REVIEWING THE 'REVIEWERS'
PART ONE- THE RECOMMENDED COMPONENTS LIST
PART TWO- WHY WAS THE RECOMMENDED COMPONENTS LIST "PROSTITUTED"?
PART THREE- 60+ "GREAT" COMPONENTS IN A ROW!?
PART FOUR- JOHN ATKINSON "RESPONDS"
PART FIVE- JOHN ATKINSON "DEFENDS" CLASS A+
PART SIX- THE HALCRO dm58 AMPLIFIERS-ANOTHER FAILURE OF INTEGRITY
PART SEVEN- JIM AUSTIN'S PERSONAL ATTACK AND MY RESPONSE
PART EIGHT- JUNE 2009 ISSUE
PART NINE- THE WATT/PUPPY 5 'REVIEW'-NOVEMBER 1995
PART TEN- WES PHILLIPS - THE "INTREPID" AUDIO REVIEWER (THE WATT/PUPPY 8)
PART ELEVEN- CHARLES HANSEN'S FINAL POSTS ON AUDIO ASYLUM (CRITIC'S CORNER) NEW!
The (Secret) Rules of Audio Reviewing
SUMMER 1971 TO OCTOBER 2000
It is an historical fact that Stereophile was the first "underground audio magazine". In fact, the term was coined to describe it, and then later The Absolute Sound. Stereophile started back in 1962, with (publisher/editor) J. Gordon Holt doing almost all of the writing.
It was small in size (TV Guide) and a "quarterly" in theory, but it arrived very sporadically. It was printed in simple black and white, with no pictures, except most front covers, and it had no advertising. The cost was originally $ 4 for 4 issues, but it went up to $ 5 in 1968. That is approximately $ 36 for 4 issues in 2017 money. The issues back then were generally 36 pages in length.
Holt eventually sold the magazine to Larry Archibald in February, 1982. Since issue No. 83 (August 1986), John Atkinson has been the Editor, replacing Holt. Atkinson also had a financial interest in the magazine, as a junior partner.
In January 1994, Stereophile became the large magazine it is today, with glossy, color pictures and fancy advertisements. There were also correspondingly huge increases in the cost of advertising. Archibald and Atkinson sold the magazine in June 1998 to Petersen Publishing, and it has since been sold again. Archibald is now gone and Holt passed away, but Atkinson is still the Editor of Stereophile as this is written.
Stereophile has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, with almost all of the changes coming in the last 25 years. I have many serious concerns with this magazine and, in fact, this entire section of the website (Audio Critique) was inspired by their "review" of the Watt/Puppy 5 in the November 1995 issue (see below). Unfortunately, I don't have the time to take a second look at everything they do, which would be a full-time job.
However, I did have the time to take a second look at their Recommended Components List, now and in the past. The unavoidable question that must be asked is:
THE "RECOMMENDED COMPONENTS" LIST
Stereophile included a "Recommended Components" section in nearly every issue in the "old days". It had 4 categories; all very similar to those of today. It was, and still is, the most popular section of the magazine. As we shall now see, the original title, and its categories, are the only similarities to the lists of the last two decades.
To be specific, we are going to compare the Recommended Components Lists from four issues to each other:
1. Summer 1971;
2. Fall 1985 (Vol.8 No. 8), published just before John Atkinson arrived;
3. April 1992, 6 years after John Atkinson took over, and
4. October 2000, 14 years after John Atkinson arrived.
|John Atkinson Arrives-1986|
2. For the sake of clarity, brevity and focus, only "Class A" is displayed and analyzed.
3. Stereophile enlarged its size in 1994, with correspondingly huge increases in advertising rates.
Please consider these statistics carefully. As for myself, I focused on just two obvious and highly relevant details:
In the Summer 1971 issue, there were NO advertisements and 7 components were in "Class A". In the Fall 1985 issue, more than 14 years later, there were still only 9 components in "Class A", despite going from 0 to 47 pages of advertising. However...
Then John Atkinson arrived on the scene.
In short order, there were profound changes, starting from the late 1980's and continuing through the entire 1990's. By April, 1992, there were already 30 components in "Class A". This was just a "warm-up"...
By October 2000, 14 years after Atkinson's arrival, there were 104 components in "Class A". Could there be any "innocent explanations" for this obvious trend? Well, three "excuses" have been used.
The performance of today's components has improved (or "advanced") on those of the past. Assuming that this is a fact, doesn't that mean more components should in "Class A"?
The fact that there were numerous "advancements" is totally irrelevant. This is because each and every new advancement must automatically supercede the previous advancement, or else it wasn't an "advancement" in the first place.
As each new improvement "raises the bar" to get into "Class A", any older model, which can not reach that new "bar", is relegated to "second best", which means they can no longer honestly remain in "Class A", which is supposed to be "the best attainable sound" at that time. Just as the newest, fastest computer chips relegate the older chips to "second fastest or best". Ruthless logic yes, but true when you are talking about "the best".
This principle is the primary reason why all of the numerous, earlier advancements during "The Holt Era", from 1971 to 1985, did NOT result in an increase in the "Class A" recommendations.
There are more components available now than ever before. Doesn't that mean that more components should be in "Class A"?
The best is the best, no matter how many "participants" are competing for that "title".
An Example: There were far more competitors at the 2008 Summer Olympics "than ever before", but there were still only 3 medals given out for each event. In pro sports, there is just one "all-star team", no matter how many expansion teams and new players are added.
Stereophile, between 1971 and 1985, faced a huge, relative increase in the available number of components (plus the advent of accepting advertising). Even so, during this entire 14 year period, under J. Gordon Holt's direction, Stereophile went from 7 to only 9 "Class A" components.
This historical fact is the final proof that there is not any "law" or "rule" that the Editor must increase his "Class A" recommendations just because there are a greater variety of components. That's a personal choice.
For the exact (and devastating) details on this particular "Excuse", I've provided STATISTICAL FOOTNOTES.
Stereophile, between 1971 and 1985, went from 0 to 47 pages of advertising, with virtually no change in the number of Class A components. This also disproves the simplistic theory that:
Advertising, by itself, must automatically compromise the integrity of a magazine.
This is NOT true!
There is one other message from all the above numbers which is just as obvious as Stereophile's profound change of direction. I felt this message must be pointed out and not overlooked:
There is at least one person in audio journalism who, though tempted, never compromised his integrity:
There was a thread in Vinyl Asylum, March 29, 2003, that was started by Harry Weisfeld of VPI fame (198845).
In his message, Weisfeld stated that it "is totally untrue...that the Stereophile Recommended list can be bought by advertising". He then went on to claim that "VPI has never advertised or contributed one cent to Stereophile" and that Stereophile was "honest and not for sale". I have known Harry Weisfeld for more than 20 years, and I have no doubt that what he wrote about his experiences is honest and truthful.
Unfortunately, it is also grossly incomplete and overlooks the real story of Stereophile, John Atkinson and their decision to completely "prostitute" the Recommended Components List (RCL), the process of which began virtually the day that Atkinson took over the editorial responsibility of the magazine in 1986.
While the devaluation of the RCL is an incontestable fact (see above), and not just an opinion, I was not certain myself of the basic strategy behind it. I never thought that John Atkinson received "brown paper bags of cash" to include all of the many components that did not deserve to be "recommended" (around 80% of the RCL), let alone placed in Class A.
But it was done, so the question was, and still is, WHY?
Of course it had something to do with MONEY, but since there were no direct "payoffs", as Weisfeld claims, how did the money come into the equation? Well, with a little reminiscing, I feel that I now understand why John Atkinson, with the acquiescence of the publisher Larry Archibald, decided on a dishonest course of action so many years ago, and why they succeeded so brilliantly.
When John Atkinson arrived at Stereophile, as both Editor and Junior Partner, he found a magazine that was small and growing slowly, if at all. It had lost some of its "prestige" and market influence to its rival, The Absolute Sound. The magazine's income (and profit) was generated primarily from advertisers by this time. The advertising rates were, in turn, based on readership.
Atkinson's main goal was obvious: to increase the readership, and then increase the number of (and the rates to) advertisers. That was (and is) the only method of making "serious money" in the magazine business, and if there is an alternative reason why John Atkinson gave up a good position, in England, to move all the way to New Mexico, I haven't heard it yet.
Atkinson had to consider two elemental facts as he developed a plan to increase his readership:
1. The first was exclusive to Stereophile; the RCL was the most popular part of the magazine. Why? The RCL condensed everything written into something that anyone could easily and quickly understand. The RCL was the equivalent of "the bottom line" in financial statements.
2. The second truth was consistent with all magazines; John Atkinson knew that to find more committed readers, meaning subscribers, he had to make them feel they had some "involvement", or something at stake, with Stereophile. If the readers felt that way, they wouldn't dare miss even one issue.
Accordingly, John Atkinson then began to implement a strategy that is still in place today. It was successful beyond the wildest dreams of anyone in the audio community back in 1986, maybe even surprising Atkinson himself. Its beauty was in its utter simplicity, while its ugliness was in its direct appeal to, and total reliance on, the lower elements of human nature.
What was this "strategy"?
John Atkinson realized the most basic formula for "success":
These audiophiles would look forward to each issue, which would (hopefully) "confirm" their choice(s) and purchase(s) of component(s). They would also now have "bragging rights" and "status" with their other (audiophile) friends who didn't yet own components of similar "stature". This would then pressure these friends to also purchase components on the RCL, just to "keep up".
The "confirmation" of their purchases had another soothing effect:
It reduced any residual anxiety and/or insecurity the purchasers might have had with the spending of large amounts of money. It even allayed serious doubts as to the actual in-house performance of their new components, since that same performance had now been "verified" as "Class A" by "official experts". These readers now felt that their previously futile search for "certainty" had finally ended. The RCL would be "the absolute certainty" they so desperately needed.
This growing number of readers, in effect, had joined an exclusive group of people, who either owned "the best attainable" components or anything else within the RCL. Each issue of Stereophile validated that imaginary "membership". When the component was inevitably removed from the RCL, the reader would be strongly encouraged, with another "rave review", to "upgrade" to the latest component in the RCL, which would then "reestablish" his "exclusive membership". It was almost like the equivalent of the "Stereophile Country Club".
This was not done overnight. It was done slowly, almost imperceptibly. The RCL (Class A) went from 9 in 1985, slowly up to 30 by 1992, a seven year process. When no one publicly complained, it went all the way up to 104 by 2000.
Meanwhile, the manufacturers were also very happy. Many more of them could now claim that their components were in Class A; adding "prestige" even to their less ambitious models. Plus, advertising, in the magazine that gave them this new found "status", was now of triple benefit to them:
1. There was the increased readership from newly committed subscribers, and
2. It augmented, and reminded these readers of, their newly elevated status in the RCL, and
3. It also insured that Stereophile would be profitable and regularly publishing their (now valuable) RCL.
These happy manufacturers all had their own large stake in the continuing existence of Stereophile. The large increase in advertising rates were no hindrance to most of them, since their customers (Stereophile's subscribers) paid for all their advertising costs within the manufacturers' continually rising prices and markups, which their new "friend', Stereophile, never questioned or criticized.
It wasn't surprising that the manufacturers began virtually begging the magazine to "review" their components. Why not, with no downside? A negative review was as rare as an act of kindness from Saddam Hussein, and joining the RCL was almost a certainty.
