"Where's the Real Magazine?" Part 2

"Jonathan Scull told me there'd be trouble when I decided to put the Denon AVR-4800 surround receiver on our December cover."

So began last month's "As We See It," written in response to letters of complaint that appeared in the same issue. Somewhat to my surprise, the negative letters are still coming in (see p.11). I conjectured last month that the real objection to our featuring the Denon in Stereophile was not that it was, per se, a home-theater component—we paid no editorial attention to how the receiver functioned in a home-theater environment—but because it was a component intended for the reproduction of music in surround sound. A very visible conservative movement in high-end audio seems to equate the concept of quality in music reproduction exclusively with the two-channel experience. (This is hardly surprising, given that the vast majority of commercial recordings available are two-channel.)

More than 30 years ago, Stereophile's founder, J. Gordon Holt, proselytized that surround sound is not antithetical to music reproduction—though the implementation can be, as you'll read in our forthcoming report from the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show. And Stereophile's mission is to cover the waterfront when it involves enabling audiophiles to better enjoy their music collections. Stereo, surround, two-channel, even mono—as I write these words, I am enjoying a recently acquired CD set of Toscanini conducting the Brahms symphonies, recorded live half a century ago in mono in London's Festival Hall (Testament SBT 3167)—I don't give a damn about the specific vehicle by which the music is delivered to my listening space, as long as the hairs on the back of my neck rise at the appropriate moments.

So to address the question put to me by Bill Knopp in this month's "Letters": this magazine judges all components by how well they handle music. To our surprise, Mr. Knopp, some components, even if primarily aimed at non-audiophiles, do pass enough of the music through to be recommended; some other, politically correct, "true" audiophile components don't. All we can do is report what we hear, without fear or favor.

Which brings me to the letters from Jac Steinberger and Geordy Duncan: "Let's work on those covers," the latter instructs. When I choose whether or not a component is featured on Stereophile's cover, I don't care about audiophile political correctness. The primary purpose of any magazine's cover is to get someone standing in front of a newsstand's crowded rack to pick up your magazine rather than a competitor's. The cover must strike a resonance in readers who are potentially interested in the magazine's content, and must therefore be quite narrowly defined. As the now defunct Fi found out, a magazine about audio hardware takes an enormous gamble if it doesn't put pictures of audio hardware on its cover. But it's also easy to be too exclusionary, and appeal only to the core of your existing customer base.

I touched on this issue in a speech I gave at Stereophile's 30th-anniversary dinner in Chicago in May 1992. No matter how successful, measured by whatever yardstick, any company feels itself to be, that company's continued success depends on it reinventing itself on a continual basis, in order to reach new customers. Not to attempt such reinvention leads to stagnation, and eventually to irrelevance.

The high-end audio market has had its ups and downs since 1992, but two US companies have reinvented themselves in an intriguing direction: In cities where they were not already represented by a traditional specialty audio retailer, Sumiko (US distributors of the Vienna Acoustics and Sonus Faber brands) and MartinLogan have instead installed high-end rooms in the middle of the show floor of a mass-market consumer-electronics retailer.

As MartinLogan's Brent Hefley described it to me about 18 months ago, compared with a traditional store, where there is a significant chance that every person coming through the door is already a MartinLogan customer, it is unlikely that every customer entering the big store will be interested in high-end audio. But some will be, and because the traffic is, overall, so much higher, the net result is increased sales for your brand. More important, these sales are to people who otherwise might never have learned about what your company does.

Along those same lines, I have deliberately experimented these past nine months with the choice of components featured on Stereophile's covers. When I put a traditional piece of two-channel gear on the cover, the loyal Stereophile reader—bless you all—will readily find the magazine on the newsstand.

But if I choose an audio component that will excite responsive echoes in someone who is not (yet) a regular Stereophile reader—a surround receiver, a PC soundcard, or, in the case of this month's cover, a computer sub/satellite speaker system—there is a good chance that that new person will pick up the magazine when she would not have done so before. If she then browses through it, there's a chance that she'll like something else in the book—and perhaps the high-end audio industry will have won another convert.

The downside, of course, is that any coverage we give a product not from the High End's mainstream inevitably displaces a product that some readers will have preferred to read about—again, witness the howls of outrage about the Denon in this issue's "Letters." But as long as the product singled out for the cover story has convinced us that its sound quality truly serves the music played through it—for example, just before the New Year, I auditioned at Michael Fremer's the AEGO2 speaker system, driven by his G4 Macintosh computer, and was as blown away by its sound quality as he had been—we are serving both the high-end cause and Stereophile's mission.—John Atkinson