500 Issues And Counting: a Publishing Milestone

We're all involved with the world we live in. Friends from 20 years ago? Hey, nice to see ya, put on a little weight I see. Generally, you hang with your crew, although you might miss the bigger picture that way.

I wrote for Stereophile from 1993 through 2002, and I remember my experiences fondly, including the pure pleasure of listening to music on all that wonderful audio equipment. But I hung with my tribe and never fully appreciated the crucible in which Stereophile was formed. It's a genuine saga; cue Ennio Morricone's soundtrack to Once Upon a Time in the West.

It all began with J. Gordon Holt, of course. He wrote for and then became audio editor of High Fidelity. But he was disillusioned with the ads-guarantee-positive-reviews equation. He soured over the coddling of an advertiser's component that blew up three times under test. He left in 1960—I imagine him leaving in something of a huff—and went to work with Paul Weathers, who'd made the first available frequency-modulation phono cartridge as well as a clearly superior ceramic model. But Gordon found the grass no greener on that side of the fence.

JGH said later, "Okay, if no one else will publish a magazine that calls the shots as it sees them, I'll do it myself!" He added, "I must have been out of my mind."


He was, he did, and the grand adventure began. The Stereophile, as it was known at first, sallied forth in October 1962 with Vol.1, No.1. It was, fasten your seatbelts, dedicated to subjective listening, and of course that exploded into a fireball of controversy between subjectivists and objectivists that rages even today. What a ruckus. Please, people, if your system makes you happy, that's the right sound for you no matter which "side" you're on.

The first "Recommended Components" followed, in Vol.1 No.5—the Thorens TD 124, a new version of which is reviewed elsewhere in this issue, was the only Class A turntable listed—just as Philips introduced the Compact Cassette for "dictation." I call that ironic.

Skipping ahead a few years, Stereophile put out irregular issues as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in stereo took the world by storm. Many of you will remember when the album landed with a bang. It was partly responsible for a rise in hi-fi sales, a sector where the major Japanese brands owned the mass market, lock, stock, and barrel. You remember those gigantic 20-foot-long receivers, right? Oh, you're trying to forget, sorry.


JA graces the cover of Hi-Fi News & Record Review in 1977.

Surround sound launched in the early '70s to vast global indifference. No one was buying their act. In '76, John Atkinson abandoned his music career and was appointed news editor at Hi-Fi News & Record Review. In Vol.3 No.12 from 1977, the leadoff equipment review was of the Rogers BBC LS3/5a loudspeaker. Vol.4 No.1 dropped the The from the magazine's name, celebrated 15 years of publication, and was the first to include ads from manufacturers, more for everyone to argue about.

Two important lessons: Any enterprise needs funds to run, and audiophiles are passionate people.


Stereophile's first office on Early Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico

In 1982, Larry Archibald bought Stereophile with JGH staying on as editor and chief tester, and set the goal of producing 10 issues per year. The magazine had 3200 subscribers. When Dick Olsher came aboard in Vol.5 No.2, things were a bit of a shambles. Larry said, "Gordon's output was ... unreliable, and I realized that more than just a good business mind would be needed to fix things up." Rolling up his Harvard-trained sleeves, he got to work, running his own business during the day and Stereophile at night.

That same year, John Atkinson became editor-in-chief of Hi-Fi News and Record Review and Perfect Sound Forever launched in Japan to much ballyhoo and soon, enormous controversy.

It was 1983 when Tom Gillett began the "Audio Cheapskate" under the name Sam Tellig, the most popular writer at the time and a pro at circulation-boosting promotion. JGH reviewed the Sony CDP-101 CD player and declared, "There is no doubt in my mind that this development will ultimately be seen as the best news serious music listeners have had since the advent of the LP."

JGH knew how to stir the pot. He always pulled my wife Kathleen aside at shows, and they'd start in on the dry martinis. Those two had their little secrets.

In the mid-'80s, Larry Greenhill and Anthony H. (Tony) Cordesman joined Rancho Stereophile along with magazine advertising veteran Ken Nelson. Steven Watkinson signed up, and Don Scott began his legendary series on FM tuners. Tony Cordesman began his amusingly titled "Long Year's Journey into Wire" in 1985, and Richard Lehnert signed on as copy editor. Fevered audio chatter centered on Bob Carver's claim that he could make his cheap solid state amp match the sound of costly Conrad-Johnson monoblocks (Vol.8 No.6)—and the crowd goes wild. I seem to recall that the amp blew up a few times.

Then, in a smoky back room at Rao's (just kidding), Steve Watkinson suggested that LA persuade John Atkinson (henceforth JA) to pick up, move across the pond to Santa Fe, and lead Stereophile into the future. Not much of an ask, right?


A young JA and JGH photographed for the cover of The Audiophile Voice circa 1987.

Circumstances were just so when LA and JA shared a fateful ride from Las Vegas to Santa Fe in 1986 that they arrived with an agreement in hand, a start date, and a fresh plan for the magazine.

