John Atkinson: a Career in Audio

At the end of April, Adrian Low, the proprietor of Toronto retailer Audio Excellence, emailed me. "I've been interviewing audio luminaries for some time," Adrian wrote, "partly because I am so interested in how they started, their experiences, and also to share these with fellow audio enthusiasts." Adrian told me that they match and donate all the funds they receive from these videos to the Salvation Army (footnote 1). He had just posted video interviews with Dan D'Agostino and Wilson Audio's Peter McGrath to the store's YouTube channel and asked if he could interview me.

We connected with Skype and, in the two videos embedded below, Adrian and I, along with Jan and Vilip from Audio Excellence, talk about many things connected with my 52 years as an audiophile, my 43 years in audio magazine publishing, and my 33 years at the editorial helm of Stereophile. The subjects covered include:

• The conflict between my academic success in the sciences at high school and university and my passion for music, which came to a head when, at age 24, I gave up a secure job in scientific research to go on the road as a bass player with a rock band and record an album at Abbey Road.

• How my career as a professional music foundered due to the fact that I was better at playing than I was at getting paid, which led to me in 1976 applying for and getting a job as an editorial assistant at Hi-Fi News & Record Review, a UK-based magazine I had been reading since putting together my first audio system.

• Why, in 1986, after less than four years as the editor-in-chief of Hi-Fi News, at age 38 I gave up the success I was achieving to join the then-digest-sized, irregularly published Stereophile in May 1986, where I was to remain editor-in-chief through March 2019. In that time I oversaw a steady increase in circulation and revenue until Stereophile became the highest-circulation magazine devoted exclusively to audio and music in the English-speaking world.

• On why I felt including measurements in the magazine's reviews played a role in Stereophile's growth and the correlations between measured performance and sonic character with both loudspeakers and amplifiers.

•: On the evolution of my audio system, the products that had impressed me the most over the years I worked in audio magazine publishing, and how I would allocate a budget to put together a musically satisfying system.

• On my parallel career as a recording engineer/musician/producer.

• And many other topics, including my list of 11 must-hear albums and the current state of the audio industry.

Finally, as I mentioned my career in scientific research above, here is a photo of me in the lab in 1972, just before I gave it up to pursue my musician career.


Footnote 1: You can see the reason Audio Excellence produces these videos here.

COMMENTS
Bogolu Haranath's picture

And what a wonderful career it is ....... Hats off to you JA1 :-) ........

georgehifi's picture

• "On why I felt including measurements in the magazine's reviews played a role in Stereophile's growth and the correlations between measured performance and sonic character with both loudspeakers and amplifiers."

Here, here, JA, as these tests and measurements can lead (the ones who can understand them) to picking the correct amp or speaker to suit first time up.
Instead of getting on the hifi merry go round trying pieces that don't suit, just because someone said "this is great you should get it"

Cheers George

Long-time listener's picture

I appreciate immensely all I've learned from your publication, JA, which I've been reading for several decades. The inclusion of your measurements has taught me so much. The NAD M51 was a great purchase. But I also bought the NAD M32 that you "highly recommended." It is bright, tension-inducing, and fatiguing to listen to for more than 5 minutes. Really unpleasant. Did you listen to it for more than 5 minutes?

dial's picture

Yes, as you are a scientist, measurements are the keys to knowledge.
Ears could easily be fooled, for an oscilloscope it's more difficult. I've encountered many so called high end gear, only the price was a five digit amount - and not necessarily with 1 at the front.
We should bring tonearms, cartridges, turntables, racks and cables to the lab ! Recently published, not here two reviews about ZYX cartridge (UNIverse Premium or something like that) and one for The Truth preamp, no specs nothing more than the reviewer's comments...

jeffhenning's picture

Hey, John.

I had a Carvin AC50 fretless for several years. These days, I have my eye on a Kiesel Vader, multi-scale, 6 string bass (same company - they now use the family name). Still have my trusty old Carvin LB40 that I bought almost 40 years ago.

Some interesting new tech I just saw: the oPIK optical guitar and bass pickup.
http://www.light4sound.com

They have a really wild video of a guy playing a Stratocaster set up with nylon strings and that pickup. It sounds eerily like a classical guitar.

Cheers!

John Atkinson's picture
jeffhenning wrote:
I had a Carvin AC50 fretless for several years. These days, I have my eye on a Kiesel Vader, multi-scale, 6 string bass (same company - they now use the family name). Still have my trusty old Carvin LB40 that I bought almost 40 years ago.

Still have the fretless Carvin - it's a joy to play but my intonation suffers when I can't hear myself on-stage :-)

I still have the 1964 P Bass that I played throughout my pro career, and it's joined by a headstock-less Spirit I bought because it fits into a plane's overhead storage; a Rickenbacker 4001 that I find hard to play because the neck/headstock outweighs the body; a Carvin 5 string; an acoustic Martin bass that the magazine's writers gave me as a 10th anniversary gift in 1996; and an Alembic Stanley Clarke bass that is the pride of my collection.

