We will only always just come close.

The very first issue of The Stereophile appeared 45 years ago, in October 1962. It had been founded by a guy named J. Gordon Holt. The "J." is for Justin. I've never met him, never even exchanged e-mails with him.

In the opening essay of the November 2007 issue of Stereophile, now on newsstands, our editor, John Atkinson, asks J. Gordon Holt a few questions. It's a good read. But I was hoping to discover a charming, wise, happy fellow. Instead, J. Gordon comes off like an angry and bitter man. It sucks to admit it, but, judging just by the words on the page, that sure seems to be the case: Angry and bitter—grr! In the same sort of way that I wish my father wasn't a jerk, I kind of wish that our founder wasn't so disappointed with hi-fi.

Take, for example, Holt's answer to JA's question about avenues for vitality in high end audio:

Vitality? Don't make me laugh. Audio as a hobby is dying, largely by its own hand.

Sheesh. "Dying?" "Largely by its own hand?" Are you saying, J. Gordon, that high end audio is sticking its head in the oven, slitting its wrists, taking a dip in the pool with pockets full of rocks?

I think that's what he's saying.

But this isn't true. High end hi-fi is loving life. It's singing and dancing and inviting friends over for cocktails and finger foods. It's all excited about the great and affordable gear out there; it's looking forward to a new pair of sweet headphones to complement its iPod; it's saving up some cash for all the rare salsa LPs it wants to listen to; it's thinking about transferring all of its music to a computer-based system. It's totally psyched!

So, what's J. Gordon talking about?

I think he's kinda pissed-off about people having fun. What's up with that? I'm guessing he's just not happy with certain ideas of fun. Or, that he thinks these ideas of fun run against the ultimate goals of hi-fi.

For instance, he says:

Audio actually used to have a goal: perfect reproduction of the sound of real music performed in a real space. That was found difficult to achieve..."

Difficult to achieve?

Difficult to achieve?!

Shit, man, I'd have to say that would be damn impossible. And, besides: It's kinda, um, irrational? Silly? Over-the-top? Bad! It's just bad. I mean, I don't even want Sonic Youth in my living room. It would make a big mess. It would be painful. I'd probably get in some sort of trouble.

Gordon continues:

Today, "good" sound is whatever one likes. As Art Dudley so succinctly said, fidelity is irrelevant to music.

Hmm? Wait, I'm confused. Is Gordon saying he has a problem with this? Is he saying he disagrees? Yes, he must be. J. Gordon Holt is saying, I think, that good sound should sometimes be unpleasant. This, by itself, is not too hard to swallow. I mean, properly reproduced brass can be pretty annoying sometimes. I have this thing with certain hi-hat sounds—they can really drive me crazy. Etcetera. But, for some strange reason, Gordon seems to put a lot of weight on the "forward" or "aggressive" aspects of musical reproduction. He seems to suggest that we should strive for those unpleasant, annoying times. I can see him sitting in his listening room, blaring Mahler's Seventh or something, getting his ears absolutely decimated, and being all like: "Yes, dude, yes! Paaaaaaaain!"

But I shouldn't make jokes. My point is that J. Gordon Holt's goal was unrealistic. It's no wonder he's pissed! The perfect reproduction of the sound of real music in a real space is too much to ask from black or silver boxes and cables. We will only always just come close. And why would we want to achieve Gordon's goal anyhow? To experience the sound of real music in a real space, it seems we should just get off our butts and go to a concert. So, does it come down to ownership, then—wanting to own and control certain pieces of music? Is that where Gordon's goal originates? Despite whatever selfish, or simply human desires we hold, we can never truly own music. Unless we make it ourselves, I guess. And, even then, it's again damn impossible to merely listen while you play—too much effort is spent in playing. One cannot simultaneously be both the performer and the audience. I've tried. So many times. Sadly, it doesn't work.

And why—in this or any aspect of life, really—should anyone want to have anything but fun? Especially when you're throwing time and cash into a pursuit, I'd imagine fun would be a happy consequence.

With all of this in mind, I started a thread in our forum called "Fidelity or Fun?" My goal was to find out what other music lovers and audiophiles thought about these things. What are their goals, their feelings regarding the relationship between fidelity and fun? I received some fascinating answers. I learn from our forum members every day.

Michael Lavorgna said:

If you strive to have a painting of an apple taste like an apple, you're bound to be disappointed. I prefer to enjoy each experience for what it is (and what it isn't).

Buddha said he's into this hobby for "100 percent fun:"

There's an old Yiddish saying about how we translate Yiddish into English: Whenever a definition is given in English translated from a Yiddish term, we should always add "only more so" to the definition in order to understand how Yiddish "feels."

Well, music is joy, in English. Music on the Hi Fi is joy, in Yiddish!

And, finally, I want to revisit Elk's entire post. It's clear and beautiful, I think, and I want to remember it:

Listening to Hi-Fi and listening to music are two different things.

The best system does not even come close to truly recreating the sound of even a simple solo acoustic instrument—not even close.

Reproduced music can, however, allow us to connect with the emotional experience which makes listening to music so fulfilling. It is this conveyance of emotion—the connection to that which can only be expressed in music—that makes this hobby worthwhile. In this sense the two experiences are related.

