Herb Reichert: Ancient Audio – Golden Eras of Hi-Fi Page 3

What distinguished TAS from newsstand audio magazines like Audio, Stereo Review, and High Fidelity was its complete lack of advertising. (Beginning in 1972, Stereophile was accepting ads – but only from audio dealers). TAS distinguished itself even further buy its personality-driven reviews that emphasized extensive comparative listening. Harry Pearson almost single-handedly put audio equipment reviews in a place resembling art, wine, or literary connoisseurship. Between 1975 and 1985, HP and Stereophile’s JGH advanced the cause of serious listening as an antidote to the mindless measuring and specs-orientation of the monthly glossies.

What Harry Pearson did that was most unique and powerful was to champion a carefully-considered alternative to the measurements-and-specs rating strategy.

HP defined “the absolute sound” as “The sound of unamplified instruments playing in a natural acoustic space.” He stated that the most accurate components were those that came closest to delivering the illusion of real unamplified instruments (and voices) performing in a real room, club, or concert hall. He favored classical music and famous recording venues like Carnegie Hall (NYC) and Kingsway Hall (London) – which featured prominently is his equipment reviews.

Harry was also an ambitious amateur photographer; the back cover of every TAS issue featured one of his artful photos. That interest consequently spawned his other important innovation: in order to describe audio’s newly discovered spatial illusions, he transposed the language of photography: using words like focus, image aspect-ratio, and depth-of-field, to describe what he “saw” between the loudspeakers in his three reference systems. After studying the work of Decca, Mercury, and RCA recording engineers, HP began to describe the results of their efforts in terms of soundstage, imaging, and transparency – insisting that the most resolving audio-gear not only made instruments and voices sound like the absolute (i.e. natural) reality of themselves; but said detail and focus also opened up the listener’s view to the back and extreme sides of the soundstage. Harry got us all to listen more closely and study the space between the speakers.

It is impossible to overestimate the impact and long-term effect HP’s persuasive ideas had on what audio cognoscenti continue to believe is important. HP gave neophyte audiophiles a very specific checklist of desirable characteristics they could use to evaluate their own systems. This was hugely important. During this Second Golden Age, TAS, more than Stereophile, emphasized the importance of imaging and soundstage as a measure of an audio system’s quality.

Legions of new brands and scores of sophisticated audio retailers appeared – worldwide – in response to HP’s proclamations. HP’s emphasis on beauty and detailed spatial mapping caused audiophiles to reject the flat sterile sound of Japanese receivers and high-feedback solid-sate amplifiers. This rejection allowed tube amplifiers to reappear on the scene.

HP canonized the engineers that had committed these expansive soundstages to tape. The price of stereo recordings by Kenneth Wilkinson (London-Decca-Lyrita), C. Robert Fine (Mercury Living Presence), Lewis Layton (RCA Living Stereo) skyrocketed under Harry’s tutelage. HP had all of us buying/collecting/studying Columbia “six-eyes,” EMI “ASDs,” London- “bluebacks,” RCA “shaded dogs” and Mercury “Living Presence” recordings – while listening for the subway under Kingsway Hall and squinting for detail at the back of the Carnegie Hall soundstage. Stereo was no longer just left-right; it was now deep and high.

Pearson’s writings also turned the tides of trade: creating a new American hegemony, making brands like Infinity, Audio Research, Conrad Johnson, and Magnepan into international empires.

Pearson so effectively adapted the expression “high end” to the level of products he reviewed that today, most audiophiles think he coined the term. To me, HP’s writing was effective because it was so personal and sense-oriented – almost pure right-brain. I remember looking every day in my mailbox hoping Harry’s little digest was there. If it was, I would immediately examine his Leica photo on the back cover; then immediately stop whatever I was doing; quickly read his record reviews; then run out immediately and buy his latest recommendations before everyone else beat me to them. Harry’s reviews described recordings, not as cultural product, but as precious collectable tools for evaluating the quality of reproduced sound. Readers felt they could not actually be audiophiles without at least some LPs from HP’s list of reference discs.

Harry Pearson.

Unfortunately, the persuasive intimacy of Pearson’s writing began to wield such an exaggerated influence that a single HP sentence could make or break a small manufacturer. What started as a private conceptual revolution evolved into an absolute monarchy. And then… Digital appeared, and Gordon Holt at Stereophile embraced CDs immediately; while HP expressed great difficulty finding merit in the new format.

As the 1980s morphed into the 1990s, and silver discs now dominated the record stores. The presence of John Atkinson’s more objectivist voice at Stereophile began to shift audiophile’s attention away from the subjective self-aggrandizing “Realm of HP” towards something fresher and more balanced in a ‘science-meets-art’ kind of way. Under Atkinson’s guidance, Stereophile not only embraced the CD, it delivered not just one voice, but a full-reviewer-palette of high-quality voice-driven prose in concert with a somewhat scholarly (but not pedantic) measurements-oriented viewpoint. Instead of HP as old-testament god handing down commandments from the high-end summit, Atkinson’s Stereophile asked readers to think for themselves and make their own proclamations by comparing listening impressions made by experienced listeners to measurements made with lab-quality instruments. Thusly, audio journalism in the ‘90s began to emancipate itself from the tyranny of the purely-subjective review.

By 1995, Stereophile had supplanted TAS as the biggest show on the audiophile stage. Simultaneously, multi-channel video and big-box stores began taking over the lower end of the high end. The legions of specialist audio dealers that opened in the 1980s were now forced to re-invent themselves as audio-visual installation contractors. It wasn’t pretty.

This power of Atkinson’s Stereophile rested in the fact that JA hired reviewers, like Corey Greenberg, Jonathan Scull, Wes Phillips and Michael Fremer that could not only listen and get to the core of a component’s sound – they could describe what they heard in very certain (and entertaining) terms. Stereophile’s journalistic lucidity was enhanced by the fact that JA never let his reviewers know how their review unit measured until their reports were submitted and copy-edited. In that way, everybody concerned, the reviewers, the readers, the manufacturers and even JA himself, were kept in the dark until the end about how a completed review process would turn out. The exact opposite of pay-for-play.

Just as audiophiles began to trust their own ears, the Internet took over and new forms of audio big-box stores began selling genuine high-end gear at discount prices – directly! Suddenly audiophiles needed purchasing advice – again! New, online-only audio blogs sprouted like weeds to fill that need. So did pay-for-play. The legions of audio dealers that, for two decades had patiently serviced the audiophile’s need to compare and decide are now struggling to survive. And strangely, today’s audio is a billion-dollar-a-year industry without leaders, or voices, or a coherent viewpoint. Therefore, I am forced to ask: Who are we? Where are we going?

Does it matter?


Everclear's picture

"Glory Days" .............. Bruce Springsteen :-) .............

Everclear's picture

"Old Days" ............ Chicago :-) ................

Richard D. George's picture

Thanks for the history. In the 1980’s my first system had a McIntosh integrated amp (solid state), a B&O turntable, Advent speakers, and Kimber Kable (bare ended). I had a decent collection of vinyl albums. Loved that system...