Frankly Speaking

Steve Guttenberg: the Audiophiliac, Part Two

Issue 126

In Part One of this interview (Issue 125) we talked about Steve’s first memory of listening to music, his careers as a projectionist and an audio salesperson, and how he became a music and audio reviewer. Steve is now the host of The Audiophiliac Daily Show, a popular YouTube channel. We continue here, although this time out it’s more like the both of us interviewing each other…

Frank Doris: We left off with you noting how hard it is to describe the sound of an audio component or loudspeaker, and how difficult it can be to determine whether what you’re hearing is actually the sound of the component or something else in the system, or some interaction.

When you’re reviewing a piece of equipment, obviously, you’ve got to use it with different electronics, different source components and ideally in different rooms, especially if you’re reviewing speakers. It’s hours and hours and hours and hours of work. 

What do you look for in the sound of an audio component? Is it resolution, or tonal balance or some X factor?

Steve Guttenberg: I’ve had debates with people over the years about “subjective” versus “objective” reviewing. And I’ve always been a subjective reviewer, but as the years and decades go by, now I just unabashedly say, I like this because it does this. I’m not looking for the ultimate resolution or clarity or transparency. I like those things, but those would not be the deciding factors to me. What I want is more than anything is engagement. I want to be pulled into the sound. I don’t care if it’s accurate or neutral. That’s not my personal goal. That’s not of any interest to me.

Steve Guttenberg.

I’ve made it my business to listen to conventional dynamic box speakers, electrostatic speakers, Magneplanars and open-baffled speakers. But horn speakers have been my obsession for the last two and a half, three years. Somehow horns seem the most…right. I’m not saying their totally accurate. I’m saying they sound more like live music, because what is most live music? It’s amplified, and music is sound coming out of horns. Right? So unless you listen to classical music or other music where there’s no PA system involved – but even classical music can be amplified now – generally speaking, any kind of pop, rock, jazz, et cetera, et cetera is coming out of horn PA systems. So listening to that kind of music over horns at home, to me, subjectively speaking, seems more realistic. I’m not saying everyone feels this way, but it feels this way to me.

FD: Interesting point. The fact that people who listen to rock and jazz are used to hearing PA speakers, when you reproduce that sound by using speakers with similar drivers it corresponds to what you hear at a live performance.

SG: Yeah, and ideally, listening to compression drivers.

FD: I agree with you with respect to whether a system engages you or not. When I’m at an audio show, let’s say, my first impression in walking into an exhibit room is, does it draw me in or push me away? Then I’ll try to figure out why. Also, I might spend less time in a room that doesn’t engage me but I won’t fault it out of hand. I know how hard it is to get great sound at a show and what a crapshoot it is. And I’ve mentioned this before – sometimes two or more manufacturers will co-exhibit to save money on a room and they may literally have never used their equipment together before – and sometimes it just might not sound good. But people with experience can still hear the potential of something even under those kinds of circumstances.

SG: I just want to quickly note that I’m also a big fan of Magneplanar speakers. They’re comparatively affordable as far as audiophile speakers go. And also because of their sense of size and scale in reproducing music. But if you’re a reviewer and you’re living with Magneplanars, and then next day you’re going to review a stand-mounted speaker, that’s going to take some recalibration time. If you go from hearing a [Magneplanar] speaker that’s six feet tall to hearing one that’s one foot tall placed on a stand, it’s going to sound really tiny and little, so you’ve got to space your listening out a little bit. You can’t go from big to tiny. Nothing good can come from that.

FD: Speaking of small, that leads to me ask, how do you deal with reviewing and keeping gear in an apartment?

SG: Actually I’m in a relatively big space. My wife is an artist. She has her space and I have my space, and that may change soon since we might be able to open up the space soon. But anyway, for the last 31 years, the problem for me as a reviewer is that I much of the time I don’t actually have my own system set up. I have the stuff that I’m reviewing sprinkled in with the stuff that’s my reference. So it’s like an Erector set that’s being put together and taken apart all the time, but I’m used to doing it that way.

It’s kind of like when I worked in Sound by Singer. Room Three, for example, had a system that was the standard setup every day. And we would take it apart and put other components in that room to listen to, but at the end of the day, hopefully things would return back to what was normal for that room. That’s kind of like what my room is. It gets put together and taken apart, and maybe a week out of a month, it has my reference system set up. The rest of the time I’m reviewing something.

FD: On another topic: The other day Jeff Rowland [head of high-end audio manufacturer Jeff Rowland Design Group] told me something that really hit me. He said, we can’t go to shows anymore. We can’t go to dealers. We’re all stuck inside. But in place of that, people like you and I are bringing people together with the people in the industry through the stories we tell. And I never thought about it that way before, that somehow you and I and others have gotten to a point where we’re conduits in keeping people together.