So John Atkinson, acutely aware of the basic insecurities and the desperate need for "certainty" of most audiophiles, used these human weaknesses to his financial advantage. He enabled an increasing number of his readers to feel (temporarily) safe and secure with their increasingly expensive purchases, and he was rewarded for this by a growing number of subscriptions, advertisers and higher advertising rates.
Of course, these growing numbers had to eventually peak, and they did so by the mid 1990's. Then the numbers started to decline. What caused this to happen, after all the previous "success"?
"Pumping the gas", by continually increasing the size of the RCL, slowly began losing its impact, just as people require greater and greater amounts of drugs to feel any effect. Eventually, joining the RCL meant virtually nothing: "the wine had slowly been turned into water".
Almost every component (60 in a row eventually) received a "rave" and made the RCL. One "Class A" component was now indistinguishable from the dozens of others within the same category. There was less and less incentive for advertising a component that was no longer "exclusive" or "special". With fewer advertisements, there were fewer "reviews", resulting in a much smaller magazine.
The more perceptive readers became increasingly bored with the predictability of the "reviews" and with the magazine. Even $ 10 subscriptions didn't help. Worse, the equipment they had previously purchased, based on the former "raves", rarely performed up to high standards that were described in such glowing terms. That took care of much of the remaining credibility within the magazine.
Shortly after the decline began, in 1998, Archibald and Atkinson wisely sold out their respective shares to a large magazine conglomerate. The "mastermind" of the climb, John Atkinson, stayed along as Editor. This is still Stereophile's present status; nothing has changed. The "RCL Strategy" remains to this day. It can never be used again to "pump" the readership, but maybe it will help to retain the current subscribers, or reduce the bleeding of the remainder of the readers.
For some supporting details, which will confirm everything written above, let's look at the historical record...
In October 2000, there were 46* amplifiers alone in Class A, the so-called "best attainable". There are still dozens as this is written. Only someone who is intellectually dishonest, in every sense of that expression, can claim there are 46 "best" of anything. (Do you know anyone with 46 "best friends"?) All the other Class A component categories have had similar, totally implausible expansions.
Atkinson even created a new Class, "A+", which is even better than "the best"! In all human history, and in all human cultures, it has been philosophically impossible to be better than the best, except in Stereophile. It's not even a rare occurrence. In fact, in their April 2003 RCL, there were more Digital Processors in Class A+ (7), than in Class C (2)!
*During the publishing control of J. Gordon Holt, from 1962 all the way to the middle 1970's, the highest number of amplifiers in Class A was 4. The lowest number of amplifiers in Class A was 1. Holt kept only that one single amplifier in Class A even after it was discontinued. Holt refused to place even one unworthy component into Class A, because he understood and respected the true meaning of the word "best". Now compare Holt's intellectual integrity to that displayed by John Atkinson.
The above strategy was able to take a company that was purchased for thousands, and allow it to sell for millions. Further, there is no question that John Atkinson is a very smart business man and nothing I know that he did was illegal. However, there is something else that must also be said of him.
It is my opinion that:
Why? John Atkinson turned the Stereophile Recommended Component List, along with all the "reviews" that the RCL are based on, into a total sham and a fraud. He sold gullible subscribers and audiophiles an illusion of certainty. Ironically, and tragically, what he sold the readers wasn't even truly his to sell.
The entire "illusion" was really founded on the earned integrity of J. Gordon Holt. In short: Stereophile's integrity, in its entirety, was only due to Holt's decades of work. John Atkinson, simply and shamelessly, financially exploited another man's lifetime of work, courage, sacrifice and achievements. The fact that it was all "legal" is completely irrelevant to the issue.
Almost as sad was the utter failure of most Stereophile readers to make the critical distinction between the name of the magazine, and the actual editor. This failure enabled the intellectual fraud. They believed in a total fantasy. Finally, I feel that the (remaining) readers deserve the pathetic garbage they now receive. This is the price they are paying for their own laziness and utter lack of critical thinking.
John Atkinson didn't confine his intellectual fraud to only the RCL Class A.
A helpful member of Vinyl Asylum posted a revelatory and devastating message on March 28, 2003 (Message 198755). This is the relevant part:
"(Stereophile) went through 18 straight issues in 2001 and 2002 wherein every component they reviewed (yes, every last one) made (their) recommended components (list). In 1989, 70% earned recommendation. I wrote them a letter on this which was never published."
I have checked out the number of reviews in 2001 and 2002. The smallest number for any "18 straight issues" was 60. The highest was 69. Let's give Stereophile a real "break", and go with "only" 60 (the minimum). So, what are the odds of 60 components, in a row, being honestly "recommended"?
That depends on the odds of any single component honestly making the RCL. First, using traditional and scientific "Bell Curves", only around 10% (10/100) of audio components (or any "consumer product") are defined as being "excellent". Accordingly, that would mean that if chosen randomly, the odds of 60 consecutive components being "excellent" would be the number "10" to the power of "60" (that is 10 with 60 zeros!).
That's an impossibly (and damningly) large number, which ends any doubt. However, let's now assume that the sample of reviewed components was NOT "random". In short, we're going to give John Atkinson every possible benefit of the doubt. Here are two more "scenarios":
Let's give John Atkinson a second real "break". We will assume that Atkinson is a true "genius" at "prejudging" components, so only the models with the best chance to make the RCL were reviewed. Accordingly, we will concede that Atkinson has the capability to eliminate 80% of the initial pool of 100 beforehand. Thus, only 20 (100-80) components are still left in the pool, instead of 100, thus greatly increasing the success rate.
This means that 80 of the initial 90 "non-excellent" audio components are now removed from the pool (that's 88.9% of them). (Actually, in "real-life", I know of no audiophile, no matter how experienced, including myself, with this much audio foresight.) Still, this unprecedented ability will now increase the odds of success all the way up to 10/20 or 50%, instead of (the purely random) 10% (10/100).
So, to summarize, we're going from the initial "success rate" of 10% to 50%, just like "flipping a coin". Now, what are the odds of honestly flipping a coin "heads" or "tails" 60 times in a row:
That's One Quintillion; or a Billion Billion. This is also an astronomical number which is beyond any practical use in the human world.
In short, it's Impossible, even if Atkinson is a genius, to have 60 consecutive components recommended when the process is honest.
Let's give John Atkinson a third real "break". In fact, we're going to go beyond even being "open minded". Let's now assume that Atkinson is even above a genius, and is actually a (secret) "Superhuman", with powers of foresight far greater than anyone who has ever lived on this earth (like "Clark Kent"). We will increase the 50% success rate even further: Up to 75%. So...
What are the odds now of 60 consecutive components honestly making the RCL with even a "Superhuman" prejudging the components and a success rate of 75%?
Accordingly, "the bottom line" concerning the Stereophile RCL is simple, obvious and incontestable:
John Atkinson* has been perpetuating a despicable deception on the audio world. He is not alone.
All the people who contributed to Stereophile, the "reviewers" and the columnists, and all of its "defenders" and "apologists", who are easy to find on websites like Audio Asylum, were and are also part of the sham and are also intellectually dishonest, or even worse.
*It is John Atkinson, alone, who makes the "ultimate" and final determination of "if", and in "which class", a component joins the Recommended Component List. This is from Page 3 of the April 2002 issue of Stereophile:
"(I) ask the magazine's writers to...tell me why the products should be recommended or not recommended...and what class they would choose if it were up to them. But as much as I respect these guys, it is not up to them...Ultimately, it is my call which class each component falls into." (Atkinson's own italics)
John Atkinson has never responded directly to this website concerning the various issues brought up within this file. Atkinson did post a number of responses within Audio Asylum in June, 2003. I feel that the readers of this website, and audiophiles in general, should be aware of the nature and the details of Atkinson's posts.
John Atkinson responded to three Audio Asylum members; "old geezer" on June 22 and both "Ross" and "Robert H." on June 23. Below are the relevant posts, without duplication and without editing Atkinson's spelling mistakes.
1. Posted by old geezer on June 22, 2003 at 11:49:10 General Asylum 275869
"What I find convincing is Salvatore's reasoning, not his "bile", arguably over-the-top characterizations or blunt language -- matched and far surpassed, by the way, by your stable mate Michael Fremer in his correspondence with Arthur, also posted on the website in question."
2. Posted by John Atkinson on June 22, 2003 at 15:05:39 General Asylum 275890
"But Mr. Salvatore's statistical analysis is based on the fallacious assumption that Stereophile's selection of components for review is based on a representative sampling of all the products that are available. As I explained in another post today, we rigorously try _not_ to be representative when we choose products for review. Mr. Salvatore's argment falls flat on its face therefore.
His argument is based on a "straw man": arbitrarily make an assumption about our strategy; show that our practice doesn't conform to that strategy; announce that his case is proved. This is deceptive argument.
I make no apology for Mikey's language. I would point out that Mr. Salvatore broke a confidence by posting a not-for-publication e-mail on his site."
3. Posted by John Atkinson on June 23, 2003 at 14:04:12 General Asylum 276078
Ross- "...I would like to think that the attention (of Stereophile's critics) is motivated by a desire to help make the publication a better one..."
Atkinson- "I would like to think you are correct. Perhaps you are in some cases. But others seem merely to parrot Arthur Salvatore's conspiracy theories"
4. Posted by John Atkinson on June 23, 2003 at 16:21:57 General Asylum 276110
(Replying to "Robert H."-) "I seriously suggest you start spending... less time inventing far-fetched conspiracy theories like our good friend Arthur Salvatore."
John Atkinson, within those replies, made three accusations in an attempt to discredit me and this website.
1. I used a deceptive ("strawman") argument and a fallacious assumption.
2. I broke a "confidence" with Michael Fremer.
3. I invented "conspiracy theories" concerning Stereophile.
Let us look closely at each accusation.
Why it is False- John Atkinson uses the singular words "argument" and "assumption". This is false. In reality, I actually eliminated the "random" element in two of the three scenarios.
The Indisputable Evidence- Both "Scenario 1" and "Scenario 2" are "not representative" (meaning they are non-random).
Even worse, Atkinson's assertion is not only totally false, it is also a Lie.
Both "Scenarios 1 & 2" were included in the General Asylum post (275795) that Atkinson was responding to.
This is incontestable proof that John Atkinson was then fully aware that I had indeed made an exact "argument" that did take into consideration his "not...representative" choice of products for review. The only difference between us is our wording, he used "not..representative" while I used "prejudged", but the meaning and intent are obviously the same.
Why it is false- Michael Fremer had already posted the exact same letter to Phonogram an entire day before I posted it on this website.
1. It was impossible, by definition, for a "confidence" to be "broken" after the "victim", himself, posted the same letter (to all over the world) first.
2. In reality, it was impossible, by definition, for a "confidence" to have even existed in the first place, because Fremer's letter was the initial communication between us. Fremer didn't even request that his letter remain private because he had obviously already made it public himself.
Fremer's posting his letter to Phonogram first is an undisputed historical fact, which is why John Atkinson's assertion is false. It's almost certainly a lie also, but it is, at the very least, a reckless charge.
Atkinson had to know the truth about the prior Fremer/Phonogram posting after I posted my letter (275900) with the all the facts in it. Why? Because he then responded to that same letter.
Atkinson didn't even acknowledge this important information (which proved that Fremer was both a liar and a hypocrite and that his own accusation was false). This unquestionably demonstrates John Atkinson's lack of character and integrity. An honest person, with integrity, would have apologized in the same public forum in which he made his false accusation.
John Atkinson had two options when he was publicly informed in Audio Asylum that Michael Fremer had lied and that he had repeated that same lie.