Esteemed former fighter pilot Thomas J. Norton, affectionately known around the shop as TJN, and also Major Tom, joined the team. I roomed at a show with TJN, and a more considerate guy doesn't exist. Knowing I'd stumble in late and probably somewhat incapacitated, he'd leave the bathroom light on and the door open a crack. He popped out of bed at 6 the next morning like bread from a toaster. We laughed a lot; I think I tickled his funny bone.

Anyway, JA showed up jetlagged in Santa Fe in May of '86 as Stereophile's third full-time employee.

At altitude, drinks have a much stronger effect on the brain pan, as I found out while visiting HQ for a writer's conference.

Coming from the airport, the rental car, stuffed with Stereophile talent, experienced a scary blowout. I wrestled the sloop to a stop at the side of the road. Who do you think fixed the flat? My colleagues review, they don't do! In any case, we arrived safely, to many huzzahs.

In Vol.9 No.6, JA reviewed the California Audio Labs Tempest CD player, and the magazine ended the year with 25,000 subscribers.


Stereophile was housed in this Territorial-style office, just off Santa Fe's Canyon Road, from 1987 to 1998. A dedicated listening room in the building at the rear hosted many listening tests.

In January '87—Stereophile's 25th anniversary year—it was decided to sponsor Stereophile Shows in Santa Monica and Manhattan. Talk about great timing: The second show turned out to be the weekend before the market crash. We felt it here: It made the Forsell turntable "flooter," as Peter Forsell would say in his soft Swedish accent. Richard Lehnert joined as full-time assistant editor and began building a music section for the now-monthly magazine. Tony Cordesman bid au revoir, but Peter W. Mitchell, Martin Colloms, and Lewis Lipnick came aboard.


Ken Nelson and Laura LoVecchio

The Stereophile Show returned to Santa Monica in 1988 as the country dusted itself off from the "market adjustment" (rolls eyes), and Industry Update debuted. Laura LoVecchio joined the sales team from Audio magazine, and by the end of the year circulation was up to 47,000. The record-breaking June issue contained a whopping 248 pages. Break out the Talisker Distillers Edition Scotch. Want to make JA happy? That's how to do it.

In an amusing irony, John notes that JGH wrote more reviews that year than ever before. Robert (Bob) Deutsch made his reviewing debut. Bob has a discerning ear, and participating in regional theater as he does, he'd grace us with a song or two to everyone's delight. I have photos.


J. Gordon went on sabbatical in 1989, and recording engineer Robert Harley joined as technical editor. Guy Lemcoe and Barry Willis signed up, and Stereophile acquired an Audio Precision System One to measure amplifiers and a DRA Labs MLSSA system to test speakers. JA, RL, LA, and Kavi Alexander of Water Lily Acoustics recorded music for flute and piano on the USC campus in Los Angeles. The LP, Poem, mastered by my pal the late, rambunctious Tim de Paravicini, was released on the Stereophile label with works by Prokofiev, Schumann, Reinecke, and Griffes and sold 3250 copies on vinyl and 6750 on CD. The magazine's first Test CD debuted, and RH became consulting technical editor as TJN took the position full-time.

Alas, venerable High Fidelity magazine slid propellers up into the inky depths, but Stereophile's year ended with a full-time staff of 15, close to 50,000 circulation, and four issues with more than 276 pages. Life was good.

In January '89, Corey Greenberg, the Keith Richards of Stereophile, joined the party. I was taking part in an Ask the Editors session at the 1994 Show at the Doral Resort in Florida when some unsuspecting guy in the audience asked a fateful question about blind testing. We all winced, and Corey jumped up on the dais tables and began stumbling from one end to the other shouting "I'm blind! I'm blind!" Fast action by Yours Truly saved a pitcher of water from drowning my colleagues. I glanced at JA; he was smiling. As JA later put it, "Stereophile was fortunate indeed to benefit from the first public flowering of his writing talent." Politic as always.


J-10 & K-10

It was Corey who tagged me with the J-10 moniker. He was mocking the way Kathleen says my name with her French accent, Jon-a-TEN, ergo J-10. (Kathleen came to be known as K-10.)

Stereophile's second LP, Intermezzo, featured esteemed Canadian pianist Robert Silverman performing solo Brahms works, again recorded by Kavi Alexander. Circulation exceeded 68,000, and four issues equaled or exceeded the previous year's record size of more than 300 pages.

Getting dizzy yet? We're nearing the event horizon.


The first Product of the Year cover, in February 1992.

In the early 1990s, the magazine featured the first Product of the Year, the Mark Levinson Reference No.30 D/A processor. Stereophile, Inc., bought the Schwann guides and published a Chinese-language edition in Taiwan. Mark Fisher came aboard as publisher, and Test CD 2 was released. Jack English joined the review team, there were 25 full-time employees, and circulation peaked at 87,000. Heady days. Imagine how they all felt holding the tiger by the tail.