In one of the video interviews, I make the point that being a bass player was the perfect training to be a magazine editor. In both cases you provide the essential support and structure for the venture. I also play recorder, and back in the 1980s I asked my teacher why, if I had (and still have) a lovely Moeck Rottenburgh treble recorder, I always ended playing the bass recorder in early music groups?

"Because anyone can play tunes," she explained, "But not many people can lay down a bass line correctly."

A better compliment I can't imagine!

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

jeffhenning's picture

Bass is the most misunderstood instrument in the modern music lexicon. Being both a rhythm and melodic instrument at once, it quite often gets the short shrift in most music.

Most people who are multi-instrumentalists can technically play the bass very well, but they don't get what it takes to make a great bass line.

I am kind of envious about your SC Alembic. Always loved the necks on the Ric's (so narrow and fast to play)... never noticed them being neck heavy, but then I never lived with one.

My head these days, though, is into composing and engineering. If the whole world doesn't explode, my next bass will be a Kiesel Vader 6, 30" that's strung as a piccolo. I'll hot rod it with a 13 pin jack so I can use it for synth control and MIDI composing.

I'll admit to being a tech nerd/mad scientist when it comes to bass, but I'd like to get one of those NS Designs standup (like Tony Levin). Playing one of those will improve my chops since I'll most likely be pretty terrible when I start.

Keep testin', baby!

John Atkinson's picture
jeffhenning wrote:
I am kind of envious about your SC Alembic.

I bought the Alembic about 10 years ago from ex-Stereophile reviewer Paul Bolin, who was having some troubles following his return from China, where he had been working for an audio manufacturer. The deal was that when he got his life organized, he would buy it back from me for the same price.

I last played it live at a concert his colleagues in the free-jazz band Attention Screen had organized for Bob Reina (RIP).

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Paul McCartney's favorite is Rickenbacker 4001/3 ....... Maurice Gibb is another player ......... according to Google search :-) .......

Lars Bo's picture

Quote: "(The bass) being both a rythmic and melodic instrument." Indeed, and a decisive harmonious instrument as well. I think it was Sting who once said "we're not in G until I play it is".

John, I salute you. Cheers.

dial's picture

Strange you didn't mention Leduc and Vigier, more jazz oriented perhaps.

rschryer's picture

JA is wearing the near-mythical Stereophile baseball cap. I heard it imparts great power to the wearer.

Is it, perhaps, the secret to JA having become the Most Influential English High End Audio Magazine Editor? How did he even get so smart?

Hey, my theory makes just as much sense as a whole lot of other ones I've been hearing lately. I like mine better.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

That hat promotes hair growth ...... It has laser lights inside the hat :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

JA1 got smart by eating wheaties for breakfast ....... The breakfast of champions :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

JA1 is also a friend of Maxwell Smart ...... Agent 86 told JA1 to 'Get Smart' :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The price for the JA1 autographed Stereophile hats has just gone up, after the Audio Excellence endorsement :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Mr. RS, if you write a letter to Mr. Paul Miller requesting him to raise JA1's salary, we will all sign that letter :-) .......

rschryer's picture

but I'm pretty sure Mr. Miller wouldn't give a damn.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

You could bribe Mr.Miller with the Stereophile hat, and tell him, that hat can promote hair growth ...... Just kidding Mr. Miller :-) .......

butch.bond's picture

I'm not in the business of journalism (but I saw the movie "Shattered Glass" lol), but it always seemed to me that Mr. Atkinson would have been a pleasure to work for as a writer, if part of an editor's job is indeed to defend the honor of his writers within reason, and whenever reasonably possible. I'm thinking of the many dustups on AudioAsylum and elsewhere outside of the pages of his own publication where J.A. had the backs of his employees, even when they might have gone too far... anyway J.A. seems to have many fine attributes and presided over a fine publication, and it's always a pleasure seeing him in NYC clubs and halls enjoying live music (back when we used to have it, that is) even though I've never had occasion to say "Hello". All the best to you.

DaveinSM's picture

John Atkinson’s measurements— and the consistency of his methodology over the years, allowing us to compare apples-to-apples— is what sets Stereophile apart from every other hi fi publication. That, and his crucial interpretation of the results makes them meaningful and intelligible.

Florid language and subjective listening impressions, even by the most golden ears, don’t mean as much to me without the measurements.

b1gh1g's picture

Not relevant, not funny.
Yet four in a row.
Stop now, please.

John Atkinson's picture
b1gh1g wrote:
Not relevant, not funny.
Yet four in a row.
Stop now, please.

Considering that one of his serial postings was a suggestion that I should get a raise, I think we should cut Bogolu some slack. :-)

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

I knew my 'cereal' posting would work :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be JA1 could write an autobiography with an interesting title like 'Losing my Virginity' by Sir Richard Branson :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Or ....... JA1 could copy the title of Branson's follow up book 'How to Listen, Learn, Laugh and Lead' :-) .......

dashate's picture

Absolutely.
It's why I've stayed with Stereophile all these years. Including the tests with each review augments the objective information we get from the writers. Thanks for keeping these measurements in the magazine.

Allen Fant's picture

Salute! JA

Relayer's picture

It would seem to position you ideally for a Chris Squire article!

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