Option 1- Admit the truth in public, that "Mikey" had lied, and that he was taken in as well, and then apologize.
Option 2- Insult the intelligence of Audio Asylum members by simply ignoring the Fremer/Phonogram revelation and hope the members wouldn't notice.
Atkinson's fear of the consequences of "Option 1" was greater than his fear of the consequences of "Option 2". What does that say about Atkinson's character, his lack of courage and his true feelings towards the audiophile community and the members of Audio Asylum?
Why it is false- There is not even one mention, or even one claim, of any "conspiracy" within the entire Stereophile File. On the contrary, I used the word "Strategy", and more than once, which is even the same word Atkinson used himself. That fact makes the assertion false.
The Recommended Components List Strategy file was posted earlier in the General Asylum thread (275795). In fact, Atkinson was responding to that post, which he obviously had to have read. There are no possible excuses. John Atkinson knew his claim was false. He knew he was lying (Twice now, let's not forget).
Atkinson is now desperate to discredit this website and me personally. He would love audiophiles to believe that I am a person who is prone to believe in anything, no matter how "far-fetched". In short, he wants audiophiles to think that I am "paranoid" or "crazy", and a person to ignore.
John Atkinson chose the most unlikely person to falsely characterize. I do not believe in any of the famous "conspiracies"; JFK, MLK, Area 51, 9/11, "Elvis is alive", "OJ is innocent", etc. I don't believe in audio magazine "conspiracies" either, because everything is so obvious. Look at the pathetic contents of most audio magazines. If there actually is a conspiracy, the culprits are either incompetent and/or they feel their typical reader is a moron.
John Atkinson has ignored this site in the vain hope that it will slowly die from a lack of attention. He had a problem when a thread started in Audio Asylum concerning the "strategy" to "prostitute" his magazine's Recommended Components List. Atkinson had to respond or else it would appear that he concurred with this harsh but accurate and honest assessment. His apparent expectation was that he could make various false and misleading accusations to refute that assessment, and still avoid being exposed in the process.
John Atkinson not only failed in his pitiful goal, he's now convincingly demonstrated, with his own words, that he is no more than a common opportunist, capable of stating anything, no matter how fraudulent, condescending and destructive, to serve his own needs and interests.
If a person is prepared to mislead and even lie when relatively little is at stake, what would that same person do when "real money", thousands and even millions, is at stake?
What I do believe, and have proved beyond all doubt, is that under John Atkinson's direction, Stereophile is now strictly "Commercial", to the fullest and most negative degree that word can be used. What was once a magazine that was truly reader-oriented, has degenerated into a magazine that can only be described as a pure marketing device, with its only goal now to "sell" the readers something. That poor, sad and pathetic reality will be John Atkinson's true and lasting audio "legacy".
For another perspective...
A member of Audio Asylum, "Tom S", posted this highly relevant question to John Atkinson in early August 2004 in the Critics Corner, which I have slightly edited;
Shortly thereafter, John Atkinson replied to this member in the below post;
Posted by John Atkinson (R) on August 03, 2004 at 04:06:36
"This is explained in every "Recommended Components" listing. A+ for turntables was created to recognize the achievment of the Rockport, A+ in digital was created to recognize the reality that the potential for sound quality offered by SACD and hi-rez PCM exceeds that of CD. There are no other Class A+ categories.
The alternative would have been to push down the ratings of all real-world turntables and all CD playback systems. A difficult choice between these 2 strategies, but please be assured that there was no pressure from advertisers for me to do this, nor would I have taken any notice of such pressure if it did exist."
Atkinson- "There are no other Class A+ categories." (except for Turntables and Digital sources)
Salvatore- This is incorrect. The Boulder 2008 Phono Stage is also in Class A+. How could Atkinson, who is calling the shots, overlook this? Well, considering that there are 17 Class A+ Digital Components (in contrast to only 3 in Class C), one can accurately state that even Class A+ has now become a common, routine designation.
It didn't take long to water down even Class A+, did it? Worse, what does that say about the original "Class A"?
Atkinson- "The alternative (to a Class A+) would have been to push down the ratings of all the real-word turntables..."
Salvatore- So? J. Gordon Holt had this same "difficult choice" in 1975/6, when the Audio Research D-150 amplifier came out. Like the Rockport, the ARC D-150 was also the best, by far, in its category (in Holt's opinion), and also much more expensive than the competition. So what did Holt do in the same situation?
Simple, Holt, without hesitation, placed the D-150 in Class A, all by itself, and demoted everything else. (Stereophile 1975 Autumn, Winter, 1976 Spring etc.) Why? Holt, a man of intellectual integrity, respected the actual meaning of the word "best", and couldn't care less that some manufacturers, or readers, were upset at the other amplifiers being "pushed down".
Atkinson- "...nor would I have taken any notice of such pressure (from advertisers) if it did exist."
Salvatore- This "resolute" statement is totally inconsistent with Atkinson's own actions for the last 19 years. In almost every instance, Atkinson has, in stark contrast, made the choice to increase the number of components in Class A. We're supposed to believe this was all done without "taking notice of any pressure"?
Atkinson even went to the Nth degree by creating Class A+ and cynically ignoring the hype of his own magazine's covers; Recall the Halcro dm58 Amplifiers...
The Halcro amp was unambiguously declared to be "the best amplifier ever!" on Stereophile's October 2002 cover. However, not even one of the 15 transistor amps already in their "Class A" was eventually "pushed down" because it was sonically inferior.
John Atkinson provided a further explanation to this same member four days later. Here are Atkinson's relevant quotes.
"...I created the class (A+) purely to recognize the achievement of the Rockport. ..My usual practice is indeed to bump other products down a class when something like the Rockport enters the list. However, the Rockport is not a regular product. First, it is only made to order. Second, it is extremely expensive. After some thought, I felt that creating A+ for turntables would be a fairer way of addressing these facts than relegating turntables my readers could actually experience to Class B and below."
Atkinson- "...the Rockport is not a regular product. First, it is only made to order. Second, it is extremely expensive..."
Salvatore- This reasoning, and explanation, is completely bogus, because it has one fatal flaw.
Stereophile's "Class A" description has always included the phrase "without any practical considerations". Now Atkinson is suddenly claiming that there are some "practical considerations":
A. "Extremely expensive"
B. "only made to order"
Atkinson- "My usual practice is indeed to bump other products down a class when something like the Rockport enters the list."
Salvatore- This claim is a complete fabrication of reality and history. This lie is the reason why Atkinson did not give even one example of his so-called "usual practice" of "bumping other products down a class" to this member. (I'm still amazed at how casual it has become for Atkinson to mislead the members of Audio Asylum, let alone Stereophile's own readers.)
If Atkinson's courageous claim was actually true, there wouldn't be 50! different amplifiers currently (October 2004) in "Class A". I think this is Atkinson's all-time record. I wonder how high that number will have to climb (100 amps!) before Atkinson became truly concerned that Class A was, in his own word, "devalued"?
Look at it this way, no one has 50, or even 10, "best friends".
Any objective observer will come to the same conclusion; Class A+ was just another cynical device to retain and increase the number of components already in their Class A. Their goal succeeded, since there are now more Class A components than at any time in Stereophile's entire existence. Unfortunately,...
There is a logical formula in this instance;
This is obvious, and so is the unavoidable observation that Atkinson doesn't really care about this inverse relationship now, nor has he in the past. The real issue is whether the readers do...
It was impossible to miss. It dominated the front cover of the October 2002 Stereophile; a huge photo of the Halcro dm58, and in extra-large bold lettering, the unqualified declaration:
That's about as definitive a statement as it gets in audio, but editor John Atkinson had a small problem; there were 15* "Class A" solid-state amplifiers already in Stereophile's April 2002 Recommended Components List (RCL). So Atkinson now had to decide which of those 15 amps, if not all of them, would have to be demoted to "Class B", or removed entirely from the RCL. After all, the October 2002 cover clearly stated that the Halcro was now superior to all the previous amplifiers that were "the best".
(*This doesn't even count the other 30+ "Class A" amplifiers that were in the other artificial categories; "Tubes" and "Integrated".)
The big question; how would John Atkinson, the final arbiter of what-went-where in the RCL, handle this situation? A quick look at the April 2003 RCL provides the answer. So what do we find there, the Halcro all by itself, the only result which is consistent with the cover? Not quite...
There were now 17 solid-state amplifiers in "Class A". Yes, there's actually 2 more than before! Of "the original 15" amps, the only amplifiers that were removed were those either...
A. "discontinued" or
B. "not heard for a long time".
The Bottom Line-
The Inescapable Conclusion- Either...
A. The Halcro "the best amplifier ever" cover was a total fraud, or
B. Their "Recommended Components List" is a total fraud.
(Of course, BOTH of them can be "total frauds".)
There was a June 19, 2004 post on Critics Corner from Jim Austin ("Look Closer"), which attacked me and this website. Austin's attack covered many issues, and I feel my response to him should be shared, because it will provide an understanding of my perspective and beliefs, while also exposing, and contrasting, the "thinking" and outlook of a reviewer within the mainstream audio press (Austin writes for Stereophile).
Important- Please note that, as of March 2008, this website no longer "Recommended" components. We only have "References" at this time. Other than that, and some inevitable component changes, the discussion below is still current and relevant.
For ease of reading:
Jim Austin's post will be in italics (with not a word changed)
...if you read over his (Salvatore's) whole site (as I have done several times) you'll realize that the emperor (or whatever he is) has no clothes... He may well be a fine person and an audiophile of discernment. But his Web site is narcicistic, mean-spirited, and of dubious quality.
I'll take Austin's word that he has read the "whole site several times". After the perfunctory "fine person", it doesn't take long for Austin to begin his attack:
"Mean-spirited"? (See below)
"Dubious quality", "Narcicistic (sic)?"; I believe that the numerous readers who have benefited from this website, for free, should make those determinations, and not Austin.
Consider that, despite the vitriol, Salvatore recommends components he's never heard.
For the record- The Recommended Components List on my website has always been a GROUP, and not a personal, effort, and this policy has always been stated in the first sentence of that file. Here it is...
"This list is the accumulated knowledge of a NUMBER of highly experienced audiophileS whose judgements I most respect and trust..."
The fact that I haven't "heard" every single recommended component is consistent with that policy. Austin also conveniently overlooks a glaring inconsistency...
Austin's "criticism" of me is even truer of Stereophile, since (his boss) John Atkinson has most likely not seriously listened to even 10% of components that he's placed, as the Editor, on his list. I've heard, in depth, around 90% of the components on this website's list. I've never criticized Atkinson for his lack of personal experience concerning the Stereophile list. It's obvious that one person can't hear enough components on their own, in depth, to make a relevant list today.
Notice, too, that the authorities that he trusts so completely and so implicitly, remain nameless. We are, therefore, asked to trust the opinion of reviewers that have no identifiable expertise...In other words, they're quite unwilling to do what...all the other reviewers do just about every day - reveal their identity and engage their critics honestly and openly.
Those "authorities" are not "reviewers", but their observations are direct, competent and unambiguous. Example: we have only 3 amplifiers in Class A ("the best attainable") while Stereophile has around 40. What number is far more "honest" and consistent with the accepted and real meaning of the word "best"?
Readers can decide themselves if my judgements on components, and my choice of confidential associates, are credible by our respective component choices, and the posted descriptions of these components which are recommended on the website.
Confidential sources are always common in fields where people are overly sensitive to criticism and vulnerable if they are honest (like politics). Since I almost always clearly state when it is an "associate", and not I, who is the basis of the recommendation, the reader can decide himself if it is credible and worth pursuing. If there is ambiguity, e-mail me.
