Mikey Bats 302

John Atkinson (left) presents Michael Fremer with the Los Angeles & Orange County Audio Society's 2018 Founder's Award.

Issue 54 of The Absolute Sound, cover-dated July/August 1988, had arrived in my mailbox. I had been warned that this issue contained a report from Stereophile's third hi-fi show, which had been held in Santa Monica the previous April. Although it wasn't listed in the issue's table of contents, I found the show report on page 186, written by Michael Fremer, who was listed on the magazine's masthead as "Senior Editor: Pop Mix."

I first met Michael at the January 1987 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. We were both new then—he to TAS and I to Stereophile. At our meeting, he had argued cogently that for our two magazines to conduct a war of words in print would be detrimental to both (footnote 1). I was receptive to what he said, as I strongly believed that such public squabbling renders the high-end audio segment ridiculous in the eyes of the industry at large.

I was surprised, therefore, to read in Michael's report attacks on Stereophile's ethics and business practices, including its involvement in shows. What struck home for me, a UK import, was a quote from an unidentified manufacturer at the show criticizing Stereophile for "bringing all these Brits. It's bad for American audio." Annoyed by the criticisms, I shot off a letter, chock-full of grumbles, to Michael.

However, the more I read of his writing in The Absolute Sound, the more I was impressed by Michael's passion and his ability to express it in writing. Michael was to TAS what Thomas Huxley was to Charles Darwin: a "bulldog" who could express the magazine's positions more directly than its editor would. Over the next few years, I turned to Michael's writing first whenever a new issue of TAS arrived, all the while wishing that his voice and his passion could appear in Stereophile.

That wish was fulfilled in February 1995. Michael called me to let me know he was leaving The Absolute Sound. He was going to start a music magazine aimed at audiophiles, The Tracking Angle, which would have LP reviews as its primary focus. As he would no longer have an outlet for his writing on audio hardware, would I be interested in having him join Stereophile's team? Hell yes, I would! We quickly agreed that, as well as writing equipment reports, he would contribute a monthly column, to be called Analog Corner, which would concentrate on LP playback equipment. Michael told me that he was excited that his writings on that subject would reach a wider audience than they had at The Absolute Sound.

It is fair to note that Mikey's forceful advocacy of vinyl was one of the factors that led to the medium's survival through the late 1990s and early aughties, before its resurgence.

The first Analog Corner appeared in July 1995. As expected, CD came in for some stick. In the column's first paragraph, Mikey wrote, "It was big. It was ugly. It looked unfinished. It resembled some kind of industrial mistake, which is pretty much what it was: a prototype CD player rolled out by Sony at the 1982 AES Convention in Los Angeles. The inventors didn't care what it looked like, they just wanted you to hear it. Why, I don't know; it sounded awful. ... Based on the sinking feeling I felt in my stomach listening to that prototype back in '82, my conclusion was actually upbeat: 'This'll never catch on!'"

CD, of course, did catch on. Mikey wrote in 1994 that "despite innovations in the digital domain, the performance gap between state-of-the-art analog and digital remains. Records still sound more like real music to my ears." He reported playing CD and LP versions of the same album, John Hiatt's Bring the Family, to some Gen X engineers. Even though levels were matched and the two versions were basically indistinguishable tonally, the listeners "immediately grasped the essential difference," Michael wrote. "'The record is so ... ! Everything is ... it's so ....'"

This issue's Analog Corner is #302. (It should have been #304, but for various reasons the column didn't appear in our February 1996 and July 2014 issues.) Analog Corner #300 appeared in the August 2020 Stereophile (footnote 2) and featured Boulder's extraordinary 2108 two-box phono preamplifier, the measured performance of which is featured in this issue's Follow-Up section. The Boulder costs $52,000, fulfilling a commitment Mikey made in his very first Analog Corner: While he would review real-world turntables, cartridges, arms, and phono sections, he would also cover stuff most of us can only dream about. "I love reading about Vipers and Porsche Carrera 4s, though I doubt I'll ever own either."

It's not only Mikey's columns that have made him one of this magazine's most popular and influential writers. His equipment reviews, the very first of which was of the Audio Physic Virgo loudspeaker in September 1995, have been models of describing, analyzing, and summing up the sonic merits (or lack thereof) of the product being tested (footnote 3).

I regularly visit Michael, either to pick up a product for measurement or, in the case of the monster amplifiers and loudspeakers he likes to review, to measure it in situ. I eagerly anticipate those visits, because I always listen to LPs on Michael's current system. When I do, I am reminded of why we all love this hobby: It's about letting the music overwhelm us, as it always does me at Michael's place.