SG: I just have to interject an example. Pre-COVID I went to a guy’s apartment in Brooklyn to interview him. He’s a retired cop and he built this incredible horn system. He built a dedicated room for it and I made a video of it. The viewers went nuts because, hey, this guy Joe the cop was like the “man’s man” audiophile. He builds stuff. Hey, he’s building a turntable with a linear tracking arm! He has a machine shop in his basement. So he’s like Mr. Macho, what every audiophile dreams of being. He’s like the ultimate expression of being an audiophile who has built this system with his bare hands.

And the comments I got were just completely off the hook. Everybody loved him. They just said, “more! We want more and more and more!” It was truly remarkable. When audiophiles connect, even if now through videos, it’s like, “wow, I relate to this guy.” Or, “I want to be that guy.” Or, “he has such cool ideas.” This is the thing about audiophiles, as you well know – they are all isolated, right? Their friends, their family, their coworkers think they’re nuts. “I just spent $2,000 for speakers.” “That’s crazy!” So they need things like YouTube and before that, Stereophile and The Absolute Sound. They need to know that there are other people who are equally or more passionate than they are, and actually seeing them on YouTube is a great way to connect.

FD: That’s a perfect segue into another question: we’ve been around for a while. How do you manage to keep your enthusiasm? Once, an industry veteran I will not name said to me, “are you still interested in this crap?” Do you keep your interest, or at the end of the day, do you just walk away and say, “I can’t take it anymore.”

SG: Well, I don’t literally think about it 24 hours a day, but I spend a lot of my waking hours on it, because I have to always be thinking about the next thing I’m going to make a video about. And some parts of my day involve sending e-mails and making telephone calls, trying to get more stuff. That takes a lot of time, because it takes a lot of follow up and I do eight reviews a month typically. But my enthusiasm is 1,000 percent real. I really love high-end audio. I really love the music aspect of high-end audio.

And really more than anything, I like the people in the business. As soon as I got into it at Sound by Singer in 1978 I started meeting people who had their own companies, designers, and other people who sold audio. I was like, “these are my people.” It was an instant, this is the place I’m supposed to be kind of deal. And that’s still true.

Remember the days at CES at the…what was that hotel?

FD: The Alexis Park?

SG: No, before…

FD: The Riviera? The Sahara?

SG: The Sahara. You’d go there and see all these new companies that had a room there and they’re doing their thing. And then a year later, three quarters of them would be gone. And then there’d be a whole other group of people in those rooms, but some were able to stick around for the second year. And then came the third year, and the fourth year, and they’re still in business today. These people are sort of living the dream of wanting to make a better speaker or amplifier or cable or whatever it was that they do. I just have the highest respect for these people ‘cause they don’t get into it to get rich. They might make a really nice living from it, but they don’t get rich.

The Sahara, Las Vegas, 2006, where high-end companies would exhibit at Winter CES. Courtesy of Wikipedia/Johnwalton at English Wikipedia.

FD: How about David Wilson? [The late David Wilson was the founder of Wilson Audio Specialities.]

SG: Around the early nineties he said to me, “you know, I couldn’t afford to buy my own speakers. I don’t make enough money to buy a $150,000 speaker.”

FD: One of the beauties about getting older is you don’t care about stuff like that so much anymore. What do I really need? I don’t care about driving a Ferrari. Sure, there’s gear I’d like that I can’t afford, but my system sounds really great now and it’s perfect for my listening room. Also, the older you get, the less you have to hide. As a matter of fact, when I tell readers embarrassing stuff about my life, they like it. Back in the day, Harry Pearson [founder of The Absolute Sound] wanted to make himself a mythical god, at least in print. That’s not our trip.

SG: Maybe I should interview you about your memories of Harry. My experiences with Harry were very limited.

FD: There are endless stories. When I first asked people whether I should write about my experiences with Harry for Copper I thought, does anybody really care about all this stuff that happened 30, 35 years ago? And the response was unanimous: “you have to write about it.” When you think about it, we worked for a guy who was like Halston or Jobs or someone like that; an icon.

But there are some stories, that, really, should not be committed to videotape!

SG: I want to end with a little bit of talking about music. The ultimate attack on audiophiles is that we’re just obsessing about the gear and the music is secondary. Like the stereotype about the guy with a $100,000 system but he only has 12 records or something. And then there’s the inverse, the guy who’s got 100,000 records and a totally crap system to play it on. But most audiophiles are sort of in the middle.

I’ve also come very late to streaming music on a good audio system. Maybe a year ago I got a Bluesound Node 2i streamer. And I started listening to internet radio and looking around on Qobuz and playing things on my system. I realized that what’s really amazing about this period in time is that it’s so easy to discover and look for new music. My favorite internet radio station is FIP. It’s a French public radio station with a few different channels, but there’s one that’s called “La radio musicale la plus eclectique.” And it literally goes from opera to doo wop. The sets are like 1960s freeform radio.

I share this idea, especially for older audiophiles who haven’t really gotten into streaming because I’m sure younger people do it all the time, but the older you are, the less likely it is that you’ll be exploring. Yet you should. The possibilities are literally endless to just keep going and going and going in finding new music. And I am so excited.

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