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STEREOPHILE'S LATE J.G.HOLT'S 'ACOUSTICAL STANDARD' DISPUTED BY CURRENT EDITOR

by W.A.J.

Earlier this week, I was in the process of adding a link, from the 'Guide To All HiFi Mags' section of this site, to what I consider the very best examples of Stereophile magazine: These are the writings of their late founder, J. Gordon Holt - the iconic figure responsible for much of the hifi lexicon, i.e. many of the phrases used in hifi today, among other things.

In the process, I found myself reading two 'new' articles by the great man. I was also (again) shocked at how similar his thoughts and convictions were to mine. The similarities are nigh-on frightening. In so far as my own, previously-expressed, opinions on most audio issues are concerned, reading JGH is like 'deja vu' all over again, time and again - very-nearly the same ideas and opinions, albeit; expressed inordinately more eloquently.

One of the two newly-discovered articles cited, for instance, is really a reprint of a speech J.G. Holt made, to the hifi community, on the occasion of Stereophile's 30th anniversary, in 1992. See it here; 'Where Did We Go Wrong?'

In this one speech, 20-years ago, JGH had expressed similar sentiments on nearly all my recently-'discovered', radical, and controversial audio-issues highlighted in several articles here. For instance, he refuted the popular notion of music being eternally 'beautiful' (or 'pretty', as I've alleged that most speakers are erroneously designed to depict it). He too pondered why speakers are designed to 'beautify' music. He highlighted the fact that aspects of music can oft be 'HARSH' and 'UGLY' (or RAW and UNREFINED, as I've also characterized it, elsewhere).  He also lamented the fact that the all-important midrange has been designed OUT of modern speakers (or that these speakers are 'deficient' in the mids, as I'd repeatedly described them).

And, since these views, and more, coincide with my own, I'd suggest that this is all a matter of exercising common-sense - on both sides. Anyone with independence of thought, in contemplating these issues, will likely arrive at the same conclusions. The KEY is to compare audio-systems to live un-amplified music - common-sense does the rest - it's no coincidence, really. What would cause these 'coincidences' to seem remarkable is that common-sense is extremely uncommon, these days, obviously. Also, very few actually compare systems to live un-amplified music, apparently. Perhaps examples of both (especially; the 'uncommonness' of common-sense) may become apparent in the following segment, below.

(By the way, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that one J. Gordon Holt made similar 'discoveries' long before I did - and others, I'd guess, did so before him. Many others have also made these 'discoveries' - though most haven't written about them - it's obvious in their choices of gear; speakers, especially. Regarding 'faux-discoveries', I'm certainly not alone; one Christopher Colombus recently made some great 'discoveries' - which others had discovered long before him. I'm in good company! So far as 'discoveries' go, my only consolation is that JGH did not similarly equate modern speakers' thin midrange with the commonly used small mid-woofer, as I've repeatedly asserted. Neither have I seen any evidence of him pre-empting me by similarly suggesting that the use of large mid-woofers would be the solution to modern speakers' lean and deficient mids. Nor have I yet seen similar energy expended on another of my favorite subjects; dynamism. But who knows? Perhaps someone will find a never-before-published JGH essay also expounding on exactly these 'omissions'. Ain't nothin' new under the sun, they say. Neither do I doubt it).

The Lowering of Standards - Including the Acoustical: More closely approaching the subject depicted by the title, I'd repeatedly stated that high-fidelity is all about the quest to replicate the sound of live instruments in performance, from the perspective of a member of the audience at that performance - real or imagined.

High-Fidelity effectively aims for the closest approach to this ideal. And since un-amplified instruments are the only instruments high-fidelity systems can be realistically measured against, then the sound of these un-amplified instruments can be the only REAL standard used to ascertain the quality of any given audio-system, or component. In other words, even if one never listens to recordings of acoustic instruments, one's system can never be truly 'high-fidelity' unless it is CAPABLE of a reasonably accurate replication of the typical sounds of  live un-amplified instruments. Reviewers who claim to test audio-systems and components for recommendation to the public MUST be mindful of this - this is an ab-so-lu-te IMPERATIVE.

A system which is good at replicating the sound of acoustic instruments WILL also be good at electronic music, qualitatively - but, I repeat, live un-amplified music can be the only REAL and supremely-significant standard against which ALL truly High-Fidelity systems are judged. (Anything-else is secondary). This is, indeed, fundamental to the concept of high-fidelity.

