In Memory of Tony Cordesman

In Memory of Tony Cordesman

Written by Frank Doris

Tony Cordesman was a friend to me, and to so many in the industry. He wasn’t just one of the finest audio reviewers ever; I think he’s one of the few who could be said to have achieved legendary status. Tony, known as Anthony H. Cordesman to the rest of the world and AHC to readers of The Absolute Sound, was a respected national security analyst and a professor with a Ph.D. by day, but his avocation was reviewing high-end audio gear, which he did brilliantly over a long career that ended on January 29, 2024 at the age of 84.

When I began reading The Absolute Sound as a teenager in the late 1970s, AHC seemed to be an almost mythical larger-than-life figure. Since I had little money, TAS’s reviews were a glimpse into a fantastic world I had little hope of attaining entrance into. But, like editor-in-chief Harry Pearson, Robert E. Greene, John Nork, David Wilson, and others, Anthony H. Cordesman’s reviews made me feel like I was there in the listening room with him. His descriptions painted an almost tangible feeling of what the component under review sounded like, usually accompanied by incisive technical explanations of what the gear was actually doing and why. He wrote in a tone that defined the word authoritative.

For reasons unknown to me, Tony Cordesman stopped writing for The Absolute Sound a couple of years or so before I joined the magazine full time in 1987. (See my article, “My Life With Harry Pearson,” In Issue 102.) I soon became close to Harry and spent many nights just hanging out with him. Many an evening were spent in his second-floor kitchen having Jack Daniels and Coke, his preferred cocktail (not mine, but Harry could, as those who knew him can attest, be imperiously insistent about such things).

Harry would get endless phone calls. Usually, he’d reply with some silly greeting like, “science working for you at the Pearson Corporation!” or “my granny’s brassiere!,” and I’m fairly certain he did that the night he got a phone call from Tony Cordesman. But in an eyeblink, Harry’s demeanor got serious. He held the receiver away from his mouth, placed his hand over it, looked at me wide-eyed, and whispered, “Tony Cordesman! It’s Tony Cordesman on the phone!”

I could see Harry getting visibly more excited. From the part of the conversation I could hear, it was clear that Tony was offering to write for The Absolute Sound again. Harry started pacing around the room and was soon more worked up than I’d ever seen him. He kept putting his hand on the receiver and whispering to me, “Tony Cordesman! Tony Cordesman!”

After a few minutes he told Tony, “my setup man Zoid (meaning me) is here and he’s the guy who arranges all the equipment loans, so why don’t you two introduce yourselves to each other?” Then he handed me the phone.

I was taken aback. After all, Anthony H. Cordesman was a heavyweight in the world of national security. He was an expert on Middle Eastern affairs, held the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), worked as a civilian assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and was a professor of national security studies at Georgetown University, among many other positions. He was the author of more than 50 books. When Harry handed the phone to me I felt like I was about to talk to the President of the United States or General MacArthur or something.

I stood up straight (I distinctly remember this), said hello, and heard for the first time his deep yet friendly voice. I admit I was almost petrified at first, but eased up, thanks to his warm demeanor. I was soon coherent enough to take down his contact information and address and talk about a list of audio components he was interested in reviewing. We said we’d follow up with each other the next week.

No sooner did I hang up the phone than Harry started – literally – jumping up and down and yelling, “Tony Cordesman! We got Tony Cordesman! Tony Cordesman is back!” Harry was absolutely giddy. He knew what a boost of prestige this was going to give to the magazine.

I talked with Tony again a few days after, and quickly found out he was exactly the professional I’d thought he would be. This guy wasn’t going to miss a deadline! His copy was an editor’s dream, and the first time I saw something in a review I wanted to question and called him with trepidation – who was I to question Anthony H. Cordesman? – he paused briefly, then matter-of-factly agreed with my assessment. I soon began to feel at ease with him, he became a trusted colleague, and I looked forward to our regular talks.

The speculation among audiophile gossips was that he was connected to an intelligence service, but, having once had a security clearance working for a defense contractor, I wasn’t going to be crass enough to prod Anthony about it – as if he’d say anything sensitive anyway. The fact that he was an expert was unquestioned. During the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991, Anthony H. Cordesman was a go-to on-air analyst for ABC News, a role he held for many years. To this day, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to some bloviating “expert” on the news and exclaimed out loud, “where’s Tony Cordesman when you need him?”

One time he sent Harry a copy of his then-latest book, The Gulf and the West: Strategic Relations and Military Realities. It was hundreds of pages long. Harry took one look at it, tossed it to me and said, “here, you read it! I replied, “he sent it to you as a gift, not me!” I don’t know if Harry ever read the book but I’d go through passages of it from time to time when I was at Harry’s house. I remember thinking, “how many hours of work must have gone into this?”

Harry wasn’t easily intimidated but I saw Tony make him blink once. Tony had written a review and Harry, as was often the procedure in those days, decided he wanted to send it to another reviewer for comment. The other reviewer disagreed with Tony, and his comments were pretty nasty. Tony responded by sending a fax saying that he had no problem with differing opinions, but he would not tolerate serious personal attacks and that if Harry published the comment, Tony would take action. The fax came in on Senator John McCain’s letterhead. Harry pulled the comment.

I’d go to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) every year, and whenever I got back from one, Tony would call and ask me what was new and hot. I probably gave him more thorough reports than anything I ever wrote in the pages of TAS. Then one year, probably the early 1990s, he told me he would be attending CES and wanted to meet. I wound up going to dinner with him and a few of the TAS staffers. Since we didn’t have much of a budget we ate at someplace modest, and here I was, thinking I was sitting down to dinner with a guy who had dined with senators and maybe literally royalty, yet he was down-to-earth and genuinely happy to be there.

Once, I got comfortable enough to ask him: “how the heck do you find the time to be a national security expert and also write such thorough reviews?” He told me that writing audio reviews was fun and relaxing for him. After a while I realized he wasn’t some super-serious guy but in fact had a subtle sense of humor, which you might have missed if you took him too seriously. After I knew him for a while, he’d end our conversations by saying, “OK, tiger!” It was a badge of honor.

After leaving TAS and working in public relations, I made it a point to keep him on my media lists, and informed him of any new products or news I thought he’d be interested in, although years would go by when we didn’t keep in touch. We reconnected more frequently when I started working with PS Audio and Copper, mostly via e-mail, but I did get to talk to him again about a year or so ago. He spoke at a more deliberate pace than before, but was as smart and incisive as ever, and we shared a few laughs about the good old days. At one point I asked him, how did two normal people like us get involved in this crazy audio industry? We both just laughed. Little did I know that would be our last conversation. I'm glad it ended on a high note.

I will always be grateful to Tony Cordesman for being one of my greatest teachers in the audio world.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore.

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