To his credit, I suppose, Salvatore explicates his theories of audio at great length...And though certain aspects of his theories are uncontroversial, other aspects are hardly definitive, and, speaking as someone with a physics Ph.D., there's no evidence that any of it has sound scientific support... I prefer my critic a little less dogmatic, a bit more open minded.
"I suppose"? I feel it's clear that Austin would criticize me whether I decided to "explicate my audio theories at great length" or if I didn't.
Notice, too, that Salvatore claims not to be swayed by high price tags. But have a look at the list of recommended components. He recommends the Jadis JA-200, which retails for $28,000...but his recommendation is "conditional" - in order for it to work well, you still have to do some expensive mods.
Austin crosses an ethical line here. This assertion is much more than a mischaracterization of what I've posted. It is an outright lie (#1), and it isn't the first lie from this source (Stereophile). The truth is simple:
We have NEVER recommended the Jadis JA-200. The only Jadis amp EVER recommended is the JA-80, and, even then, only when it is modified. In fact, I've even informed my readers of the problems with the large Jadis amps. This is what I've actually posted on this website:
"The larger (Jadis' amps), each with two or more chassis per channel, ... are all too slow and veiled to be recommended, even with extensive modifications. Their prices are astronomical as well."
A simple question to my readers: Does that sound like a "recommendation" of the JA-200 to you?
He recommends an $8,000 tonearm that he's never heard.
"Never heard" is sounding like a broken record. That issue was already answered above.
He recommends an $80,000 turntable which, even though it only makes his "class B" is still, he thinks, worth the asking price.
This is a complete fabrication, or, in other words, another blatant lie (#2). There is no Eighty Thousand-Dollar turntable in "class B", and there NEVER has been. Period.
With two superior turntables, each selling for around $ 10,000, already in our Class A, why would we put a turntable selling for "$80,000" in a lower class, and then (stupidly) claim it's "worth the asking price"!?
His favorite amplifier costs $20-$50 thousand...
This fraudulent assertion qualifies Austin for an audition to play Pinocchio, and is also yet another lie (#3). The facts:
1. The CAT JL-1 is not "my favorite amplifier", and I challenge anyone to find a quote where I state such a preference. I only use and enjoy tube amps using DHT output tubes. (My favorite amp, as of 7/04, is the Golden Tube 300B mono modified, which I use in my own system.)
2. The ONLY CAT amp we recommended is their $ 20,000 model. None of us has heard their "limited" $ 50,000 model. This is clear when you read the actual description.
3. The JL-1 is discontinued, so it now sells for far less than $ 20,000.
I can't help but notice that Austin appears to be highly reluctant to name the models of the actual components recommended on this website. I wonder why?
There are no affordable components among Salvatore's "Class A"
Even more B.S., and still yet another lie (#4). "No affordable components" in Class A? Hmmm...
1. Golden Tube amps, $ 1,500 per pair or less used, plus mods
2. Shelter cartridges were there for years ($ 800 to $ 1,500)
3. ZYX FS Fuji, $ 2,000
4. Line stages; avoid them (cost $ 0!), Pass Aleph L is highest, less than $ 1,000 used
5. Polk Speaker cables, ($2 X 8 runs parallel=) $ 16 a foot, plus labor
6. Coincident interconnect, $ 300 a meter
Relevant Point- We don't recommend even one component that retails for more than $ 20,000 in ANY category (that has changed as of 8/09). Compare that to Stereophile's list, which has (and has had) numerous ultra-expensive and overpriced components ($50,000+).
There's another serious problem with his recommended components: few of them are currently available.
"A Serious problem" that some recommended components are not "currently available"!? That's an OPPORTUNITY Mr. Austin! Those components can now be purchased USED and at BIG discounts.
In my opinion, Austin has totally lost the ability to put a typical audiophile's interests above those of the magazine he works for, along with their advertisers and their other friends. This is, sadly, not an unusual occurrence.
Salvatore can't appreciate that a journalistic entity can both make money AND provide a useful service.
This is total nonsense. Car, Video and Computer magazines routinely do both, and so DID Stereophile and TAS 20 years ago. They don't now! That's the point Austin "can't appreciate".
He doesn't seem to realize that well-informed, careful reviewers can reach conclusions that differ from his without being corrupt.
The indisputable facts that:
1. 40+ amplifiers are all proclaimed (by Stereophile) to be Class A, "the best available", and
2. 60+ CONSECUTIVE components have received rave reviews (by Stereophile), are the very definitions of some form of "corruption" by even the most conservative standards imaginable.
So Austin considers these "conclusions" are actually "well informed" and "careful"? How much larger must those two numbers still grow before Austin finally becomes "suspicious"?
He doesn't seem to realize that, other than in his own mind, his credibility is no greater than that of those he criticizes, and that he and his reviewers have the same obligation for full disclosure (which starts by revealing their identifies) of those he criticizes.
Jim Austin has no idea what he's talking about. "Credibility" varies depending on whether the reader is inexperienced, experienced or very experienced, in audio or in any discipline. Based on my correspondence, the more experienced the audiophile, the more likely I will have greater credibility than the magazines I've criticized.
I, as a journalist, have no "obligation" to disclose my sources except if there is a conflict of interest with my readers. I've gone out of my way to make sure that has NEVER happened. Further, while on the subject of "disclosure" and "obligations"...
The "reviewers" within the audio magazines I have criticized have NEVER made ANY disclosures of their various perks, deals, relationships or anything else that would constitute a serious conflict of interest with their readers, despite all of THEIR journalistic "obligations". I, in stark contrast, HAVE made those disclosures (See "Personal Disclosure" in the Recommended Components File).
It seems to me that, in the end, Salvatore's whole game--certainly his only claim to fame--is his willingness to slander mainstream mags and their writers and editors.
"The whole game"? Hardly Mr. Austin. (What a blatant display of presumption, arrogance and ignorance on Austin's part.)
Here's the reality:
Less than 5% of the letters sent to this website deal with the criticism of the audio press. The majority of the letters I receive deal with components; either asking for information or giving information. Most of the others deal with my extensive LP descriptions and recommendations.
"Slander"? (Actually it's "libel" Mr. Austin.) That's a serious accusation, with legal implications. We would like the details please. While we're at it, what about the letters from Michael Fremer and "Scot Markwell"? I wouldn't call them libelous, but they are truly abominable. How would you describe them Mr. Austin, maybe "mean-spirited"?
I could go on...
So could I. We can't forget (Stereophile's) Class A+; the unprecedented category for all those components that are even BETTER than "the best available"! I would love to witness Jim Austin defending that inherently contradictory conception to the same committee which evaluated his Ph. D. dissertation.
I'll take my chances with Stereophile, TAS, etc., ads and all.
Jim Austin is finally right, at least about "taking his chances", though that prediction is a gross understatement of what has occurred during the last 15 years. Of course, any other conclusion would immediately end Austin's employment/relationship with Stereophile, along with any of the perks he's managed to leverage for himself.
I got way more education than is reasonable on technical matters, with six years of comprehensive, systematic post-graduate physics training at a top research university (University of North Carolina) beyond a four-year physics degree..., and then there were the five-or-so years spent after completing my PhD spent in various research positions...
The most depressing part of Jim Austin's letter is his disclosure that he has a Ph. D. in science. I must assume this disclosure was done to give him some sort of enhanced credibility with Stereophile's readers, and also when he makes his posts to the Audio Asylum website.
The fact that his (Ph. D.) "analysis" of this website is so full of false (and stupid) assumptions, gross mischaracterizations, irrational conclusions and even outright lies, would normally be a sad reflection on our educational system, but is it? I don't think so...
Mr. Austin's incompetent, superficial and dishonest "discourse" most likely has been the result of his new "job", requiring him to defend, at all costs, Stereophile and the other audio magazines, which are infinitely more concerned with their advertisers, friends and money than their readers. And Jim Austin, a highly educated person, is obviously even prepared to make a fool of himself in the process.
This brings up the final, and maybe, the most important issue concerning Jim Austin...
Despite the traditional scientific principles, objectivity and integrity that were instilled in him during his many years in universities, they apparently were not enough to prevent Jim Austin from being seduced by the common and cheap perks offered by Stereophile. I feel that is a powerful warning to audiophiles, which must never be forgotten or overlooked.
It's well known that I've long been critical of Stereophile, and I'm not alone. Countless other audiophiles are also sick of "reading between the lines" in a vain attempt to discover the writer's honest observations and opinions. Well, I finally got some of what I wished for, and while I'm certainly not having any second thoughts about this belated change, I must admit that even I'm surprised, if not shocked, by what I actually read.
Accordingly, I believe it is imperative to discuss a number of issues that were brought up in the review and article written by Michael Fremer and Sam Tellig in the June 2009 issue of Stereophile. This is because their opinions and perspectives are not only superficial, ignorant and dead wrong, but are also dangerous to a basic understanding of musical reproduction, not to mention your wallet.
We'll start off with Michael Fremer and his review of the new Musical Fidelity Titan amplifiers (pages 87-95). There are two serious issues to discuss with this review:
Fremer brings up a particular sonic advantage he heard with the Titan, which has a rating of 1,000 watts per channel (WPC). In Fremer's own words (my bold):
"Once you've experienced and lived with a mega-amplifier, whether tubed or solid-state, it's difficult to return to one of moderate power, and by moderate I mean even a few hundred watts per channel."
I first want to make it clear that I do not dispute Fremer's observation of experiencing a "sense of scale" with the Titan. However, Fremer takes this opportunity to gratuitously attack "lovers of SET amps and single-driver speakers" and he also completely ignores the critical context of his Titan audition, which is the power requirements of the speakers they were driving: the Wilson Audio Maxx Series III.
Let's begin with SET amplifiers. It's somewhat of a trifle, but...
Why did Fremer feel the need to ridicule the owners of SET amps (usually under 10 WPC), a tiny minority, instead of focusing on the owners of the countless amplifiers with 50 to 300 WPC? Aren't the latter also lacking, according to Fremer, that same "sense of scale"?
A Simple Question- Who is most likely to be surprised that they don't have enough power, someone who chose a 3 WPC amp, or someone who chose a 300 WPC amp? The obvious answer to that question should determine your primary focus, but only if you're rational, direct and have an aversion to playing "audio politics".
Then Fremer, with absolutely no connection, brings up "single-driver speakers"...
Even if we assume, like Fremer, that a system requires around 1,000 WPC to achieve a "sense of scale", what does this requirement have to do with the "owners of single-driver speakers" (who are then insulted as being "a lost cause")? It appears that this is Fremer's "method" of stating that only multi-driver speakers can produce a "sense of scale". If so, then why not state that directly, instead of making it some sort of half-ass inference? Still, this brings us to another question; Is Fremer's single-driver inference theory correct?
Well, I can state directly that I agree with Fremer's inference, at least when it comes to a typical (5" to 8") single-driver speaker, but I would like to share a relevant anecdote about one model that is atypical, from my personal experience.
I used to sell as a dealer, and even owned at one time, the Tannoy Westminsters. This was around 20 years ago now (1988/9). Just one look at them will tell you they are, in effect, a single-driver speaker, even though, technically, they are a "dual-concentric". More importantly, they had an amazing "sense of scale", and they didn't need a thousand watts to achieve this. The proof- Tannoy's own (stereo) amplifier, which was "only" around 200 WPC, easily did the trick, and my listening room was larger than Fremer's current room. Furthermore, as I was in the audio business at the time, many other audiophiles also heard this system, even though I only used it for a couple of months, and they all heard that same "sense of scale", because it was so obvious. Further...