The most accurate system is that system which allows a listener to experience what he/she values as most wonderful in music. Thus, some love the sound of horns and SETs, some live for powerful SS amps and big speakers.

It takes a lot of self knowledge to appreciate and embrace what you need to hear to satisfy your personal musical needs. Then there is the quest to find the equipment which will extract what you appreciate as musical goodness from your recordings.

More than ever, I'm convinced that high end hi-fi is alive and well. If Gordon's original goal was abandoned, it wasn't abandoned because it was too difficult to achieve. People don't give up on things they truly care about simply because those things are difficult to reach. There are many other factors involved. Gordon's goal was abandoned because it sucked. It was unrealistic and it wasn't fun. High end hi-fi got to know itself, and it moved on to better, happier things. Far from dying, high end hi-fi is celebrating life and the love of music. J. Gordon Holt: You're invited, too.

Monty's picture

Holt seems to be singularly focused on classical music and is quite resentful of the younger generarion not carrying the torch and appreciating classical music enough to keep the genre alive. Corey Greenburg once mentioned to Holt that the electric guitar was just as worthy of accurate reproduction as unamplified instruments and that its sound was just as individual as the various types of violins. Holt seemed suprised by Corey pointing out that the sound of an electric guitar was captured with a microphone just as other instruments and not simply plugged into a mixing board. Anyway, I'm not sure Holt appreciates accurate reproduction of sound as much as he appreciates accurate reproduction of the sounds he prefers...classical music. But mostly, I think he's just pissed at what passes for music these days and the fact that people are not only not demanding better, but when better is readily available (classical music) they aren't even interested.

John Atkinson's picture

Great essay, Stephen. Gordon once explained to me that hi-fi was created mainly to reproduce orchestral music composed between 1800 (late Mozart) to 1910 (late Mahler). No other musics need apply. :-)

Christine's picture

Dear Stephen and Mr. Atkinson,I kinda agree with J. Gordon Holt's point of view. High-end hi fi is becoming more and more irrelevant with the advent of the i-pod generation and $300 home theatre monster receivers pushing 700 watts through seven channels! For a brief moment stereophonic tube hi fi and vinyl seemed to enjoy a small renaissance but for me, the arrival of the $350,000 Wavac SH-833 amp just killed this whole notion of spending any more dough on this pie-in-the-sky hobby. In other words, this 'high-fidelity' addiction had become totally ludicrous especially given present day recording techniques tailored for music reproduction through mini systems with powered subs and PC's. Finally, here in Toronto several high end hi-fi stores have closed within the last few years and it seems that the well-heeled crowd willing to spend serious $$$ on home entertainment now opt for sexy Bang & Olufsen systems.Hi Fi is dead! Long live LIVE music!!PS. Still content with a pair of Meadowla

john devore's picture

Go brother Stephen, go!

Erik Bobeda's picture

People who say hi-fi is dead are absolutely right. If you believe it, then it's true. I, for one, disagree strongly. Those whose ultimate goal it is to achieve absolute fidelity are doomed to failure and disappointment. However, if you acknowledge that as an unreasonable expectation, and just have FUN, you'll always be grinning.Hi-fi is part of my life, and it will always be so, regardless of future income or lifestyle. I lust after the big-bucks gear, but appreciate what I have. I can stop by my dealer and hear a full Linn reference stack singing through Sonus Faber Amati Homages courtesy of Nordost, then walk home, put a CD in the Oppo and have a blast. And why shouldn't I? I've put a lot of thought into my system and enjoy it everyday. Anyone who says I'm fooling myself is missing the point.And, Mr. Holt, for the record, classical is in heavy rotation.If you hear this hobby's death knell, I sure don't; I'm having too damn much fun listening to music

Erik Bobeda's picture

on the hi-fi

Stephen Mejias's picture

>For a brief moment stereophonic tube hi fi and vinyl seemed to enjoy a small renaissance but for me, the arrival of the $350,000 Wavac SH-833 amp just killed this whole notion of spending any more dough on this pie-in-the-sky hobby. I don't know, Christine -- It seems unfair to judge the vitality or validity of high end hi-fi on a single product, especially when there are so many very real bargains in this hobby.As long as there are music lovers, there will be people who want to get the best sound possible out of the music they love. And I think, with today's technology, there are more music lovers than ever. Long live hi-fi.

Christine's picture

OK Steven, maybe I was to hasty (with my Wavac-ky opinions ;-)I just attended a 'vinyl' seminar conducted by Kurt Martens from Essential Audio Corp. here in Toronto, and I got to tell you that the whole mystery surrounding the CD format with all its data limitations vs. analog/vinyl was explained and demonstrated in a very straight forward manner by Kurt. Maybe you should have him write a column in Stereophile on this subject in the next issue for all your readers to enjoy.Analog rules!

BillB's picture

JGH's comments got extra sour for me when he ended with a rant against "boomers" - that is, against everyone who exists who was born between 1946 and 1964. I have great respect for JGH but that particular comment is just stupid. Maybe someone else thinks that the world was ruined by all humans born between 1920 and 1940 - but that would be stupid too.

Stephen Mejias's picture

>I have great respect for JGH but that particular comment is just stupid. Yes. From what I've read, it seems to me that JGH has very strong ideas about what's appropriate in his world, and very little (or no) tolerance for anything that doesn't conform to those ideas. Which, to me, seems pretty sad.