Mikey Bats 302

John Atkinson (left) presents Michael Fremer with the Los Angeles & Orange County Audio Society's 2018 Founder's Award.

Issue 54 of The Absolute Sound, cover-dated July/August 1988, had arrived in my mailbox. I had been warned that this issue contained a report from Stereophile's third hi-fi show, which had been held in Santa Monica the previous April. Although it wasn't listed in the issue's table of contents, I found the show report on page 186, written by Michael Fremer, who was listed on the magazine's masthead as "Senior Editor: Pop Mix."

I first met Michael at the January 1987 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. We were both new then—he to TAS and I to Stereophile. At our meeting, he had argued cogently that for our two magazines to conduct a war of words in print would be detrimental to both (footnote 1). I was receptive to what he said, as I strongly believed that such public squabbling renders the high-end audio segment ridiculous in the eyes of the industry at large.

I was surprised, therefore, to read in Michael's report attacks on Stereophile's ethics and business practices, including its involvement in shows. What struck home for me, a UK import, was a quote from an unidentified manufacturer at the show criticizing Stereophile for "bringing all these Brits. It's bad for American audio." Annoyed by the criticisms, I shot off a letter, chock-full of grumbles, to Michael.

However, the more I read of his writing in The Absolute Sound, the more I was impressed by Michael's passion and his ability to express it in writing. Michael was to TAS what Thomas Huxley was to Charles Darwin: a "bulldog" who could express the magazine's positions more directly than its editor would. Over the next few years, I turned to Michael's writing first whenever a new issue of TAS arrived, all the while wishing that his voice and his passion could appear in Stereophile.

That wish was fulfilled in February 1995. Michael called me to let me know he was leaving The Absolute Sound. He was going to start a music magazine aimed at audiophiles, The Tracking Angle, which would have LP reviews as its primary focus. As he would no longer have an outlet for his writing on audio hardware, would I be interested in having him join Stereophile's team? Hell yes, I would! We quickly agreed that, as well as writing equipment reports, he would contribute a monthly column, to be called Analog Corner, which would concentrate on LP playback equipment. Michael told me that he was excited that his writings on that subject would reach a wider audience than they had at The Absolute Sound.

It is fair to note that Mikey's forceful advocacy of vinyl was one of the factors that led to the medium's survival through the late 1990s and early aughties, before its resurgence.

The first Analog Corner appeared in July 1995. As expected, CD came in for some stick. In the column's first paragraph, Mikey wrote, "It was big. It was ugly. It looked unfinished. It resembled some kind of industrial mistake, which is pretty much what it was: a prototype CD player rolled out by Sony at the 1982 AES Convention in Los Angeles. The inventors didn't care what it looked like, they just wanted you to hear it. Why, I don't know; it sounded awful. ... Based on the sinking feeling I felt in my stomach listening to that prototype back in '82, my conclusion was actually upbeat: 'This'll never catch on!'"

CD, of course, did catch on. Mikey wrote in 1994 that "despite innovations in the digital domain, the performance gap between state-of-the-art analog and digital remains. Records still sound more like real music to my ears." He reported playing CD and LP versions of the same album, John Hiatt's Bring the Family, to some Gen X engineers. Even though levels were matched and the two versions were basically indistinguishable tonally, the listeners "immediately grasped the essential difference," Michael wrote. "'The record is so ... ! Everything is ... it's so ....'"

This issue's Analog Corner is #302. (It should have been #304, but for various reasons the column didn't appear in our February 1996 and July 2014 issues.) Analog Corner #300 appeared in the August 2020 Stereophile (footnote 2) and featured Boulder's extraordinary 2108 two-box phono preamplifier, the measured performance of which is featured in this issue's Follow-Up section. The Boulder costs $52,000, fulfilling a commitment Mikey made in his very first Analog Corner: While he would review real-world turntables, cartridges, arms, and phono sections, he would also cover stuff most of us can only dream about. "I love reading about Vipers and Porsche Carrera 4s, though I doubt I'll ever own either."

It's not only Mikey's columns that have made him one of this magazine's most popular and influential writers. His equipment reviews, the very first of which was of the Audio Physic Virgo loudspeaker in September 1995, have been models of describing, analyzing, and summing up the sonic merits (or lack thereof) of the product being tested (footnote 3).

I regularly visit Michael, either to pick up a product for measurement or, in the case of the monster amplifiers and loudspeakers he likes to review, to measure it in situ. I eagerly anticipate those visits, because I always listen to LPs on Michael's current system. When I do, I am reminded of why we all love this hobby: It's about letting the music overwhelm us, as it always does me at Michael's place.

For 25 years, Michael Fremer has been Stereophile's bulldog. He has been the LP's bulldog for even longer.—John Atkinson

A teenaged Mikey falls in love with vinyl while DJ'ing at his university radio station.

Footnote 1: Because The Absolute Sound regularly published potshots at Stereophile in the late 1980s, it was taken for granted that Stereophile was doing likewise. It was strongly suggested back then in on-line chat groups that if only Stereophile would stop criticizing TAS, TAS would do the same. I therefore publicly and personally offered readers $100 for every example anyone could find of Stereophile attacking TAS after I had joined the magazine in 1986. I made just a single $100 payment!

Footnote 2: Analog Corners from 1995 through 2006 can be found at our sister website, Analog Planet. The columns from 2007 onward will eventually be posted to stereophile.com here.

Footnote 3: Other than Analog Corner, almost all of Mikey's writings for Stereophile can be found here. A 2017 video interview with Michael in his listening room can be found here.

Enrique Marlborough's picture

Thanks once again for the good advice on choosing better original recordings.