I have two more anecdotes concerning this power requirement issue, with completely different components, which are just as relevant and revealing, and with no "technical" excuses...
Around 15 years ago or so, I used to own a pair of the Parasound HCA-2200 transistor amplifiers, which I ran in mono (they were bridgeable). They were 1,000 WPC in 4 ohms and 750 WPC in 8 ohms. I used them almost exclusively as subwoofer amps, but I tried them full-range a few times, as either an "experiment" or when I had no other choice (if my main amps were not usable at the time). My "main amplifier" back then was the Jadis JA-80, first stock and then later heavily modified (Teflon coupling caps and operated in triode etc).
So, what happened when I compared the Parasound to the Jadis? Did I get "a sense of scale" I had never experienced before, like Fremer predicted? NO! In fact, the Jadis actually had a greater "sense of scale" than the Parasound(!), and by then, because it was operating in Triode, it had only something like 30 WPC. That's only 4% of the power of the Parasound! And furthermore, despite Fremer's other vacuous claim above, I couldn't wait "to return" to the low-powered Jadis after listening to the (mega) Parasound.
Meanwhile, at around the same time, someone else's experiments were further repudiating Fremer's theory...
I had a friend who owned a pair of the II version of the same Parasound. This friend also compared his Parasound to his (similarly modified) Jadis JA-200, and he received the same result I had; the JA-200 was noticeably bigger (and better, except for the bass), and he had a truly giant size room. Thus, no excuses. (He also "returned" to the Jadis immediately!)
1. We heard a single-driver (dual-concentric) speaker with a "sense of scale", in my own system.
2. This "sense of scale" was achieved with an amplifier of "only" 200 WPC.
3. I heard, in my own system, a 30 WPC amplifier with more "sense of scale" than a 750 WPC amplifier, on the same speaker.
4. My friend heard a 75 WPC amplifier with more "sense of scale" than the II version of that same 750 WPC amplifier, and in a giant room.
This brings us to "The Big Question"- What do all these anecdotes mean to Fremer's two new pet "theories"?
Fremer's 1,000 WPC "theory" is completely discredited, period. Further, his inference, about the inherent problem with most single-driver speakers, should be made in direct and unambiguous terms, and with details and exceptions, as I did above.
The Bottom Line- There is no one "magic" WPC to optimize all systems. This means you can put Fremer's 1,000 WPC "sense-of-scale theory" into "The Crackpot File", where it belongs. It is the result of someone who assumed he knew much more about a subject than his obviously limited experience actually provided. Fremer is not alone here, almost every "reviewer" I've read grossly overestimates the breadth of their knowledge and experience. They should stick to what is in front of them, instead of making "great pronouncements" on flimsy and superficial evidence. (However, I do believe that Michael Fremer deserves some credit for having the courage to even post a theory in the first place. Almost all current audio reviewers avoid taking such a risk.)
Next, we deal with "Context", focusing on the speakers Fremer was using: The Wilson Maxx Series III power requirements...
In the entire Titan review, I found only one audio observation (and opinion) by Michael Fremer that is important and highly relevant to (a very select few of) his readers. In this case, I'm referring to Fremer's courageous (for him) observation that the Maxx speakers actually require 1,000 WPC for optimization, which contradicts Wilson's claim that amplifiers with far less power are totally satisfactory.
Sadly, Fremer couldn't stop while he was ahead. He must have felt that the Titan/Maxx combination was an "Audio Revelation", so he took the next step, turning his experience into a "Fremer Rule": "If the Wilson Maxx requires 1,000 WPC, then ALL speakers also require the same enormous amount of power." Fremer's Rule is DOA, as conclusively demonstrated above.
However, Fremer's experiences with the Wilson Maxx do have some value. Despite his own sanguine conclusions, Fremer's experiences, in actuality, are a warning sign of the unspoken sonic problems with the Maxx Series (which I've heard myself). In fact- Every speaker I've heard that requires "mega-power" to sound their best has had inherent, and noticeable, sonic weaknesses (a relatively "mechanical" and predictable sound, especially at lower volume levels). It's also very important to note that they almost always need to be played at higher than natural volume levels to sound "alive" (which is the critical listening test that anyone can make on their own).
The conclusion I draw is obvious: Power hungry speakers are almost always poorly engineered and impractical, even if they have some desirable sonic strengths. Worse, they require "mega" amplifiers, which have the same sonic weaknesses, compounding the problems. They are a "dead-end" for audiophiles, and should usually be avoided, especially considering all the speakers that don't have these same demanding power requirements.
This brings us to the next important issue.
Michael Fremer concludes his review of the Musical Fidelity Titan amplifier with these sentences, with my bold:
"There need be no tradeoff between delicacy...and power, though some audiophiles insist that that's unavoidable, based mostly on conjecture and/or conventional wisdom."
"For reasons I can't explain, a high-powered amplifier loafing along sounds...more musically involved and involving, than a low-powered one..."
"...the Titan's combination of smooth refinement, aggressive grip, and silky transparency effectively bridges the gap between the sounds of tube and solid state."
Michael Fremer is the latest in a long line of reviewers (including J. Gordon Holt and Harry Pearson) to proclaim that he has heard an amplifier (usually solid-state), or a preamplifier, that finally "bridges the gap" between tubes and transistors. Everyone of them was proven wrong in the past, and so will Fremer.
However, Fremer even goes further, by then claiming that high-power amplifiers have absolutely no sonic disadvantages, at any volume level, compared to low-power amps. Fremer even uses the completely meaningless "more musically involving" expression as his "description" of their sonic differences at low volume levels. (This is the audiophile equivalent of Samuel Johnson's famous quote: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.") Once again, Fremer couldn't be more wrong...
I can state this with near certainty, because even though I've never heard the Titan, it is a fact that no transistor amplifier, using current technology, and with that much power (and thus with unavoidable "size" and ultra-complexity), can equal any good tube amplifier in their unique sonic strengths, and especially the finest single-ended-triode (SET) models (with their highly contrasting ultra-short signal paths and their ultra-simple circuitry). There's a scientific reason for this.
The laws of physics*, on a micro-level, have always precluded this "bridging the gap" from happening, and ignoring those laws, along with hoping and wishing, and/or spending huge amounts of money, won't change that unfortunate reality. If this weren't so, tube amplifiers for the home would have disappeared 40 years ago. Instead, despite their greater cost and impracticality, tube amps are still popular with the most serious audiophiles and/or music lovers , and this will continue until there is a true technological breakthrough in transistors or humans experience an evolutionary and collective hearing loss (of ultra-soft sounds).
*Newton's Third Law of Thermodynamics (creation of heat, which means friction) and Newton's Third Law of Motion (action/reaction).
As for low-powered amplifiers...
To begin with, Fremer's own words provide indisputable proof of his inconsistency. How? He dismisses the common audiophile claim, that low-power (simple-circuit) amps have some sonic advantages, because the only inferred evidence are listening results. To Fremer, this is only "conjecture". Yet, Fremer claims that analog has sonic advantages compared to digital, while offering only actual listening results as his evidence. In short, Fremer himself has used, for decades, the same exact listening experiences as his evidence, which he now rejects, as only "conjecture", when others use it.
Now it's time for specifics...
Here is just one practical example of the complete inconsistency of Fremer's claim (and another example of his inconsistency):
Consider now the length (and the numerous "intersections") of the signal-path inside the Titan, with almost all of it on different circuit boards. Next, compare this long, complex "trip" to what happens in a well-designed SET amplifier: The signal-path in the SET is usually only a few inches long, goes through only high-quality cables, which are then hard-wired, point to point.
So, we have a reviewer (Fremer) who publicly claims to hear subtle differences between expensive, high-quality, exterior signal cables, but who now doesn't hear any sonic problems when that exact same signal travels through a long and narrow trace, on multiple circuit boards, that are connected together with a variety of different cables. Does Fremer's conflicting claims make even the slightest sense?
Obviously not, but this is what tends to happen when a reviewer's first priority is "to sell" audio components, no matter how expensive (and complicated) they are. Accordingly, I strongly advise all serious audiophiles and music lovers to completely ignore this latest display of gross hyperbole and audio pornography.
If and when a transistor design, and especially one with high-power, actually does provide the unique strengths of tube designs (and particularly the best SET models), you will learn about it from a true "tube lover". This is, by definition, someone who actually hears and appreciates what only the finest tube electronics can accomplish. Sadly, Michael Fremer has now proven, definitively, that he is not part of this group.
The Musical Fidelity Titan sells for $ 30,000. It is, by far, the most expensive amplifier they have ever made, though other audio manufacturers have amps which are even more expensive. From my personal perspective, I've never heard any amplifier, above $ 12,000, that sounded better, overall, than the best amps that sold for less money. From my "associates" perspective, the price goes up to around $ 20,000. We all agree on this though: Other than the extra power and/or drive capability, there is no sonic advantage spending "crazy money" on ultra-expensive power amplifiers.
Fremer's Titan review can be paraphrased to this simple "commercial message": If you spend $ 30,000 on the Titan, you will receive "mega power", which will provide you with a "sense of scale" you can't experience with any lower-power amplifiers. Further, you will also hear all the benefits, and even more, that tube amplifiers can deliver. Yes readers, the Titan has no noticeable sonic and/or practical weaknesses (at least until the Titan II replaces it).
Unfortunately, Fremer's Titan "message" (and review) is a Fantasy. To Fremer, the Titan appears ("between the lines") to be the first "perfect" entity in the history of the world, let alone audio. Its only downside is the price.
However, my own "message" is in stark contrast to that conveyed by Fremer. Furthermore, it's based on many thousands of auditions and countless discussions with the most serious audiophiles I've ever known. It's also very simple:
There is a "cost" for everything. If you want a lot of "power", there will be an unavoidable cost in "quality". The same is true if you want an amplifier that can drive any speaker. And, if you want the highest possible sound quality, there will always be a cost in both power and drive capability. Finally, while money can buy many nice things in this world, it can't buy an amplifier with no trade-offs. While I realize that some readers will not accept that (somewhat depressing) reality, the "grown-ups" will.
Addendum- For a much greater in-depth discussion of the many different amplifier designs, and their respective strengths and weaknesses, you may want to read my very lengthy essay/review of the Coincident Frankenstein M300B SET Amplifier.
Now on to Sam Tellig...
The issues I have with Tellig go far beyond those I have with Fremer. In fact, Tellig's column (actually just one paragraph, and two "throw away" lines) should permanently terminate any relationship this man has in the audiophile community. This judgment will be true no matter what your "audio perspective" is; objective, subjective, neither or something in between.
Just below is, unquestionably, the most important "sentence" Tellig has ever written (Page 27, right column). As I wrote above, it actually shocked me. In Tellig's own words (with my bold and emphasis):
"Hear my hi-fi heresy...I prefer the sound of CDs, overall, to...LPs (78s were a much better format)"
Sam Tellig has now stated, in public, that he believes that 78s are superior ("much better") to LPs. This claim is a complete travesty. It far transcends common ignorance, "eccentricity" and matters of "taste". Tellig has now joined the bizarre realm of the believers in a "flat earth", "bleeding" and witchcraft.
Sometimes things are real simple...