This stance is articulated in several of my articles. And since this is a basic tenet, on which the concept of high-fidelity is based, one would have hoped that any audio-writer or magazine worth his, her, or its, cost of existence would also be fully cognizant of this. But, apparently, this is NOT so - not in so far as the current Stereophile magazine is concerned, if the current editor's opinion on the subject is anything to go by. 

That other JGH article I discovered this week is one entitled; 'The Acoustical Standard'. [I'd strongly advise all audiophiles to read that article, and all the 'follow-ups' to it. Most important is the current editor's immediate response to it - contemplate that one very, very carefully - the implications are profound.]

In his linked article, the thoughts expressed by the late great J. Gordon Holt coincide with mine EXACTLY. But there's nothing really remarkable about that (even less so than those previous instances above). 

Why?

Well, even though he's saying basically the same thing I've repeatedly said (as above) about high-fidelity and 'The Acoustical Standard', as he dubs it, both of us are really only repeating/highlighting the foundational-pillars on which the concept of high-fidelity was based - i.e. the quest for the accurate reproduction of the typical sounds of live music.

One would have assumed that every single soul involved in high-fidelity, to any significant degree, would have known this since this is fun-da-men-tal to the concept - always has been - even before the term 'high-fidelity' was coined.

So here we have the extremely well-learned and esteemed founder of Stereophile merely repeating the fact that high-fidelity is about copying as closely as possible the sound and characteristics of live music - with this; The Acoustical Standard, as the most relevant reference. ('The Acoustical Standard' being JGH's term for the long-established practice of utilizing live acoustical instruments & voices as THE main reference in judging/establishing the quality of audio-systems, and components). This is exactly as we've all come to learn, and absolutely in accordance with every bone-fide document on the subject of high-fidelity, as all who know would agree. (It's also in accordance with simple common-sense - even for those only interested in electronic music - since it establishes the standard of performance, on which even many electronic instruments themselves are based). The acoustical standard can be the only basis for any viable standard in hi-fi - period. (Again; this does NOT exclude the potential use of secondary means of evaluation - electronic music, for instance).

Yet we also have the current editor of the same magazine (who should really know better) contradicting the founder to suggest, to teach, to advocate a paradigm which devalues and largely disregards the fundamental basis of high-fidelity, and which ensures the further lowering of standards in what remains of concept of 'hi-fi'. The editor seems anxious as he hastens to assure some individuals (or entities?) that the use of the acoustical standard is NOT emphasised or particularly encouraged by the mag. Why?

First, here's his response to the founder's advocacy of the acoustical standard: He suggests that; Heaven forbid that anyone interpret JGH's article as being a statement of Stereophile's policy, as he feels that this vision of the role of hi-fi is too narrow, even self-defeating. (That would, indeed, be narrow and self-defeating only for those who're interested in lowering standards in order to sell mediocre components, for sure - some manufacturers, for instance).

Incidentally, in the article, 'High-Fidelity vs Tastes & Preferences...' I alleged that some powerful manufacturers in collusion with some powerful mainstream audio-mags have long combined to lower standards in hi-fi, motivated by profit. I've alleged that the pursuit of realistic audio-reproduction - high-fidelity - has been side-lined in an effort to promote the contrary concept of satisfying 'tastes & preferences', where-in anything goes, basically. And where the intrinsic flaws of certain components are promoted as assets, in catering to these 'tastes' and these 'preferences'. Modern conventional small-coned speakers, especially, would find it nigh-on impossible to garner credibility if ever compared to the acoustical standard, for example. Because of this, many manufacturers would be happy to see the abandonment of the acoustical standard. And some powerful mainstream audio mags, with the 'proper motivation', would be happy to oblige, I'm sure.

Could this be the scenario we now see in play, before our very eyes, albeit belatedly? In this scenario, the absolutely beneficial and desirable acoustical standard is vehemently opposed - with assurances to... whoever... that this is no part of the mag's policy. Yet, no explanation is offered as to why the application of the acoustical standard would be 'self-defeating', for instance. Instead, JGH is attacked, not based on his actual arguments, but based on fictitious additions - things he never said in the relevant piece. 

