Equal Time

Equal Time

Written by Bill Leebens

In Copper #48 I began the perusal of a hefty box of old issues of The Absolute Sound, kindly sent by Australian reader Ian Lobb (and again, goodonya, mate!). Last issue I focused on the influence of TAS‘ founder and longtime Editor, Harry Pearson. It’s only fair to follow up with amother Ian-sent collection—this time of Stereophiles.

Enquiring minds might wonder, “Just how much postage does it take to send a heavy-ass box like that from Oz to the People’s Republic of Boulder?” The short answer:


But I digress.

As mentioned in earlier columns, I was a charter subscriber to TAS as a 16-year old high-schooler nerd. Somehow, I didn’t start reading Stereophile until the late ’70s, along with Audio Amateur. Given that Stereophile had already been around for a decade before the launch of TAS, I have no explanation for my late intro—except, perhaps, that while HP ran compelling little classified ads in the back of Audio magazine, Gordon Holt’s marketing for Stereophile was…well, nonexistent.

The earliest issue in the Big Box o’S’philes is from November, 1988. By then, Larry Archibald had purchased the magazine from J. Gordon Holt, and John Atkinson was well-ensconced as Editor, having started with the August, ’86 issue (according to the man himself). That issue’s As We See It written by JA  shows that little has changed in the past 29 years; the topic is”…the apparent dichotomy between music and accuracy.” Sound familiar?

As noted while poking through the old issues of TAS, a surprising number of companies mentioned in the reviews and ads are still alive and reasonably well. In the November, ’88 Stereophile, one can see Sony, Audio Research, Naim, Yamaha, Mark Levinson, Meridian,  Conrad-Johnson,  MIT,VTL, Infinity, Parasound, Paradigm, B&W, Rotel, and many more still-familiar names. Amongst the are-they-alive-or-dead group there are B&K, Tara Labs, YBA, and Nitty Gritty. The dead-as-a-doornail brands include Euphonic Technology, Sonographe, Precision Audio, Precise Acoustic Laboratories (sense a theme?), California Audio Labs, Forte, TDL, and many more.

The ads are pretty straightforward, overall, pitching products and technology with simple statements of features and fact. A rare example of sex-will-sell is seen in the ad from long-gone speaker maker Amrita, and it’s more adorably ’80’s big-hair and bunched bodice, than salacious. It’s like a slightly creepy pre-prom snapshot that happens to include a bunch of speakers::

Small manufacturers sometimes lapse into hubris in their ads, and that was as true in 1988 as it is today. The half-page ad for the long-gone brand True Image featured a picture of their electronics under the heading, “Need We Say  More?”  >cough<  Given that that marketing approach didn’t help the brand to survive, yes, you definitely needed to say more.

Founder J. Gordon Holt passed away in 2009, and others on the masthead are also gone, like Peter W. Mitchell, Igor Kipnis, and Alvin Gold.  Several are still with Stereophile: John Atkinson, of course, Richard Lehnert, Thomas J. Norton, and Robert Deutsch. Others are still in the field, writing for other outlets: Arnis Balgalvis, Martin Colloms, Ken Kessler, Dick Olsher, Gary Krakow, and likely others as well.

The last issue of Stereophile in the big box is December, 1993. In the course of five years, the magazine had grown in size, stature, and staff: that December, ’93 issue was 322 pages—possibly an all-time high. Mark Fisher had joined the magazine as Publisher, and later assumed the same role at TAS; Robert Harley  had joined as Consulting Technical Editor, and went on to be Editor-in-Chief at TAS; Corey Greenberg, with his love-it-or-hate-it inflammatory prose, had joined as a Contributing Editor, then went on to edit Audio during its last gasp, and from there went on to the Today Show and from there to ? The December, ’93 issue also featured the first appearance of Jonathan Scull, and was the last small-sized issue (beating TAS in the expansion game by four years).

A little perspective on the period from December, 1993 until now—and please understand that this is not meant as a criticism of Stereophile in any way, but simply as an observation of the direction of high-end audio over the last 25 years. The Products of the Year were listed in that December, ’93 issue; winner of both overall Product of the Year and Amplification Component of the Year was the Convergent Audio Technology SL-1 preamp, which cost $4950, a considerable amount in 1993 (and at roughly $8400 in 2017 bucks, far from inexpensive now. A version of the same component was still being made a few years ago; given CAT’s web-averse nature, it’s hard to tell if either the company or the SL-1 still exist). The Speaker of the Year in 1993 was the Thiel 3.6, which cost $3990/pair—about $6730 today.

The December, 2017 Stereophile once again included Products of the Year. One of the Joint Loudspeakers of the Year was the Wilson Audio Specialties Alexx—$109,000 per pair. The Amplification Component of the Year was the Boulder Amplifiers Model 2150 mono amp, at $99,000 per pair. even adjusting for inflation on the older products, the 2017 winners cost 12-15 times as much s their 1993 counterparts.

I have mixed feelings about this trend. My training and philosophy as an engineer has always been that an engineer can do more with a minimal expenditure than a layman can (Andrew Jones, props to you!). I know there are projects that require breaking the bank—like moonshots and (perhaps unintentionally) fighter jets. I also know that cutting-edge materials continue to be developed, and are initially hideously expensive.

In the ’80s and ’90s a supercar might cost $120,000 or so. The king of them all, the McLaren F1, sold for $815,000 when new in 1994, a price that dwarfed anything else at the time, and utilized heat-shielding and other technologies that had only been seen in aerospace applications up until then. Compensated for inflation, that $815k is  about $1.4 million—which, while staggering, is the cost of a baseline Pagani or numerous Koenigsegg, Bugatti, or Lamborghini models.

What does it all mean? I’m certainly no economist, but I’m well acquainted with bubbles in real estate and other markets. This sure smells like a bubble to me. I’m always happy to see performance envelopes expanded, but I certainly appreciate those who can do it at reasonable cost by ingenious design.|

Again, I digress, and my apologies. In the next issue of Copper, I’ll delve more deeply into that big box of Stereophiles.


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