LPs are far superior to 78s. This is not an "opinion". It is an indisputable fact. LPs are much cleaner, have far greater bandwidth and dynamic range, a much more accurate and reliable pitch* and their sound-floor is literally magnitudes lower. 78s do not have even one sonic advantage, despite the obvious fact that, if everything were equal, 78 RPM would (potentially) be sonically superior to 33 RPM (and so would 34 RPM).
The deadly problem for 78s is that much more than just RPM changed with the development of 33 RPM. In fact, the differences between these two formats are so enormous, I'm not even able to make a relevant audio comparison. By this I mean that the worst audio component I've ever heard, whatever that was, did relatively better than 78s generally do compared to LPs. I can't be more clear than that.
*"78s" can be anything between 60 to 100 RPM!
LPs are still being made today (and are even having somewhat of a comeback), while 78s stopped being made around 50 years ago. That history is not an accident. I know numerous people who prefer LPs to CDs, but Tellig was the first person I know of who prefers the sound of 78s to LPs. I've even met a number of 78 enthusiasts when I owned my audio store, but they enjoyed the routine, the hunt, equipment and nostalgia of 78s. None of them ever claimed that 78s had a superiority in fidelity. Further, I want to make it clear that I am, in no manner, being critical of 78 collectors and enthusiasts, especially considering that some 78s have never been reissued.
In truth, 78s would have been technically obsolete** even if LPs did not have the added practical advantages of: their extra length, stereo and being unbreakable. LPs were the first popular "high-fidelity" medium. It took LPs, and open-reel tapes, to justify the term "hi-fi" to both audio enthusiasts and everyone else. FM, especially after stereo became common, completed the task.
This isn't just regurgitated "historical dogma" on my part. I'm old enough to have heard many 78s in my life. First as a young child, when they were common, then on my family's "record player" as a teenager, and finally as a curious audiophile. I was fortunate to own a turntable, the Thorens TD-126, which could play 78s. I also heard them with some vintage tube preamplifiers with the correct 78 rpm equalization. At no time did the sound ever begin to approach even the worst LPs that I had heard back then.
**The Exceptions- Since 78s were, in the main, a direct-to-disc format, it is obvious that no reissue of them can sound as good, assuming the original 78 is in good shape and played on a good system. In this instance, the 78 will be the actual "source", so optimizing this source will always be as good as it gets. Examples- many original jazz (Charlie Parker) and chamber works, but optimizing this potential will be really difficult at this time.
Further- For an alternative viewpoint of 78s, see The Lost Era of High-End Audio.
Tellig also made his opinion clear concerning CDs versus SACDs. In Tellig's own words (with my bold):
"I may prefer the sound of "Red Book" CD, properly done, to SACD, which I find a little too smooth to be true."
I have no direct experience comparing CDs with SACDs, but I have enough rudimentary knowledge about digital sources to know that it is impossible, everything being equal, for a SACD to be sonically inferior to a CD. Digital audio comes down to sheer numbers to recreate the original analog (music) signal, which means it's completely illogical to state that more (SACD) "data points"* (the numbers) can be less accurate and complete than fewer (CD) "data points".
If there is going to be any noticeable sonic difference, it must favor the SACD. If someone "prefers" the CD, then that person simply prefers low-fi, period (which is indicated by Tellig's asinine comment that a component can be "too smooth").
*Wikipedia- "... A stereo SACD recording can stream data at an uncompressed rate of 5.6 Mbps; four times the rate for Red Book CD stereo audio... Disc capacity- CD- 700 MB SACD- 7.95 GB"
That's just the objective, indisputable and logical facts laid out, but for actual personal experience, I defer to my highly experienced associate, who has this to say about CD versus SACD (with my bold):
"Until I heard a well recorded SACD on a great SACD player, SACD represented an exceedingly small refinement over Redbook. I did not comprehend the excitement surrounding the new medium. I still could not enjoy listening to Orchestral or any complex music played by acoustic instruments. SACD played back on mediocre players (which definitely includes the MacIntosh 201, a dreadful unit that Tellig is enamored with), did not alter this situation.
It was only when I experienced the Krell Standard, and then moved up to the Esoteric P05/D05 separates, did the absolute superiority of SACD become apparent. Enjoyment of every type of music was now the norm. There is no greater compliment that can be paid to an audio component than to have it bring joy wherein it did not previously exist.
In every instance, the SACD version played back on the Esoterics sounded superior on every level. To wit, more extension at both frequency extremes, wider dynamic gradations, more expansive soundstage, enhanced purity and transparency and far greater rendering of harmonics. Transients were more precisely captured with less slurring and greater intensity. Ambient clues were more easily discernible.
The differences ranged from subtle but observable to dramatic. (3 pairs of ears were involved in most listening sessions, with results being unanimous). I have yet to hear a CD sound more natural (or accurate - for those who erroneously believe that accuracy denotes an analytic, sterile sound to be eschewed in favor of that ubiquitous concept of musical, which has become the popular buzz word for pleasant. Accurate is synonymous with musicality, since it represents the faithful reproduction of the information fed to it without alteration).
This happens to represent one of those times in human experience where theory and practice converge. Not only does SACD offer significantly greater technical capability, this time, it sounds better as well."
So, this is what I advise concerning both of the above issues...
Since it is very difficult to hear 78s at this time, I would get a CD reissue of some original 78. I would suggest an orchestral work if possible. Then compare this to a LP with the same music, choosing one you're familiar with that has good sound. If you don't have a turntable, then get a SACD reissue of that same LP, since Tellig believes it will be even more compromised. Now make your own comparison, while never forgetting, with each switch, that Sam Tellig believes that the 78 CD is "much better" than the LP (or SACD). The ultimate results of this comparison are inevitable...
The sonic differences, once directly experienced, will be so fundamental that no thinking audiophile will ever again give Sam Tellig even the slightest credibility to anything he thinks about audio. Far worse, I believe that virtually everything Sam Tellig has ever written about audio is now suspect and useless, if not actually damaging and counterproductive.
Addendum- For an illustrative, but hardly exhaustive, list of CD/SACD comparisons, my associate provided the following, all of which can be easily purchased for a reasonable price:
RCA Living Stereo (SACD/CD Hybrids)-
Brahms + Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos
Strauss Symphony Domestica
Beethoven, Mendelssohn Violin Concertos
Saint-Saens Organ Symphony
It's too bad that Tellig didn't reveal his preference for 78s 20 years ago. The audiophile community would have immediately realized that Tellig was a "quack" and moved on. Well, we know now (with his SACD musings being a "quack confirmation"). I consider Tellig's June 2009 column to be a late (and unintentional) "public warning", in which he effectively begs his readers to "ignore him". Inadvertent or not, I now agree with Tellig, and so should you.
What you are about to read is a lengthy and thorough criticism of the "review" of the WATT/Puppy 5 in the November 1995 issue of Stereophile. This critique was originally written in early 1996 for the benefit of (my then) customers and friends. It was later posted on this website in 1999, within the essay titled: The Audio Press.
It was this "review" that finally broke my complacency. I felt I had to respond to the disturbing behavior within the "underground audio press", which was becoming more obvious every year, even if I was alone in doing so. I had no idea at that time that I would end up with my own website and have the whole world as a potential readership. Neither did they.
"What is wrong with "High-end Audio" today?" is both a question and an observation that is now made so often that it has become a cliché within the audio world. In my opinion, the common denominator is the audio press, with Stereophile in the dominating position.
The problems with the audio press, and Stereophile in particular, are epitomized in a (then) recent review of the Wilson WATT & Puppy 5 (WP5) in their November, 1995 issue. The "reviewer" was: Wes Phillips. I chose the WP5 because it's well known in its many iterations by a large percentage of audiophiles. This essay is a critique of that review.
First, some personal background. I've heard the WP5 once, for 5 or 6 hours, but not in my own system. I have also heard all the former WATT combinations, and I lived with the WATT II for 7 years. I was even a WATT dealer from 1988-90. The review is a full 9 pages, including technical graphs, color pictures of both the speakers and David Wilson, and an interview with Wilson. Mr. Phillips received the speakers in January, 1995. This is a "no excuse" review.
The start or "lead" of the review could not be more favorable. The WP5s are described as "avatars" in the second sentence. Since an avatar, by definition, is a divine being, this implies perfection. This could be excused as simple hyperbole or just over enthusiasm, except for the last two sentences in the "lead";
"Is it the perfect loudspeaker? (Do you really think I'm going to answer that in my 'lead'?)". Yes, Wes Phillips actually thinks some readers might seriously believe that the WATT could be "the perfect loudspeaker", and can't wait until the end to find out if they are.
While all the implications of the creation and marketing of "the perfect loudspeaker" are beyond my capabilities, a few elementary questions are unavoidable;
If a speaker is perfect, doesn't that mean that all its parts (drivers, crossover, cabinet, internal wiring etc.) must also be perfect? Next, how would you know if a speaker is "perfect"? Isn't there universal agreement that all the preceding components, let alone the software and the listening room, are very imperfect?
What caused Wes Phillips to feel particularly qualified and gifted to make this unprecedented judgment and pronouncement? Remember, the WP5s had already been in numerous homes, showrooms, and even other reviewers' listening rooms, for months prior to this 'review'.
Then there are the commercial and practical considerations of the "perfect loudspeaker". Why would Wilson Audio market a perfect product when they still had imperfect products that sold for more than 4 and 8 times the price of the "perfect" one?
Maybe, one day, someone will create the "perfect loudspeaker", but I doubt any living person will ever have the experience of listening to what would be a scientific masterpiece or view its creator(s) receiving the Nobel Prize on CNN.
One could go on, but the point is obvious; any serious suggestion that a contemporary speaker could be "perfect" is beyond just being ridiculous and is also an insult to both the readers and all the other speaker manufacturers.
As to the particulars; Mr. Phillips, at first, appears to be very impressed with the performance of the WP5:
The soundstage was "staggering"; the speakers had "authority"; had "dynamics"; revealed "everything"; "most wire is slower and MUCH more colored than these speakers"; "a dynamic speaker as quick as any electrostatic I've heard."; and as for the bass, "I have never heard more of the subtle performance details".
However, "one aspect of the WP5's performance left me unsatisfied.", Mr. Phillips notes on the seventh and last page of the review (the other two pages are graphs).
This "aspect" is described in the most ambiguous and vague manner possible; the speakers "never precisely engaged me." This description is, of course, only Mr. Phillips' personal reaction to the sound, rather than a description and characterization of the actual "aspect" or sonic problem itself, and thus is impossible to question, challenge, dispute or even verify.
To paraphrase Mr. Phillips;
Everything is there, but yet, something is missing, and that something that is missing is the cause of my not being engaged, but I am not able to describe what is missing. Even Wes Phillips himself recognizes how illogical and nonsensical this all sounds;
"Struggle as I will, I can't reconcile this paradox".
The review, though, ends on a positive note. Mr. Phillips (and his spouse), after a five week, 2,000 mile journey from Brooklyn to Santa Fe, New Mexico (Stereophile's editorial offices), setup the system which included the WP5s and put on a CD; " 2,000 miles and two timezones disappeared - we were home."
Mr. Phillips' final conclusion; "a speaker that can do that is probably worth $15,000."
Faster than an electrostatic...
Before reflecting on the complete 'review', I must comment on the Wes Phillips' comparisons of the WP5s capabilities to (unnamed of course) electrostatics and wire. I am unaware of any speaker-driver manufacturer that claims that their 7-inch woofer can start and stop as "quick" as a well engineered electrostatic, such as the Martin-Logan or Sound Labs, and this may be one audio parameter that can be measured. It was very disappointing, but not surprising, that not one electrostatic manufacturer has ever challenged this observation.