For 25 years, Michael Fremer has been Stereophile's bulldog. He has been the LP's bulldog for even longer.—John Atkinson

A teenaged Mikey falls in love with vinyl while DJ'ing at his university radio station.

Footnote 1: Because The Absolute Sound regularly published potshots at Stereophile in the late 1980s, it was taken for granted that Stereophile was doing likewise. It was strongly suggested back then in on-line chat groups that if only Stereophile would stop criticizing TAS, TAS would do the same. I therefore publicly and personally offered readers $100 for every example anyone could find of Stereophile attacking TAS after I had joined the magazine in 1986. I made just a single $100 payment!

Footnote 2: Analog Corners from 1995 through 2006 can be found at our sister website, Analog Planet. The columns from 2007 onward will eventually be posted to stereophile.com here.

Footnote 3: Other than Analog Corner, almost all of Mikey's writings for Stereophile can be found here. A 2017 video interview with Michael in his listening room can be found here.

Enrique Marlborough's picture

Thanks once again for the good advice on choosing better original recordings.

Doctor Fine's picture

I didn't truly enjoy Mikey until well after I fell down the rabbit hole of sorting out a great LP playback setup after abandoning the format back in the 80s when digital became the new "standard."
My problem was that Mikey didn't guide me on my journey of re-discovery of a format I had abandoned 30 years prior.
It was before the days of his setup DVD or much in the way of truly helpful advice on just where "they" were hiding the good, affordable stuff.
And so I was pretty much on my own as I banged my head against the wall in search of the "magic" of analog.
My real breakthrough was, naturally, cartridge selection.
Art Dudley wrote a great review of the venerable Denon DL-103 from Zu Audio at the exact moment I was tiring of Shures/ OM Ortofons and the like.
Then Art followed up with an in-depth discussion on step up trannies especially for the Denon---and I was on my way!
Meanwhile, back to Mikey.
And Mikey was still there on the masthead, prattling on about bespoke handmade turntables that cost more than a sportscar complete with cartridges that cost more than my entire setup.
I meanwhile had rediscovered the integrity of the classic Direct Drive Technics SL1200 series tables like I owned in the days I ran Stereo stores for one of the major chains.
55 years of audio sales and now I had to pick back up where I left off with the turntable I thought so highly of back in 1979.
I wrote Mikey to complain that he hadn't done a head to head shootout with an improved version of this old warhorse---perhaps the SL1200 M5G that comes with upgraded tonearm wire.
That shootout came many years later versus his exalted Caliburn.
I still want Mikey to actually buy and play around with a Technics---perhaps put on some damping silicone shrink wrap on the arm to make it competitive with his Caliburn---and add a tray of silicone damping from KAB to further even up the comparison.
Never happened.
Mikey will forever be a great read notwithstanding his refusal to take my challenge.
I appreciate he has tons of uber expensive "product" to tout in his reviews.
And I get it that the excitement is often in just seeing how ridiculously expensive these tables can become even when they offer little sonic improvement IMHO.
Mostly I get a kick out of Mikey because of his passion for great sound.
Who cares about the DIY crowd when we can have gold plated, chromed monstrous tables piled high as a wedding cake?
As long as Mikey challenges others to prove their source components truly offer lively playback, analog will remain the gold standard over at my house.
I must admit that a properly mastered 24/192 recording through a world class DAC will finally even the playing field between digital and analog.
At least in my experience.
And so far I am unaware of any such comparison being performed by Mikey Inc.
Perhaps 24/192 digital would show up his latest five figure analog rigs?
Along with a modified SL table?
The gauntlet is thrown.

Jack L's picture

......between state-of-the-art analog and digital remains..." quoted Michael Fremer 1994.

Given love of music & keen ears, one can find vinyl music sounds better than digital music in term of OPENess, & being-there engagement & emotion which digital medial fail to deliver.

FYI, my cheapie DIY gears, (as shown in my signature logo up here) is far far cry from being "state-of-the art", already show myself as well as all my visiting audio friends that vinyl sounds so much superior to digital music.

I own over 30 LPs stamped from digital masters of different labels. Yes, they all sound pretty similar: clean, clear with brilliant highs & thick rigid bass: typically digitally tainted sound. But they all somehow lack the most enjoyable part of the music: OPENess, being-there engagement & emotion that pure vinyl can deliver !!!

As a die-hard DIYer, I managed to get the charm of vinyl music at home without need of wrecking my bank account, thanks to my engineering background.

Listening is believing

Jack L