Art Dudley: The Art of Being

Photo: Sasha Matson

I met Art Dudley twice, and in both instances, he was exceedingly humble and gracious with his time. The first time, I thanked him for hosting the Virtues of Vintage panel at DC's Capital Audiofest, just moments after he was verbally accosted by an unwell man seated in front of me—something about audio-journalism lingo and abstract phrases like "midrange bloom."

Art wrote about this experience for Stereophile several times, in a show report and also, anecdotally, in Listening. Recently, actually.

After the panel, I waited for the adoring throng to subside then adoringly thanked Art for his presence, for simply being.

Sometime before, Art had written about restoring his vintage Altec Lansing speakers, the second set, the Flamencos. That article had helped me understand that this hobby—our shared passion—was not exclusive to modern, expensive products: The best among us had found something magical not in gear long forgotten but in gear long ignored by the asymptomatic passing of today's bottom line.

I had seen Art wandering the music room halls the day before and stood starstruck when I recognized him. There was so much I wanted to ask him. I stood frozen, watching him grab pamphlets, make notes, then take a seat in the dark room, briefly, before hastily retreating at the sound of a tired Stevie Ray Vaughan audiophile track. Audiophile kryptonite or kitten spray bottle, I don't know, but the man bolted for another room.

That's when another realization struck me: I was there for enjoyment, curiosity, to wander and explore sights and sounds and mysteries. I wanted to share that we had once worked for the same parent company, that I, too (once), was a writer and shared similar passions. But Art was working. And, quite seriously! I could no more bring myself to disrupt his work than I could an air-traffic controller willing pilots to safe landings.

But Art would've taken the time. I know that now. Even if I was a jerk or an unwell man. He would've taken the time if I stopped him, if I grabbed him by the arm and asked him the hundred obnoxious questions swirling in my globe-brain noggin. That was Art, and I saw that—even while working, even while dedicated to his craft, to the seriousness of his mission—he gave. He gave himself to those who asked.

I didn't ask my questions, and now I've never asked.


After the vintage panel that morning, Art gave me his Stereophile business card and asked me to email him. I didn't. I haven't. I don't know the man like you, Stereophile's editors, or those of you who worked with him over the years or next to him in the industry. I revere his will, his words, his opinions—whether or not I agreed with them—and how he morphed those words into simple, coherent thought, sentence by sentence, understanding to shared understanding.

Earlier last month, I pondered the idea that audiophile equipment—the entire basis of Stereophile's existence—is just transcription equipment that produces an actual, visceral metaphor to the real live thing, for people who love music and spend their leisure time listening to it. I'm an Army Operation Iraqi Freedom combat Veteran, and spending my leisure time listening to music is healing; why couldn't it be for anyone? If even just meditation? Maybe, in this sense and others, recorded sound, the way it is played in my room, is worth more than a live experience.

That's a loaded question, but I wanted to hear his answer. I wanted to know what Art thought about music reproduction as merely a copy of a real, live thing. I wanted to know whether he thought written language could aspire to perceived sound.

Metaphor is the most important technique in a writer's toolbox. When used successfully, a great metaphor illustrates the specific for the general. Art, more than any audio writer, merged writing with music.

That's literary writing. It's what people mean but don't know it when they say that "Art was a great writer": He was a master with syntax; his anecdotes made the specific more familiar; his mastery of figure of speech gave actual words to sound—his perceived sound. These are the things that writers know and say about writers who write well; this is what musicians know and say about musicians who write and record our favorite music. There's a difference between hearing the language and speaking the language. Art wrote my favorite words. Art was my favorite writer.

After the Virtues of Vintage panel that November Sunday morning, Art said that anyone could do what he did, that it didn't take any special talent or skill to be who and what he was to so many of us. I believe Art really meant it, humbly so, but I disagree.

In all his columns and reports and reviews and thoughts and musings, Art was saying that we're searching for some musical truth—not necessarily the reproduction of live music but a musical experience that moves us. Perhaps the most rewarding part of reading an audio writer's thoughts over time is experiencing his/her words as he/she experiences products that move sound differently. Stereophile allowed Art to capture t/his transformation. Art left us with the equipment and experiences that moved him.

His words allowed us to experience them, too. It moved us, too.

Topher's picture

Great piece!

Lars Bo's picture

Thank you very much for this.

oregontreat's picture

I also met Art at CAF a few times. I loved watching his head bob as he listened. We both bought the same first record: King of the Road by Roger Miller.

anomaly7's picture

Well said.

johnnythunder's picture

Thank you for writing it.

prerich45's picture

Well done!!!!

JHL's picture

"Metaphor is the most important technique in a writer's toolbox. When used successfully, a great metaphor illustrates the specific for the general. Art, more than any audio writer, merged writing with music."

*Bloom*, therefore, is a fabulous descriptor for an audio writer, or for that matter, for anyone tuned into the real sound of the thing. Whether it refers back to reciprocating mass or coefficient of lift or center of gravity is utterly irrelevant.