More accurate than a (short) wire...
Mr. Phillips' remarks about wire have even less validity. In fact, they are illogical and, by definition, impossible. Wes Phillips asserts that most wire (such as a 1 meter interconnect) is less accurate than the WP5. How can this be possible when you consider that the WP5 has a VAST amount of its own internal wire!?
First from the binding posts to the crossover; then from the crossover to the drivers; then within the crossover's inductor (100's of feet); and within the drivers' voice coils (dozens of feet). In addition to all of this you must add all the extra distortions of the speaker drivers, the capacitors, the resistors and the cabinet, and yet, the reviewer still insists the signal leaving the WP5 is faster and "much less colored" than a simple "wire".
This absurd claim, not capable of proof, AND not even questioned by the editor (John Atkinson), stands apart from any audio assertion I am familiar with, and I ask the reader to seriously meditate on it, for it exemplifies the review(er).
In the end, we have a pair of $15,000 (eventually $ 20,000) loudspeakers receiving a nine page review, plus the front cover, with not even one specific, descriptive criticism of its sonic capabilities that can be heard and verified by others (the readers).
This is despite the fact that Mr. Phillips had the speakers for more than five months and in two separate locations; had a variety of sources and amplification; had numerous communications concerning the speakers, some of which must have included other Stereophile reviewers and editors; had who knows how many of his audiophile friends hear it at either location; and had other speakers to compare it with.
Is there value?...
The retail cost of the speakers was never once questioned. The WATTs original cost was $4,400. They still have only two drivers and the exact same enclosure. With the new drivers, stock, retailing for less than $400, what are you really getting for the extra $9,600? Does a pair of crossovers and cabinets etc. cost all that much?
Is it standard industry practice for a consumer to pay 25 times more for a finished loudspeaker than the retail price of the raw drivers that are used within that speaker?
There is also no mention, let alone discussion, of any competing speakers. Are the WP5s the only speaker system in the (then) $15,000 range? What about less expensive speakers? Do the WP5s outperform all of them?
Wes Phillips doesn't even mention the name of the speakers that do "engage" him (Metaphor 2s?). Absolutely no comparisons are made, not even to Stereophile's own "Recommended Speakers", as if the readers only choice is the WP5s or keeping what they have.
The final comment of the review, while touching, is much too personal and totally irrelevant to potential purchasers. If anything, the less accurate the speaker, the more probable it will sound just the same (bad) in its new "home".
One must wonder why, and for whom, this 'review' was even written? Who does it serve? It certainly doesn't serve the reader. How could it, with no comparisons, no justification of the price, and not even one criticism of its sound?
Wes Phillips' feelings about any product, while very important, are only justified and relevant after the product's actual inherent qualities are first described. The obvious, fundamental reality that the WP5 is an imperfect product, amongst other imperfect products, each offering different strengths and weaknesses, is not even hinted at.
Mr. Phillips seems to have forgotten or ignored an audio reviewer's primary responsibility; that is to assure that the reviewed components:
This is especially true with a speaker of "legendary status" (also his own words!). Unfortunately, this type of 'review' and 'reviewer' is now very common in Stereophile and most of the other audio magazines. Audiophiles, novices and veterans alike, are being increasingly turned off by this lack of candor, objectivity, continuity, competency and completeness.
They might expect this from most dealers and manufacturers who have money at stake, but when the magazines they buy to supposedly help them make a wise purchase end up compounding the problem, can it really be surprising that the consumer will eventually say; "Et Tu. Brutus", and just give up.
The source of the problem is obvious; lust for advertising. However, it isn't the advertisers that are writing the 'reviews', and not every magazine that accepts advertising has 'reviews' of products that are indistinguishable from ad copy.
The ultimate responsibility for this 'WP5 review', and others that are similar, is Stereophile's alone. They made a choice of who they really want to serve, and it isn't their readers, who must now become extremely skeptical of not only the advertising, but even the 'reviews' of those advertised products, because the two have become virtually the same. (Could even Stereo Review have flattered the WP5 as much as Wes Phillips and Stereophile?)
The early days of Stereophile, with the founder's thorough and candid reporting, are now gone forever. Sure, some unavoidable mistakes and poor judgments were made, but no one ever felt it was deliberate and to enrich some other undeserving party. Looking back, it appears that there may be an inverse relationship between advertising/regular delivery and relevant/trustworthy content.
Wes Phillips WATT/PUPPY 5 Review - Stereophile November 1995
The first article I ever wrote criticizing the audio press was "inspired" by the (now late) Wes Phillips "review" of the WATT/Puppy 5 (WP5), in the November 1995 issue of Stereophile. At that time, 1996, I simply handed it to my customers (I owned an audio store back then). Three years later, I posted that same article on this website: THE WATT/PUPPY 5 'REVIEW'-NOVEMBER 1995. It's obviously important to know why this "review" upset me so much.
The Phillips WP5 review was a full 9 pages. It included technical graphs, color pictures of both the speakers and David Wilson, and it even had an interview with Wilson. Phillips received the speakers in January, 1995. This was a "no excuse" review. The Bottom Line- In the entire WP5 review, Phillips refused to mention even one specific criticism of the WP5. He even gratuitously used the word "perfect" ("Is it the perfect loudspeaker?"). And there was not even one comparison of the WP5 with another speaker.
Sadly, this sickening display is only half the story. It actually gets worse, much worse, in the second half of this saga...
Almost 12 years go by, bringing us to the June 2007 issue of Stereophile. This time, our "trusted audio friend", Wes Phillips, reviews the WATT/Puppy 8 (WP8) (both of these "reviews" are posted on the Stereophile website, see links below). It's another rave of course, and Phillips even manages to use the word "perfect" again, three times (!) actually.
But now comes the "kicker". In his glowing WP8 review, Phillips finally describes all the sonic problems he heard with the WP5 back in 1995, but had refused to share with his readers at the time. Here are Phillips own words from his WP8 review (my bold)...
"...the longer I stayed away from them (the WP5), the worse they got-in my mind, anyway... Ultimately, however, I decided the Puppy (5) just wasn't my cup of tea... The WP8 had less of the signature WP sound... I'd characterize that signature sound as...one of precision, if perhaps at the expense of ultimate coherence... earlier W/Ps could 'disappear' like few competitors, but I was always somewhat aware of there being three 'bands' of sound, if you will: a detailed but perhaps overly crisp top end; a neutral, extremely fast midrange; and an extended but somewhat discontinuous bass."
Maybe Phillips felt these belated disclosures will now change the historical record, but it won't. Phillips was apparently too terrified to mention these serious criticisms when they actually mattered, from 1995 to 2000 (when the WP5 was discontinued). Instead, until now, these criticisms only existed in his personal fantasy world, where Phillips is still the fearless audio critic and communicator. In reality though, Wes Phillips was a common fraud who blatantly betrayed his own trusting (and paying) readers.
To epitomize the nauseating pathology of the original review, never forget what Phillips actually claimed about the WP5, at the time: "Most wire is slower and MUCH more colored than these speakers". These are the same ("Avatars!") speakers Phillips later crapped on as soon as it was in the interest of the manufacturer, Stereophile and ultimately Phillips himself.
Finally, the Secret Rules of Audio Reviewing have again proven to be sadly predictive. Here is Secret Rule #2:
Delay acknowledging any serious problems with a "protected" component until you give another rave review to the "updated" model which replaces it and "corrects" the problems.
Wes Phillips WATT/PUPPY 5 Review - Stereophile November 1995
Wes Phillips WATT/PUPPY 8 Review - Stereophile June 2007
The Last Chapter...
Charles Hansen, of Ayre Acoustics, died on November 28, 2017. I barely remember Hansen when he was with Avalon Speakers decades ago. I was not one of their dealers and we never formally met. In more recent times, specifically since 2007, Hansen has had a strong animus towards this website, and myself personally, due to a comparison review that I edited and posted (though I did NOT participate or otherwise contribute to), in which an Ayre digital component had performed poorly.
Hansen never forgave me for posting that article and has attacked me continuously, in personal terms, since then. I replied directly to Hansen's first attack in 2007, but I have simply ignored every one of his many other personal attacks over the last 10 years. I, and many other audiophiles, found those posts repulsive, malignant and ignorant, and I did not want to dignify any of them by a response.
However, this status changed in the fall of 2017. On September 18 to be exact, Hansen attacked me personally once again, but this time I responded to him for the first time in 10 years, and with no restraints. I have no regrets concerning my final correspondence with Charles Hansen, despite its ugliness. I would have done exactly the same even if I had known that Hansen's death was imminent. Why? Because I feel that any public letter, which maliciously and unfairly abuses someone, and even further claims that some deliberately misleading anecdotes are actual historical facts, should be challenged, and not be simply excused or ignored. In the final analysis, a person's imminent death doesn't grant that person some once-in-a-lifetime license to write whatever they please, and without any risk of consequences.
However, this short article is not concerned with the brief and sad history of Charles Hansen and myself. It is instead concerned with a larger and much more important perspective...
Charles Hansen's final posts, written during the last month of his life, were different, in kind, than any of his previous posts. In fact, looking back now, it would not come as a surprise to discover that Hansen was aware of his imminent death, because these final posts were amazingly direct, frank and naked. They were completely fearless, disclosing thoughts and opinions, previously private, which could even make potential enemies out of former audio friends. So this profound change in Charles Hansen's level of restraint and inhibition is the actual reason I posted this article and the related links below.
Here are some of the examples of Charles Hansen's final thoughts on various audio topics, unedited, in italics, with my bold. They were written in direct response to an earlier post from John Atkinson, the editor of Stereophile:
1. Stereophile and Mark Levinson Components:
When you (John Atkinson) only give Levinson gear to Larry Greenhill for review because you know in advance that he will do nothing but heap praise upon it, does that help or hurt the high end?
Levinson came out with the $4000 No.38 preamp, which used the same cheap op-amps as the $700 Adcom of the day...(and) with a really stupid (and really cheap) volume control...that sounded terrible...Robert Harley gave it a decidedly mediocre review in August 1994...an embarrassed Levinson had to redesign it as the "S" version...in July 1995, you gave it a rave review. Your rave is still up on the Stereophile website, but Harley's dismissal of the original version is MIA...Is that deliberate or accidental?...And did your rush to do damage control on behalf of Levinson help or hurt the high-end industry?
All of the 30 seres (sic) products were a large step backwards - except for the digital products, which had never existed in the 20 series. But not according Larry Greenhill who was duly assigned to review the later Levinson products and never met one he didn't fall in love with. Did Stereophile help or hurt the high-end industry with this type of coverage of the Levinson 30 (and later) series?
2. John Atkinson's UK Bias:
I can't imagine that most of your readers haven't noticed your bias for UK (or UK-designed) products.
3. "MF's" (Michael Fremer's) Bias for:
a) The more expensive the product, the better it must be.
b) Wilson loudspeakers are the best on the planet, presumably because they play really loud, have super spectacular bass thump created by the +10dB bump they all exhibit at 70Hz, and are ungodly expensive (see (a) above).
c) Turntables that follow the exact design principles of his current favorite super-expensive turntable that nobody else has ever heard, as they are so expensive that they aren't even in dealer's showrooms.
d) Hyper-detailed phono cartridges that are spectacular for one song, fatiguing to listen to in the long term.
e) Anything that he currently "owns". It's especially obvious when he concedes that something sounds pretty much as good as what he owns, but since the retail price is much higher for what he owns (or has on long-term loan), he's going to stick with it. (Any normal person would sell the expensive product, buy the cheaper product and buy music with the savings. But MF must either enjoy the prestige of the "Rolex factor" or be bound by accommodation purchase agreements, or afraid to piss off the guys who gave him the long-term loans.