Anton's picture

In general, the hobby seems to have contracted from the halcyon days of peak Hi Fi.

It seems we are somewhat fewer, but we make up for that with higher prices.

It's hard to imagine the work required to retain us codgers while simultaneously trying too reach younger demographics for Stereophile.

I saw a show report about the Hi Fi Show in Poland that mentioned more women, couple, young people, and families being a more frequent occurrence there. I wonder what Poland's biggest Hi Fi publication is and how audiophile recruitment is done there.

Such fascinating changes over time.

I'm starting to think that it will be the used market that keeps interest in Hi Fi afloat. The younger audiophiles in my local club are true seekers on 'new to them' vintage and used gear. It certainly mitigates the price creep we have seen with "high end" audio.


Related note: Wes Phillips was the bomb. Art Dudley was also the bomb - I am sad they are gone, but gleeful to have known their work.

Other related note: I love Stereophile as much today as I did when I first discovered it.

ScullComm's picture

Thank you Anton, always nice to be seen!

tonykaz's picture

Stereophile can continue successfully if it excels at the Journalistic aspect, it could easily be around 100 years from now. ( like the Atlantic Monthly and others ).

Stereophile excels at the philosophies of personal music enjoyment . It's all about "Quality of Life" !!!

The Writing quality can continue to improve and might even offer annual awards . ( Stereo-reviewing has been rather formulaic and cookie-cutterish with generous sprinkles of overworked Cliches.

Curious Insights might be presented like Joe Rogan's 147 minute interview of Jacob Dylan.

Monroe and Associates acquire, dismantle, and explain complete Cars like Tesla 3 ( published on YouTube ). Stereophile could dismantle any piece of gear and do a wonderful Show & Tell .

Stereophile alone is positioned to launch into magnificent excellence because it's now being led by a brilliant technologist & staffed by gifted writing. ( I'm not referring to the rear view mirror analog priesthood religionist )

Now with Streaming's 83 % Dominance, Stereophile is edging close to having Fold-Out Automotive type Advertisings. ( HFN&RR would often have that sort of thing )

Over these last years, ( since the Apple iPod popularity, Tyll Hersten and Schiit's beginnings ) I have watched Stereophile keep raising the Bar on music Journalism.

Cultured Civilised Society needs a Beacon like Stereophile and Stereophile needs to attract and hold this next Decade's curious cravers of sophisticated enrichments.

I will continue to nominate Stereophile for exactly that sort of work.

Tony in Venice Florida

rschryer's picture

Can't wait now to read the real-life adult version of the Stereophile story, about staff members pointing guns at each other ("Go ahead! Ask me one more time to review the Denson Cinemascope receiver. I dare you!"), rampant drug use ("I told you, I can't do it on an amp with the vents on top!"), and the parade of naked women ("Of course, as a thank you for reviewing our speakers, I'd like to introduce you to our lovely Samantha. Goodness, what happened to your top, Samantha?")

All kidding aside, this "Family" version is really great, too.

Anton's picture

It would certainly explain the Linn "Kompromat" amplifier review.

I also once read that the reason you never saw Hunter S. Thompson in the same room as J. Gordon Holt was because after their run-in in Vegas in 1971, J. Gordon said that if Thompson ever showed his face in Las Vegas again, Holt would take him out into the desert, burn him alive, and then shoot his remains out of a cannon. Johnny Depp was so affected, that the idea remained with him until Hunter's death, many years later.

Then, there's the story about JA1 and the time he mistook Steven Tyler for a lady, thereby changing the course of rock history. In fact, if you dig deep, you will see that JA1 is the Zelig of modern music in the popular idiom.

rschryer's picture

I actually looked it up just to be sure.

And had you said that JGH and Thompson were never seen together because they were one and the same, I would've believed it! I mean, it doesn't seem impossible, right?

But human remains being shot out of a cannon? Come on, Anton, that's just too far-fetched.


Anton's picture

Shoot, I should have run with my first instinct.

MatthewT's picture

WOODY CREEK, Colorado — With a deafening boom, the ashes of Hunter S. Thompson were blown into the sky from a 153-foot (47-meter) tower as relatives and a star-studded crowd bid an irreverent farewell to the founder of "gonzo journalism."

ScullComm's picture

Thanks, bwahahaha, you're a riot Alice!

Michael Fremer's picture

J-10! And of course congratulations to Stereophile and honored to be a part of it!

ScullComm's picture

Hey, thanks Michael. I spoke to LA as part of my prep and he said You'll probably finish this the night before. I had'a pull an all-nighter! Of course...

Allen Fant's picture

I have been a dedicated subscriber since 1993 to present date.

2_channel_ears's picture

I loved (miss) the Fine Tunes column. Best audio tweak I've come across - #7!

ScullComm's picture

Thanks, they were fun to write and as you suggest many of them are still viable.