Vintage Whine

An Embarrassment of Riches

Nearly five dozen issues of The Absolute Sound landed on our doorstep from a generous Australian reader, Ian Lobb. You may have heard the >thud<. It’s amazing how heavy paper can be.

The issues cover 1983 to 1998, an important period in the rise of what TAS founder Harry Pearson dubbed “High End Audio”—a descriptor which I believe has done the field more harm than good. But I digress.

Being a good former student librarian, the first thing I did was put the mags in chronological order. The first issue of the batch, #29, was also the 10th anniversary issue…which tells you something about the regularity with which early TAS was issued: 29 issues in 10 years for the “quarterly” publication. (Ironically, HP initially started the mag out of frustration with Gordon Holt’s erratic publication schedule of  Stereophile in the ’60s and ’70s.) The last issue of our lot, #115, was the last digest-sized issue of the magazine, and in its own way represented the end of an era.

Issue #29’s masthead—or, in HP-speak, “Cast of Characters”—is interesting in that many of the “characters” are still involved in audio, though not necessarily with TAS. Then-Senior Editor Tony Cordesman  did a spell at Stereophile, but again writes for TAS when not writing books on the Middle East. Tam Henderson had, by 1983,  already started Reference Recordings, and is still involved with the company, although he stepped down as President in 2012. David Wilson is, well, Dave Wilson, founder of Wilson Audio . Paul Seydor picked up an Academy Award nomination along the way, and still reviews for TAS. Christina Yuin has worked in advertising for audio-related publications and in promotion of audio shows, presently with Capital Audiofest.

Similarly, many brands and products mentioned in that 10th anniversary issue are still either active, or highly-regarded: Audio Research, Infinity, Linn, Conrad-Johnson,Vandersteen,  Magneplanar, Accuphase, Mark Levinson. Others have vanished:  Dahlquist, Dayton Wright, Fried, Acoustat, Counterpoint, Ampliton, Argent, Fuselier, Fulton. A third group of brands have either been revived, or exist in the nebulous purgatory that seems to be the fate of many once-respected audio brands: Beveridge, Thiel.

The shocking part of all this is not how many brands have vanished—but how many have survived. We are talking about 34 years ago, after all, and during that same period august and seemingly invulnerable car brands like Oldsmobile and Plymouth disappeared, and Saturn, Daihatsu, Yugo, DeLorean and others came and went. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but designing, building, and selling consumer goods is hard, and the attrition rate amongst brands is always high. So it is encouraging to see how many of the brands mentioned are still around.

Oddly, the attrition rate of brands mentioned in issue #115 seems higher than that of brands from #29. Meadowlark, InnerSound, Pipedreams, Speaker Art, Art Audio, BEL, Z-systems, TACT, Transcendent, Herron, Impact, DeLage, Joule Electra, Melos, Merlin, Sequerra—all are gone, or so diminished as to be invisible.

One thing stayed the same over that fifteen year spread: the presence of Arnie Nudell, both in the industry and in TASThe 10th anniversary issue named the Infinity IRS the most significant speaker of the decade, and featured a review of the RS-1—the “baby IRS”. Nudell’s lengthy Manufacturer’s Comment takes to task both reviewer PHD and  Editor HP, citing their memory lapses and unfair comparisons of the RS-1 to the IRS. In the 25th anniversary issue, #112 from 1998, HP’s less than enthusiastic review of the Genesis APM Model One resulted, I’m told, in a frosty silence between Genesis’ Nudell, McGowan, and company and Harry. When an irresistible  force meets an immovable object….

That 25th anniversary issue was the first published by Tom Martin’s Absolute Multimedia, headquartered in Austin, Texas. Many of the names on the newly-corporate masthead—-no longer a frivolous Cast of Characters—are still in the audio world: Scot Markwell is a distributor/importer; Bob Gendron has written books on music and writes for Tone AudioRobert E. Greene still writes critical and cranky reviews for TAS; Andrew Quint and Neil Gader both still write for TAS; Dan Schwartz of course writes for Copper and for Positive Feedback; Paul Bolin co-founded  The Audio Beat; Al Griffin writes for Sound & VisionFrank Doris does PR for a number of audio companies; and Richard Marsh is still active as a designer and consultant. And Tom Martin still owns TAS, now under the purview of NextScreen, LLC.

I was a charter subscriber to TAS, as a high school student. I don’t remember the cost of a 4-issue subscription—$8.00, perhaps?—but it seemed like a lot of money at the time, when Stereo Review was 50 cents a copy. The issues in this group are from a period in which my involvement in audio waxed and waned—-my first CES was Chicago, 1989, but my audio biz was strictly a sideline —so I’m seeing many of these issues for the first time.

I’m surprised at the feelings of nostalgia these magazines have evoked. There was a time when arrival of a new issue of either TAS or Stereophile  was an everything stops event. Looking back from today’s instant-news perspective, the reports of CES and other events seem almost quaint, but I remember how significant those reports were to me: here was NEW STUFF. Sometimes, IMPORTANT STUFF.

The formatting and graphics of the mag seem a little amateurish, and the prose is often florid, making me want to red-pencil curtesy and coy language.

But: that was then. The magazine was more than a provider of news, it was itself an event. There were familiar personalities—some liked, some disliked— and a sense of potential, as though something significant could happen at any minute.

Looking back, I think Harry’s great talent was as a ringleader, introducing the next act with a sense of drama and expectation, making you feel that this is going to be SPECTACULAR.

I miss that. I really do.