Is that good or bad for the high-end industry?
4. Herb Reichert:
I can say that Herb listens to a HIGHLY colored system that is likely to only sound good with other components that are also HIGHLY colored in complementary ways. After reading that review I couldn't help feeling that it said more about Herb and his idiosyncrasies than it did about the amplifier. (LTA ZOTL40 power amp)
5. United States Audio Press:
...(what) the whole world is demanding today, more than anything else is for people to stand up and tell the truth. Unfortunately for high-end audio, it seems to me that less and less of that comes from the US print press...
All of these above direct quotes of Charles Hansen are included in the Link #1, which I recommend reading in full. Link # 2 was an earlier post by Hansen and not as comprehensive, but it still proves that his later post wasn't a "one-off". In fact, in this earlier post he describes current Stereophile content as "trite pablum".
Link #3 was my last reply to Charles Hansen (and John Atkinson), after they both personally attacked me even though the original poster's topic was simply an innocent enquiry about my absence this last summer. Hansen's gratuitous personal attack is a sobering reminder that it's possible for even the most rational person to become unhinged when consumed with blind hatred.
I will retain this article and Hansen's two complete posts as well. Charles Hansen's final thoughts, posted in public, are informative and important statements concerning contemporary audio journalism, and they will not pass away with him.
There is a recent thread in Critic's Corner which discusses the above article. Below is a partial sample of a post by one member (in italics), which I felt should not be ignored:
Posted by jamesgarvin (A) on February 7, 2018 at 11:12:37
In Reply to: Not sure what you mean. posted by Rick W on February 6, 2018 at 09:23:48:
"...(Arthur) Salvatore...cites (Charles) Hansen's criticism of Stereophile, without mentioning that Hansen essentially did the same thing Salvatore accuses (Wes) Philips (sic) of doing - which is formulating an opinion and then keeping quiet while the shortcoming exists. I just find it ironic that Salvatore uses a source (Hansen) to support his argument when Hansen basically did the same thing as the target (Stereophile and Philips) of Salvatore's arrows.
The irony is with respect to Salvatore is that he claims folks like (Wes) Philips (sic) kept quite (sic) regarding their issues with a product due to commerce, but then cites as support for criticizing Stereophile a manufacturer who did the very same thing. I hope Salvatore is not the only person who fails to see the irony."
My Response to James Garvin's Post:
James Garvin is a long time and dedicated defender of John Atkinson and Stereophile on Audio Asylum. In this post, Garvin actually equates the actions of Wes Phillips and Charles Hansen, both of whom are now dead. This latest "argument" (actually a distraction) completely ignores the historical facts, as usual for Stereophile defenders, which I will now do my best to rectify.
Wes Phillips was employed by Stereophile as an audio journalist, and he was supposed to work exclusively on behalf of his readers. That was his responsibility. Phillip's deliberate deception, and lack of disclosure, within his WATT/Puppy 5 "review", was a blatant betrayal of those same readers. In stark contrast...
Charles Hansen was an audio engineer/designer employed by Ayre Acoustics, which is an audio component manufacturer. Hansen had no public duty or responsibility to disclose his true critical thoughts about Stereophile, its reviewers, reviews and audio journalism in general. To do so could have created mutual animosity and compromised Ayre's sales and even its viability.
There can be no "irony", because "keeping quiet" for Wes Phillips was a serious betrayal to those who depended on him, which is the worst thing you can do in professional life, while "keeping quiet" for Charles Hansen was necessary for sheer economic survival. In fact, one could confidently argue that Wes Phillips would have "kept quiet" about the WP5's faults until he retired or died. He was only forced by new circumstances to disclose these faults and "come clean". Why? Phillips had to criticize the WP5 (in public) or else he couldn't explain why/how the WP5's replacement model, the WP8, was an improvement worthy of purchase. Meanwhile, Charles Hansen had no compelling reason, other than satisfying his conscience, to open up at the end of his life.
To equate these two men's respective actions, in any manner, is an insult to both Charles Hansen and the concept, and the critical importance, of journalistic responsibility, which Wes Phillips disgraced in his WATT/Puppy 5 "review" and John Atkinson (as Editor) enabled and fully countenanced. The bottom line is simple: Charles Hansen, in what turned out to be his proverbial "deathbed confession", finally disclosed his highly critical thoughts about Stereophile, its reviewers and audio journalism in general. Any other irrelevant "side issue", designed only to qualify this important fact, is a distraction, period.
Finally, to answer the related question: Is it "ironic" that Charles Hansen, of all people, ended up confirming my negative opinion of Stereophile? Yes, I believe it is, but any irony has nothing to do with Wes Phillips, whose treacherous actions have earned him a well deserved membership in "The Audio Journalists Hall of Shame".
James Garvin's Complete Post
Let's now take a closer look at the "Second Excuse": There are more components available now than ever before. Doesn't that mean that more components should be in "Class A"?
COMPARISON OF AVAILABLE COMPONENTS WITH COMPONENTS MAKING "CLASS A"
It is obvious that John Atkinson has discarded the original editorial policy of designating only a very few (2 to 4) components in each "Class A" component category. However...
Can Atkinson even state that the total number of "Class A" components is at least consistent with the total number of components available? In other words, has the % of components making "Class A" been consistent over time, which is the absolute minimum standard of discrimination, or has that also changed?
Fortunately, we can check this all out by using the (now defunct) periodical Audio's "Annual Equipment Directory" issues. (Unfortunately, the 1971 Equipment Directory was unavailable.) And, after a lot of counting...
AUDIO ANNUAL DIRECTORY
# IN "CLASS-A"
% IN "CLASS-A"
IMPORTANT CLARIFICATION: Stereophile changed their original policy of "recognizing components from all companies" to "only recognizing components from those companies with established markets". (My paraphrasing.)
This change of policy, made by John Atkinson, occurred in the early 1990's and it means that a large number of the "available components" that were counted above, in both 1992 and 1999, were effectively disqualified from Stereophile's Recommendations. They might as well have not existed. Accordingly, the percentages you will see above and below are correspondingly prejudiced in John Atkinson's favor.
ANALYSIS OF COMPARISONS
1985/1992: These figures are easy to understand. There was a 78% increase in the total number of "available components" from 1985 to 1992 (1871 to 3331), but there was a 233% increase in "Class A Recommendations" (9 to 30). That is quite a contrast.
The all important % went from .48 to .90, which is almost double.
For a different perspective; 1 out of 208 components made "Class A" in 1985, but 1 out of 111 components made "Class A" in 1992.
The End Result: A component had almost double the chance of making "Class A" by 1992, in comparison with 1985.
But John Atkinson was just getting started...
1985/2000: This covers the entire "John Atkinson Era". What happened during this period?
There were 182% more components available (1871 to 5274), but there were 1,055% more components in "Class A" (9 to 104).
The vital % went from .48 all the way to 1.97. How did the "odds" change? At the end of the "J. Gordon Holt Era", there were 1 out of every 208 components in "Class A", and after 14 years of the "John Atkinson Era", there is now 1 out of every 51 components in "Class A".
So, in the 14 years since John Atkinson took over:
Let's break these numbers down by component:PREAMPLIFIERS:
THE BOTTOM LINE
John Atkinson-In 14 years (1986-2000)- 1,055% increase of components in Class A (preamps, amps & speakers), currently with 1 out of every 51 components earning this "honor".
THE UNAVOIDABLE QUESTIONS
The above facts, statistics and analysis require some important questions to be asked:
1. Why was J. Gordon Holt's original "Class A Policy" (2 to 4 components per category) discarded?
2. Why did John Atkinson also greatly increase the % of components making "Class A" at the same time, even while he compromised Mr. Holt's standards of inclusion?
3. Why did this all occur only after Mr. Atkinson's arrival, and not during the previous 24 years?
4. Did this unprecedented "Class A" increase benefit Stereophile in any manner?
5. Why have the small, innovative, "hobbyist" manufacturers been ignored since Mr. Atkinson's arrival, and never before that?
A FINAL IMAGE
The Front Cover of Issue November 1987- This was a "Recommended Components Issue". On the cover is a drawing of King Kong on the Empire State Building, along with the exclamation:
"IT'S LONELY AT THE TOP!"
Now there are 50 amplifiers in "Class A". Just imagine 50 King Kongs on the Empire State Building, assuming you can still "see" the building. It is highly doubtful that any of them would feel "lonely".
Yes, it is absurd and ridiculous, but it is Stereophile's own metaphor. They will have to live with it and explain it, if they can. I strongly advise all audiophiles to always keep this bizarre image in their minds if, and when, they are ever tempted to take any of these lists seriously again.
1. Never anger any protected audio industry entity, such as:
A. An important current, or potential, advertiser; including manufacturers, distributors or retailers, or...
B. Any other audio establishment which has a "personal relationship" with you.
2. Delay acknowledging any serious problems with a "protected" component until you give another rave review to the "updated" model which replaces it and "corrects" the problems.
3. Avoid making any direct comparisons with a "protected" component, but if you have to, follow these "Solutions":
A. Compare the component only to older and/or obsolete models, especially from the same manufacturer. (See Rule #2 above).
B. If Solution "A" is not possible, compare the component to "competitors" costing either MUCH more or MUCH less.
C. If both Solutions "A" or "B" are not possible, "neglect" to mention the actual names and model numbers of the rival components that you compare it to in the review.
D. If Solutions "A", "B" or "C" are all not feasible, and you must compare the model to a current, similarly priced (and "protected") competitor that you must name, then you must be:
1. As ambiguous as possible, and you must also...
2. Never describe any problem as "serious" (See Rule #3.E)
3. Never proclaim one model to be clearly superior to the other(s). In short...
4. Both (or all) of the components must be seen as equally desirable and of similar value.
E. Problems or imperfections that aren't obvious (such as no bass below 40 Hz with small speakers), may be described as "serious" (easy to hear) only when using Solutions "A", "B" or "C".
However, any problems described when using Solution "D" must always be "subtle" and "difficult to hear", or even described as an "advancement" if possible.
4. You must never inform readers if an "audiophile" accessory or tweak is also available in a generic form at a fraction of the price that the "protected" manufacturer is charging (Blue Tac and RFI rings etc.).
5. Any and all "transactions" between you and any of the parties mentioned in Rule #1 must always be kept strictly Confidential. Accordingly...
A. You must never divulge the actual price, if any, you paid to "purchase" your reference components or accessories, or any extra costs you paid, if any, to have those same components updated, modified, repaired, replaced etc.
B. You must never divulge any "gifts", "favors" or "perks" that you received from the "protected" audio entities, or those with whom you have a "personal relationship".
6. You must never mention the actual costs, even at retail prices, of the parts that are used to manufacture the component.
7. Further to Rules #4 & #6, you must never state, or even imply, that any component or accessory is "over-priced".
8. The more corrupt your magazine is, the more you shall proclaim your honesty.
9. Magazines shall never divulge the actual percentage of their advertising revenues to their total revenues.
10. OVERRIDE CLAUSE- Some of the preceding rules (#1, #2 & #3) may be ignored only in the event of either a serious (and apparently indefinite) breach of the "personal relationship" between the audio company and reviewer/magazine, and/or the termination, or non-payment, of their advertising contract.
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