Book Review: "High Fidelity Audio/Video Systems: A Critical Guide for Owners" Letters

A letter in response appeared in the March 1992 issue:

A critical response

Believe it or not, I rather felt that Greenberg treated me pretty good in his review [of my book, High Fidelity Audio/Video Systems: A Critical Guide for Owners, in Vol.14 No.12], given his philosophy. I do want to bring up some points, however. (Readers are advised to re-read his review of my book in the December issue before continuing.)

First, the book costs $23.50 because it is a "library" binding: acid-free paper, library stitching, etc. The circle/infinity logo on the verso of the title page indicates high quality. The price is well below average for a library-grade paperback binding, which these days is about $29. My publisher specializes in books for libraries, although the book will also be sold to private individuals.

Second, the book is really only "dated" from the perspective of a change-hungry journalist. A lot of the material in it is considered quite up-to-date by at least some reputable people. Just look through the bibliographical data. (CG failed to note that the text has extensive and often very up-to-date book and magazine references to back up most of its contentions.) Yes, a lot of the illustrated gear is no longer in production. However, I pointed out in the introduction that the photos were there to prove a point, not make sales. Also, some of the gear just recently went out of production and the book was in press for a year prior to its coming out last May. I would imagine that most of the stuff listed in Laura Dearborn's book is also no longer being made, but that did not prevent Greenberg from promoting her work. Putting too much new gear in a book can be counterproductive.

Third, I like great music as much as the next audio buff, but I am not afraid to admit that I like great recordings, too. Greenberg implies that I am turned off by old recordings by great masters. Okay, that may be the case—sometimes. However, I would imagine that a lot of your people would rather listen to a great recording of a good performance (note, I did not say "bad performance") than merely a good recording of a great one. I would imagine that at least some of you guys, when one considers that you are constantly trading and buying new stuff, have spent far more money on assorted sound systems over the years than on your record collections. Or do you get most of your stuff for free? Also, what did Corey find so wrong (so much so that he highlighted the quote from the book) in my saying that one could not tell if a performance was good if its details were muddled by a poor recording? As serious buffs, we do want nuance-revealing recordings, don't we?

Fourth, while the book does discuss the underground press in a sometimes negative manner, I think it is unfair to imply that its basic goal was to grind an axe against you people. It also took the "above ground" press to task for sometimes being afraid to deal with the more complex side of audio in a forthright manner, and even pointed out serious problems with the testing that Consumer's Union and the Canadian NRC do. Mr. Greenberg almost makes it seem as if the book is nothing more than a lengthy diatribe against people such as yourself, while, in actuality, only a small part of two chapters dealt with the relationship between audio and the people who favor subjective testing over objective. The book was, as a matter of fact, mostly about audio and video and not the people who deal with the subject.

Fifth, Roy Allison has been a friend of mine for years. I admire him because he has no use for BS or the people who promote it, has ideas about speaker systems that usually parallel mine, and builds good speakers as a result of those ideas. As for the other people you mention in a denigrating manner, Moran and Clark, well, I like them too and consider them quite bright. You failed, incidentally, to mention that I also praised David Hafler, Matti Otala, Mark Davis, Floyd Toole, Stanley Lipshitz, John Vanderkooy, Daniel Queen, Edgar Villchur, Harry Olson, among others—and even Peter Mitchell and Martin Colloms. Much of the material these people have written was listed in the book's bibliographical references and was frequently commended...

Sixth, while many of the Allison speakers illustrated in the book are out of production, the basic driver designs were pretty much the same as in the newer models, with cabinet styles, crossover configurations, and driver protection circuits being the main differences. If you have an older Allison model and a driver fails, it can be safely replaced by one of the later versions. (They are also produced by Allison in-house and are not OEM models, like so many of those installed in high-end cabinets.) If you feel as I do about the need for flat power and uniform radiation pattern, the coverage I gave those drivers was justified.

Seventh, the reason the Electronic Subwoofer bass boost was dangerous for some woofers is that they were not designed for it. I pointed out in the book that bass-reflex type designs could get into real trouble with ESW operation. Allison said the same thing in the unit's owner's manual. With well-designed acoustic suspension woofers, the device could work quite well, particularly if they were fairly bass-potent already. Bass tone controls can also cause problems with those same bass-reflex models, which is why I said that strongly boosting the bass with some speakers could cause trouble. Anyway, I thought my discussion of the potential for over-elevating the bass with some conventional subwoofers was pretty informative. Many buffs turn a subwoofer device into a boom-box.

Eighth, the AR-5 and AR-3a are said to be treble-deficient by some buffs. [They also measure as being treble-deficient.—Ed.] However, with most recordings this may be a plus instead of a minus, particularly if the system, like those AR models, has very wide dispersion and is operated in an acoustically untreated, "living-room-like" area that reflects and supports a large amount of off-axis sound. (The book spent a lot of time on this subject.) If they had any weaknesses, it was that they lacked liquid-cooled (and burnout-resistant) drivers. I still consider them quite up-to-date, if their volume-level limitations are understood. The AR LST was something else, and I stand 100% by what I said regarding its ability to hold its own with most of what is available today, including the often overpriced stuff that your people praise regularly.

Ninth, I did not say all amps sound the same. All properly designed amps sound the same, provided they are not being clipped and not driving really oddball impedance loads. This does not include units with excessively (and intentionally) high output impedances, which skew the frequency response and make the amp sound "different" from more mundane (read, low-priced) models and give you guys the "proof" you need to say that amps sound different. Most amps on the market are properly designed.

Tenth, I thought you came up real short in "dissecting" the accessories chapter...Greenberg took most of the statements out of context. (He failed to note, for example, that I indicated that a subharmonic synthesizer is best used with some older pop recordings, which often lack deep bass, that it was inadequate for classical music enhancement, and that it was particularly useful in bringing some video film soundtracks up to snuff, particularly when such sources contained a lot of special-effects audio pyrotechnics.) Incidentally, why didn't you mention my discussion of felt-tip pens, disc freezing, and Armor All under the "bad" heading? The latter, in particular, was aimed right at you guys.

Finally, I rather doubt that my book would ever turn people who love music away from audio as a hobby. What it should do is show them that it is not necessary to spend the kind of mega-money your crew feels is required to get surprisingly fine sound in the home. (All your Class C and D product ratings do is make poor people feel bad, in spite of what you say.)

Again, thanks for printing the review. It probably did me more good than you may realize.
Howard Ferstler, Tallahassee, FL

Despite Mr. Ferstler's spirited defense of his brainchild, I concur with CG's review judgment that High Fidelity Audio/Video Systems contains too much misinformation, is too much concerned with long-obsolete components, and is too unconnected with the reality of what audiophiles face when deciding what to purchase and why, to be recommendable. Music lovers new to this often maddening hobby who want useful, accurate information should obtain a copy of Laura Dearborn's Good Sound, published by Quill, William Morrow, price $12.95, and available from The Audio Advisor, as well as from good bookshops.

And Stereophile readers—remember that we highly recommend the components listed in Class C and D of "Recommended Components"! These products offer good, musically satisfying sound at an affordable price. But do you spend more on your systems than on your collections of recordings, as Mr. Ferstler charges? I hope not.—JA