13stoploss's picture

While the unwell man wasn't accusing Art of using that exact term, he clearly hi-jacked the conversation and laid the burden on Art to exclusively represent and defend the audio press. That wasn't nice, right, or fair.

Still, I'm glad you caught that, JHL. To English speakers, "bloom" should convey a sense of opening or unraveling. We know what a flower's bud looks like and we can monitor its progress in hours or days as it blooms, as it reveals something deeper or truer to form within.

Metaphor breaks down when the vehicle describing the tenor is abstract. Metaphor requires the concrete. "The old amp smells like cigarette smoke" works where "The old amp smells dumb" doesn't.

I applaud JA's multiple uses of the specific term in question elsewhere in this issue.

-Jason Davis

JHL's picture

...don't have to be listeners, and engineers of components don't have to be assemblers of systems either, much less listeners. Even musicians don't have to be listeners (and many are not).

Only listeners are listeners, and no other subgroup necessarily shares that talent, preference, or even casual pastime with them.

Therefore, no other subgroup has to approve of the listener's choice of words. No other subgroup may critique his or her choice of words either, at least credibly, because of some belief that there must be a technical underpinning to *bloom* or *speed* or any other term.

Demanding a technical basis to metaphor, aside from the logical disconnect, is a subgroup's attempt to boastfully insert itself as expert, typically by usurping a belief that even another subgroup - the engineer, perhaps - can't hook to listening. This is unwell.

I go to these lengths in threads like these because the bad generally drives out the good, and great audio is a good thing, a good thing to be preserved and developed purely and always for how it moves the listener.

Unwell men find great audio something to gainsay, typically in rationally opaque ways.

Good listeners are involved in the direct artistic output of much greater men.

Herb Reichert's picture

"Engineers don't have to be listeners, and engineers of components don't have to be assemblers of systems either, much less listeners. Even musicians don't have to be listeners (and many are not).

"Only listeners are listeners, and no other subgroup necessarily shares that talent, preference, or even casual pastime with them."

This is the first time I've seen anyone (besides AD) so clearly acknowledge this career distinction.

Being a listener, like Art Dudley, takes a lifetime of practice. Then to convert that listening into words so others can imagine what the "listener" felt. That was Art Dudley's gift.

And then there was Wilmer and Chatter . . .


JHL's picture

...that the high end weathers and survives the Age of Objectivism that launched itself somewhere in the last twenty years or so, at the dawn of the cheap PC-based measurement, and upon the assumptions borne of simple data. While inevitable, this age has nothing inherently to do with fine reproduced sound, and in fact, truly superb playback systems flatly defy its simple analysis.

(This isn't to take away from data or reasonable interpretations of it a la JA et al, just "objectivism's" slathering itself over your and my experience here and there as if forming some precondition where it is an authority and we are effectively deaf or so hampered by our primate bias as to need safety railings. That is the pursuit of the unwell.)

That's the thing, Herb: As you well and somewhat uniquely know - and I refer back to the NY Triode Mafia and Tango and Flesh and Blood and the rest - great, transcendent, moving hifi is an experience, and until you've experienced the experience you haven't experienced the experience.

To conflate it with an unheard presumption about it is logically impossible, but to demand of it a tithe to language is simply wrong-headed.

MT_Guy723's picture

My favorite music has always moved me emotionally. Good equipment and good media elevate that experience regardless of what you're listening to. If you like it, you'll like it more when the sounds almost become physical beings in your listening room.

Art Dudley approached his craft with a sure degree of seriousness, and because he was able to write in an engaging manner we are all the better for his efforts. That's enough of a decent legacy right there.

orgillian's picture

Art's extraordinary ability to communicate with his written prose went hand in hand with his ability to listen. In order to speak authoritatively you must be willing and able to hear. In his case, having the patience to pay attention to details, no matter how seemingly small and insignificant, also gave him an edge.

sharpnine's picture

I've been a fan of Art's writing for many years. I had been given a TD-124 turntable some years back, at the same time that Art was working on his, and writing about it. He guided my restoration process with his writing. My wife, who cares little for audio gear, always liked his articles, and we'd read them together. I always wanted to meet Art, but I live in CA and rarely make it to the east coast, definitely not to east coast audio shows. So I never expected we'd meet.

In Oct. 2015 we made a rare visit to NYC. My wife was jet-lagged and sleeping in, so I snuck out early in the morning and walked to the nearest record store, the Jazz Record Center near 8th and 26th (great place). When I walked in I saw a Thorens TD-124 turntable on a table near the door. Looked just like mine. After shopping a while I walked out and now a man was standing over the turntable, doing some adjustments. I said something like "nice turntable! I have one like it." The man said, "yes these are great old things. I'm just here doing some work on it." I said "Oh you repair turntables?" He said "No I work for a magazine, near here, and just stopped by to do this for a friend." I asked him what magazine and figured out who he was (for some reason I didn't know what Art looked like). Art Dudley was literally the first person I met in New York City, just by coincidence! And probably the person I most wanted to meet. We had such a nice chat. I could have talked for hours but respected his time--what a beautiful, nice person. I'm so sad for his too-early passing. Already miss his columns.

Roger Corman