For example: The ed claims that; As he sees it, there are two major flaws to the founder's argument. First, when JGH talks about the use of nonclassical music in equipment reviewing... he is confusing what hi-fi components are for with a writer's need to choose program material that reveals aberrations or performance virtues. (Not so; there's no evidence to substantiate such a claim - see for yourself - the founder does, however, suggest that live un-amplified music should be the main reference). The current editor goes on to tell us that;  ...As the editor of the magazine, he would rather a writer be correct in his conclusions rather than adhere to a narrow party line about what music is philosophically or socially correct if the result is a review which fails to inform the readers. (Again, disingenuous; the founder did not advocate audio-systems' comparisons with live unamplified music for philosophical or socially-correct reasons, as implied). Indeed, I really can't think of anything more practical than a high-fidelity system, measured for its fidelity against the only practical standard for that fidelity. Again, this is what the founder advocated - for practical reasons, I'm sure.

The editor does make a good point about using all types of music to stress a system in every way, I agree (neither did JGH dispute that, in the relevant piece). But the acoustical-standard remains, by far, the most important singular means of assessing the quality/fidelity of a system, as very significant failure here makes other attributes redundant, if high-fidelity is really the goal. Yet, this  all-important acoustical-standard - the very foundation of high-fidelity - not to mention JGH's vision in advocating it, is seen as 'too narrow' and 'even self-defeating', and; 'Heaven forbid' that anyone interpret JGH's article as a statement of the mag's policy. OK, so it's not - we now have a very clear picture as to how low the very important acoustical-standard is on this mag's priority-list - thanks.  

But then, what is the r-e-a-l basis of his dispute with the founder’s stance? What is his problem with the absolutely beneficial and long-standing acoustical standard? There's really no substance to his opposition. (Especially since the founder didn't oppose the use of electronic music in making secondary assessments). Examine his arguments very carefully and see if they make any sense to you, especially against the backdrop of the solid arguments posited by the founder, and substantiated by countless others over many, many years.

Be advised that the gentleman isn't just disputing JGH's opinion or mine, for that matter, he's disputing the very foundation of high-fidelity and, effectively, erasing pre-existing standards to establish new lows for 'high-end' audio. (I deliberately didn't call that high-fidelity since, without the acoustical-standard, there's really no means of determining what is actually High-Fidelity, literally. In fact, I'm not sure what component or system, endorsed by that mag, could be deemed High-Fidelity, unless confirmed by another source).

Further along, the current editor tells us; Second, and more important, while he doesn't disagree with JGH about the importance of a hi-fi system being able to reproduce the sound of a classical orchestra correctly, he just doesn't think that that is its prime role. He continues along this self-imposed (imaginary) line with; The fundamental role for hi-fi systems is to enable users to enjoy recorded music in the home.. And.. Being tonally correct is a part of this, but not all.... Now, as far as I'm aware, the founder never suggested that a system's prime role is to reproduce a classical orchestra - correctly, or otherwise. (This, along with the follow-up statement, implies a suggestion that the user be confined to classical music. The founder suggested nothing of the sort - never ever even mentioned "role" in that piece either. Again, what was suggested is that un-amplified, live acoustic music continue to be the standard against which high-fidelity systems are judged (obviously, this would be regardless of whatever-else one may use as additional yardsticks, or whatever the end-user's musical preference may be). 

It never ceases to amaze me that some would resort to distorting an argument in order to defeat the distorted version of the original argument. This is, of course, in the face of their ineptitude at defeating the original unadulterated argument, itself. Fascinating isn't it?

Oh and, no, I haven't missed his point about tonal correctness being part of the picture, but not all. I agree - just as I'd agree that tyres are part of a car, but not all. But just as how the car's performance would be severely limited without proper tyres, an audio-system's performance is also severely limited if the system lacks proper tonality. I say again; he's right in saying proper tonality is not all (neither are proper tyres on a car) but the lack of either on either system (car or audio) greatly devalues that system, and its performance-potential.

Indeed, the current editor is always careful to offer platitudes regarding the important issues - tonality, the acoustical-standard, accuracy, etc - but  the low priority he obviously ascribes to these speaks volumes. How can you devalue the importance of the only REAL standard of reference in high-fidelity? How can you devalue the importance of correct tone? And how can you devalue the importance of (true) accuracy? (See below). I, for one, would not heed the recommendations of a mechanic who displays such an attitude (likely recommending defective or sub-standard tyres, and other parts). Neither would I heed the recommendations of a mag whose leader lowers the standards of the important criteria. Especially if that leader displays contempt for people's intelligenge by publicly admitting to these things in an attempt to convince people that he's right. 'Heaven forbid!'

