No-Holts-Barred: 25 Years of Stereophile

Editor's Introduction: 1987 sees Stereophile celebrating its 25th anniversary of continuous—if occasionally sporadic—publication. For an ostensibly "underground" publication to have survived so long is a tribute to the skills and enthusiasm of the magazine's founder and Editor, J. Gordon Holt. I thought it fitting, therefore, to ask a contemporary of Gordon's, Ed Dell (footnote 1), himself a respected publisher and editor, to pen an appreciation of the man who defined the world of subjective reviewing.—John Atkinson


The temptation to talk at length about the effects J. Gordon Holt's work has had on the quality of recorded sound, or the equipment we use to reproduce it, is almost irresistible. But that is not my task here. I got this job because I'm older than Gordon and can remember farther back than most people (one of the facts of life that is not X-rated). I have had the pleasure of knowing him for a long time, longer than Stereophile has been around.

To gain some perspective on the man, some history is mandatory. In the days after World War II, the primary source of information was Audio, founded in 1947, the only US publication on the subject. Largely given over to construction, it was edited by the late C.G. McProud. Charles Fowler's brainchild, High Fidelity, appeared in 1954. Fowler, a veteran of McGraw Hill's magazine empire, wanted to start a monthly about high-quality sound, but he and his wife Mary also wished to escape the New York rat race. They set up shop, therefore, in an old Victorian mansion in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a couple of hours from New York and very close to that musical mecca, Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony.

Everything about audio seemed new in those days. Frequency modulation broadcasting was in its infancy, although several large cities had at least one struggling station. Boston's WGBH had been operating their Armstrong FM transmitter since 1938, but few people believed that the new form of ultra-quiet transmission would ever be more than a curiosity. The new microgroove 33 1/3 rpm disk from Columbia's resident genius, Peter Goldmark, was just beginning to become widely known. The German development of wire and tape recording was also being explored, and promised all sorts of new advances in audio technology.

Charles Fowler saw that there were at least two main interests in hi-fi types: the musical and the technical. He started Audiocraft, a technical spinoff, in November 1955; it was edited by Roy Allison, who later became production director at Acoustic Research and later yet founded his own company, Allison Acoustics. Audiocraft's tape editor, recruited from Wallingford, Pennsylvania, was J. Gordon Holt. The magazine quickly grew to approximately 30,000 circulation, and gained ad support rapidly. In 1957, it began to publish equipment reports which had previously been available in a rather badly produced, highly critical newsletter from a group calling themselves Hirsch-Houck Laboratories. In 1958, the stockholders of Audiocom, Inc., which published High Fidelity and Audiocraft, sold the two publications to Billboard Corporation of Cincinnati, Ohio. Audiocraft's death was announced a few months later.

Predictably, Audiocraft quickly disappeared from High Fidelity's pages despite Roy Allison's assurances it would continue there undiminished. The only surviving vestige was the Hirsh-Houck equipment reports. Our hero, J. Gordon, gained invaluable experience working on the third-floor lab of that comfortable Mansard-roofed house in Great Barrington. He wrote about tape in every issue of Audiocraft, dealing with the rapidly expanding recording technology. He published a complete construction series on a tube-type portable mike mixer. Tape was a hot topic, and readers had a choice of buying Pentron, Viking, or even a $100 kit from Heath.

But after the big corporate influence moved into the picture, things began to change for J. Gordon. The "bottom line" attitude began to affect policy, and issues of quality began to fall victim to the profit motive. Before long, J. Gordon left Great Barrington to return to Wallingford. He had long since formed the idea of publishing a reader-supported magazine free of commercial taint. Stereophile was born in 1962, the first issue appearing in November of that year.

Meeting J. Gordon Holt for the first time, you see a slight figure, a tiny bit stooped. But you realize after five minutes that the sandy hair and the slim figure hide an energy that is pushing him slightly forward all the time. The intensity is most readily apparent in his eyes, but his physical attitude runs a close second—he is a coiled spring of interest. He moves in quick motions, hands are almost constantly in some kind of obbligato to his speech. The voice has a nasal quality and a huskiness in it, but also that headlong character of speed and velocity.

The clothes are always casual, and, except for a few hours on one day of his life, I cannot remember seeing him in anything other than sneakers. So characteristic is the footwear that when his daughter was born she received several pairs of the smallest Keds. Some of us were convinced she came into the world in tiny tennies, but this proved to be only a rumor. He insists on comfortable clothes; the thought that even he might be persuaded to don a rented tuxedo, to receive a Nobel prize in Stockholm, is unthinkable.

Gordon's clothes are a clue to one of his most basic characteristics: pragmatism. Whatever he chooses to buy, use, build, review, or wear must always be as practical as possible. That is, it must serve its function completely, without any frills. His lifestyle, generally modestly abstemious, may seem to have been shaped by the low income characteristic of most of those who choose publishing as a profession. I suspect, however, that had he been wildly successful and enjoyed a far larger income than he has, he would still wear an open-necked shirt, faded khakis, white socks, and sneakers.

Footnote 1: At the time this article was published, Ed was publisher of The Audio Amateur, Speaker Builder, and The Computer Smyth. The first two magazines are now incorporated into Audio Xpress, still under the control of Ed, now one of the audio publishing world's Grand Old Men.—John Atkinson