, conductor of the Cincinnati Pops (see "Sam's Space" in this issue, p.25), then of loudspeaker designer Jim Thiel, and then of record producer Wilma Cozart Fine, who, with her husband, the late Robert Fine, was responsible for the groundbreaking series of Mercury Living Presence classical LPs in the 1950s and 1960s.

Not a good year (footnote 2).

The passings of John Crabbe and J. Gordon Holt, both at 79, hit me hard. I learned much about audio and publishing from them both, though they held opposed opinions on many audio matters. I remember John and Gordon arguing tooth and nail, at the 1987 London Heathrow Show, about the possible benefits of Peter Belt's "tuning" devices; both were skeptical, but whereas John dismissed these tweaks out of hand, Gordon was prepared to give them a listen. But John and Gordon were equally responsible, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, for the maturation of audio publishing. And Gordon, with his insistence that the best way to judge audio components was to do what end users did—listen to them—and his promotion of a common language with which to describe sound quality, was one of the prime movers behind the growth of what came to be called high-end audio in the 1970s and 1980s.

VTL's Bea Lam, with the help of Nordost Corporation and Gordon's son, Charles Holt, organized a celebration of Gordon's life and achievements at the 2009 RMAF. I was privileged to be able to lead off the toasts in honor of Gordon's memory, followed by Charles, Bob O'Neill (who sold advertising for Stereophile in the early 1980s and contributed record reviews to the magazine), tube-amp designer Roger Modjeski (Music Reference), and Gordon's fellow audio-publishing icon Harry Pearson.

But the passing that hit me hardest was that of Jim Thiel, at 61. Like Gordon a heavy smoker, Jim had always looked gaunt, and no one outside his colleagues at Thiel Audio Products, the company he cofounded with Kathy Gornik in 1976, suspected that he was ill with cancer. Not only was Jim Thiel a supremely talented and inventive designer of loudspeakers—his finest achievement was the Thiel CS3.7, which Wes Phillips reviewed for Stereophile in December 2008—he was also one of high-end audio's true gentlemen: a gentle man. Had we not been divided by the gulf between reviewer and manufacturer, I would have been proud to have counted Jim Thiel as a friend.

A year or so ago, I received an e-mail from a reader complaining about the obituaries we publish in Stereophile. While this reader respected the achievements of those to whom we paid tribute, he felt that any space so "wasted" would be put to better use publishing more reports on hardware. Yes, the space in any issue of the magazine is finite. But what the reader was failing to acknowledge was that, without the contributions of those we write about, there would be no true high-end audio products to be reviewed—or, at least, considerably fewer.

When you buy a product carrying a major corporation's brand, unless there is someone who manages to resist the inevitable corporate leveling down (Kevin Voecks at Revel and Ken Ishiwata at Marantz come to mind), as worthy as such products often may be, you are buying something that has been designed less to make a sonic statement than to avoid giving offense.

But when you buy a Thiel loudspeaker or a Wilson loudspeaker or a Vandersteen loudspeaker or a DeVore loudspeaker or a Focal loudspeaker or a Quad electrostatic; or an Ayre, Krell, or Audio Research amplifier; or a Meridian or Wavelength digital processor—the examples are legion—you are, in a very real way, buying a part of Jim Thiel or David Wilson or Richard Vandersteen or John DeVore or Jacques Mahul or Peter Walker or Charlie Hansen or Dan D'Agostino (footnote 3) or Bill Johnson or Bob Stuart or Gordon Rankin. You are buying a product that embodies that person's uniquely personal way of looking at audio. Even though such men inevitably become the leader of a team of engineers once their companies evolve past their garage-stage birth pangs, their products continue to embody the balance of sonic attributes that each feels to be most important.

That is the high-end ethos. That is why we note the passing of the giants who walked among us. I raise my glass and thank all of them who help our systems make music.

Footnote 1: The RMAF continued under the leadership of Al's wife, Marjorie Baumert.

Footnote 2: And it continued badly. After the December issue had gone to press, we heard of the passing in October, following a fall, of Kay Blumenthal, who had been the long-term managing editor of Audio and had been responsible for compiling that magazine's legendary annual "Directory" issue. The following week, Monster Cable's long-time PR man, Daniel Graham died, followed soon after by amplifier designer Dick Brown, whose BEL amps had been strong recommendations of this magazine's in the mid-1980s.

Footnote 3: Breaking news at press time was that the new majority owner of Krell Industries had terminated the company's relationship with Dan D'Agostino and his ex-wife, Rondi, who together founded the company nearly 30 years ago.