35 Years and Just Getting Started: The J. Gordon Holt Interview Page 5

Stone: Do you think anyone can learn how to hear the shortcomings of high-fidelity equipment?
Holt: They do it all the time. The better the equipment you're exposed to, the more critical you become. Every once in a while you look back and say, Huh, how could I have ever liked that? I remember some years ago we had a rather expensive power amplifier in the house. I lived with that thing---I think it was the first Infinity switching amp---for several months, and I finally declared in print, "This amplifier is so good that if nobody ever makes it better, it won't matter." Well, that's another thing that, when I look back on it now, my toes curl. laughs

Stone: In other words, when a new technology comes out, we can't immediately hear its distortions?
Holt: I know I work that way. Looking in back issues of the magazine, people who are hypercritical now of what's going on in digital audio---I'm talking about contributors---you look back at some of the reviews that we did several years ago, and if they had known what they know now, those early things would have really gotten crucified. It's not just me.

Stone: The idea, as I understand it, was that if we listen to enough natural acoustic music, we can immediately identify what the differences are between recorded music and the real stuff. But it seems in retrospect that that is not necessarily the case.
Holt: Well, take this business about the incredible amount of detail you hear in live music that you never hear in your home system. When you get in a new product that suddenly has much more detail than anything you've heard before, initially it sounds more like what you hear at the live concert. So it's a tremendous improvement! Then, a while later, you begin to realize that, yeah, there's more detail, but it's uglier-sounding. So then you sort of catch up, and then something better comes along and you turn your back on the last one. And so it goes.

Stone: What about components that have become classics? Like, say, the Marantz Model 9 amplifier, or certain McIntosh amplifiers that people keep coming back to?
Holt: I think most of what we think of as classics are a result of nostalgia more than anything else. It's a matter of, Gee, when I was 20 years younger I would have given my eye teeth and one small favor for one of those things. Now it's no longer being made. Maybe you can't even locate a used one. But you have this recollection of what it sounded like when you heard it a few times. You've formed this image of something that was so good, it's never going to happen again. The fact of the matter is that usually if you actually take one of these and put it up against a contemporary Audio Research tube amplifier or a Conrad-Johnson or a VTL, they'll walk all over it. They'll eat it up.

Every one of these vintage things that I have heard recently all had a certain kind of magic to the sound. They do some things just gorgeously well. But if you want to be truthful about them, you have to admit that they do most other things not very well.

For instance, the original Quad loudspeaker: If you're lucky, you can get 60Hz out of it at the low end. Maybe under certain conditions it'll go down to 40, but you hit it with a bass drum and it will bottom out. Generally it won't play at more than about 84dB level. That's okay if you want to reproduce the sound of a chamber orchestra heard from 30' away. But there's no way it could handle the demands that people put on loudspeakers today. I heard someone describe the old Quad as a "little old spinster's speaker system," which is maybe an apt description. It's for someone who plays polite music at polite volume levels. But what Quads do on that kind of music...the things can sound startlingly good. Of course, you should use them with tubes; if you don't, you can hear very clearly that they have problems in the high end.

Stone: At what point do you feel that you still have to trust your ears, even if there isn't perhaps any technical basis for what something is doing? There are a lot of accessory products that seem to work in nontraditional physics or nontraditional theories of technology. The Shun Mook disks come to mind---and, of course, cables and wire.
Holt: Yes. Well, cables do have physical properties, most of which are measurable. Except for such things as trying to line up the electrons and that kind of thing, you can pretty much measure what cables are doing. That doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to be able to look at the measurements and know what the cable's going to sound like. Because we still don't really know what some of those measurements mean. If anyone is doing basic research into that, I haven't heard about it.

Unfortunately, there's a very large amount of snake oil in the high-end audio business. There are a lot of people in the business who believe all they have to do is please the customer---"music should make me feel good." And since you can't measure what's going to make me feel good, then measurements don't matter. Along with this come people who say measurements not only don't matter, but there are a lot of things going on that we aren't measuring because we don't even know about them. But that doesn't mean they don't exist.

Very often people will hear---this has been demonstrated time and again---what they're expecting to hear. The placebo effect. A good example of this was a case some years ago when there was a brief introduction of the dbx LP. I went into the exhibit and I listened for a while, and I felt the sound was pretty dreadful. One of the salespeople in the room was describing how dbx noise-reduction worked, and telling them what they were hearing, how the thing is so quiet, and so forth and so on. I was hearing surface noise, hiss, and constricted dynamics. I took a close look at the front of the thing, and the button that turned the noise-suppressor on was off. Maybe this guy had been demonstrating during the whole show without it working. He didn't notice it. He knew what it sounded like, so he didn't listen to it.

Stone: So how do the consumer and the reviewer protect themselves from snake oil?
Holt: By just being very skeptical. As far as a reviewer's concerned, it helps to have a fairly good technical background and a gut feeling---a gut understanding of how the scientific method works. The major part being, don't accept anything at face value. Don't accept something as so just because you want it to be or expect it to be. Prove it. I don't usually like A/B tests, because even though they can reveal very small differences, they don't give a clue about which one sounds better. It takes days or weeks of listening to a single component.

Stereophile rarely does A/B testing, but it occasionally does multisession loudspeaker shoot-outs that are barely more enlightening. A group of us get together for four days and listen to six to 10 speakers, each for about half an hour a day. I myself can't do an adequate job of evaluating a speaker over that short a period of time because, when I'm listening to something, I tend to listen for certain different aspects of the sound. While I'm concentrating on one of them, I don't hear the others. Typically, by the time I've gone halfway through my list of things to listen to, it's the end of the selection.

I have a compilation of stuff on DAT that I play through initially when a new product comes in---just to sort of get a handle on what it's doing. After that, I start listening to LPs and CDs and stuff like that. But no, it's not the same bunch of stuff each time. It's what I feel like listening to at the moment. I mean, you're not going to enjoy a piece, no matter good the system is, if you're not in the mood to listen to it.