And what are the consequences?

Well, the promotion & consumption of sub-standard goods are likely, respectively. With no real standard as a guide, any piece of crap can be very highly recommended - no prob. - more sales.

For instance, the founder has repeatedly alluded to a deficient midrange in modern speakers (as have I) just to mention one commonly highly-recommended component with a glaring flaw. (Let's not mention the lack of dynamism, and other flaws, here - their incomplete tonality is quite enough for the purpose of this example). The lean, and seemingly recessed, midrange of modern conventional speakers displays a distinct lack of lower-midrange tonal-heft. This tonal discrepancy manifests itself as a blatant inaccuracy when such speakers are compared against the 'acoustical-standard' - in fact, relatively very few modern speakers can do very-well at  this test. And this would, indeed, be an incentive for some to want to move the 'goal-posts' or 'lower the bar', so to speak, in order to rave about and sell the majority of tonally deficient and inaccurate speakers, which cannot even approach the acoustical-standard in such a basic and fundamentally-important aspect as tonality, let alone dynamism, etc.

Whether this is what's at play here, you'd have to draw your own conclusions in answer to that. Maybe then you'll begin to understand why 'high-end' is dominated by highly-recommended sub-standard speaker-systems - for example - which operate far  beneath, and outside, the acoustical-standard.

So who needs the acoustical-standard, anywayz? (Well,... only those miserable miscreants who're actually interested in truly realistic audio reproduction - High-Fidelity - for real). Away with that nuisance - correct tone & true accuracy too. After all, what relevance do those things have in this new paradigm, in this modern time?

The current editor mercifully closes his own 'arguments' with this gem; Accuracy may be desirable, but it is only relevant if the system is able to convey the emotion in music..

Now, what the....? Is it that this gentleman speaks merely for the sake of speaking? Is he suggesting that there's a higher goal, in high-fidelity, than accuracy - FIDELITY itself? Doesn't it go without saying that a system which is accurate (to a reasonably significant degree) will convey all that is ensconced in the music, including whatever 'emotion' invested in, or derived from, said accurately depicted music?

Oh, I see... perhaps he's advocating a 'short-cut' (to that more-important 'emotion') which circumnavigates the sometimes-'irrelevant' and apparently 'un-necessary' attribute; 'accuracy'.

Brilliant!

Let's leave this at that.

Conclusion? Incidentally, the current editor of Stereophile magazine shamelessly tells us, in another piece, that founder J. Gordon Holt had been technical editor of High Fidelity magazine in the 1950s, and was tired of being asked to pander to the demands of advertisers. J.G.H. was quoted as saying that he watched, first with incredulity and then with growing disgust, how the purchase of a year's advertising contract could virtually insure a manufacturer against publication of an unfavorable report...  And if a company didn't buy advertising, they didn't get reviewed at all. The Stereophile was JGH's answer to audiophiles' need for an honest, reliable source of information. Stereophile's current ed shamelessly proclaims that JGH founded Stereophile based on the premise that; if no one else will publish a magazine that calls the shots as it sees them, then he'd do it himself - as he later wrote.

Contrast that with the Stereophile of today. Is it, and others like it (T.A.S., for instance) the current standard-bearer(s) for the likes of High-Fidelity magazine's principles & practices? I'm just askin'!

Now, I'll close by paraphrasing the venerable J. Gordon Holt. Perhaps his words will go some way towards explaining why standards have been lowered, in high-fidelity, and why almost anything goes in hifi, today, in a quest to satisfy press-endorsed and encouraged 'tastes & preferences' - even more so after his passing. Sadly it may even be a reflection on the very magazine he founded on such noble foundations as 'truth', 'honesty', and 'integrity', for instance. His 'pull-no-punches' honesty, wisdom, and guidance are sorely missed by the hifi community, which will forever be the poorer for his loss.

He told us: Most of today's audio "perfectionists" are phonies, spouting pieties about realism and naturalness and accuracy when in fact they don't really give a damn about any of these things. 

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