I guess I was born into the world of hi-fi. Although my parents had very little interest in recorded or live music, there was a piano in the house, and a well respected aunt taught the instrument and played organ in the local church. But having quickly discovered I lacked the genetic inheritance to play any sort of traditional instrument well, I decided to take up the record player.
From the point of view of both popular music and consumer technologies, 1949 was a good year to arrive on this planet. My childhood ears and brain picked up on enough of the rock’n’roll and skiffle eras to spark an interest, and this quickly turned into a passion as my teenage years coincided with arrival of Britain’s early-‘60s ‘beat groups’ – the Beatles and Stones, of course, but they were just the tip of an extraordinary iceberg of talent that also included Animals, Kinks, and Yardbirds to name but three.
Happily, all these groups were acknowledging their debts to black American artists like bluesmen Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins et al, rock’n’rollers Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and the emerging soul scene from Stax, Atlantic and Tamla Motown, providing new areas for exploration. Dylan and the Beach Boys added to the pop music riches that expanded my musical horizons considerably, partly thanks to good reception of the new pirate radio stations, but mainly through borrowing discs from schoolmates and taping them from a Dansette valve record player onto an Elizabethan reel-to-reel tape recorder. One can hardly accuse home taping of killing music, given the daunting size my collection of LPs and CDs has grown subsequently!
A key problem back then was the records were seriously expensive (an LP cost the equivalent of £30 in today’s money), and my student grant didn’t go far. (One university friend regularly used to blow his grant cheque on a record collection at the beginning of each term, then sell it off disc by disc during the term in order to eat!)
Ironically, I still reckon that the pop, jazz and rock music produced in the 1950s and 1960s was more than a match for the products of the music industry in subsequent decades, in musicianship, originality and often recording quality too. And although the latter was decidedly variable, the simplicity of the process (and the quality of the vinyl itself) meant that the very best examples are rarely equalled today.
Classic mono 1950s LPs from Ella Fitzgerald and Buddy Holly still sit in my ‘frontline library’ today, along with plenty of stuff, both obvious and obscure, from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Favourite discs from bands like the Grateful Dead, Captain Beefheart and Little Feat, and artists like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Ry Cooder are still regularly played today.
The hi-fi bug first bit me in the late-1960s. After an unsuccessful attempt to convert a record player to stereo operation, I got a well paid summer job and spent the proceeds on some secondhand ‘real’ hi-fi – a Thorens TD135 turntable and a Leak Stereo 30 amplifier (first mistake!). I replaced the Leak with a Quad 33/303 combo, and was searching around for some ‘proper’ loudspeakers, with Lowther Acoustas and Tannoy Lancasters on the shortlist, when I had my first real stroke of hi-fi luck. A BBC friend was working alongside one Derek Hughes, whose father had begun making some speakers, so I took a chance on them. They might have been called Hughes speakers at the time, but that was Spencer Hughes, and the speakers he was then building in his garage after work were amongst the very earliest Spendor BC1, a design that’s still justifiably regarded as a classic today.
The BC1 certainly stimulated and inspired my enthusiasm for hi-fi, as well as teaching me plenty, but early examples eventually suffered from driver surround sag, and I found myself collecting a repaired pair of speakers just as Spendor was planning to move from Redhill to Hailsham – quite near my Brighton home. Instead of taking a poorly paid job as a secondary school science teacher at the end of my college course, I decided it would be more interesting to follow my hobby and help produce Spendors instead.
The next stroke of luck came a couple of years later, in the mid-1970s, when my wife spotted a job ad in the paper for a magazineist on the prestigious Hi-Fi News. By chance the magazine was just about to publish an article I’d written a couple of years earlier, which probably helped me win the unlikely post of Deputy Editor. Even that turned out to be much more than I expected, as the Editor – the legendary John Crabbe – had to take the next six months off to get his heart fixed up. Improbably, and somewhat ludicrously, I found myself running the country’s leading hi-fi magazine with no previous magazineistic experience.
I somehow survived, as did the magazine, and learned a lot very quickly indeed, while getting the chance to try out all sort of interesting kit. I still have very fond memories of the stacked (original) Quad Electrostatics and Radford STA25 III I ran at the time time, but even stacked they weren’t ideal partners for the reggae music I was getting into.
The latter half of the 1970s were, as the Chinese might put it, “interesting times” for British hi-fi. Reacting to high inflation in the mid-1970s, a panicky and naive Labour government opened the door to the Japanese multi-nationals and wiped out much of Britain’s indigenous hi-fi industry. Some disappeared (Armstrong, Lustraphone, Ferrograph Whitely); some changed hands (Rogers, Tannoy, Cambridge Audio); only a few survived relatively unscathed (Quad, SME, KEF, B&W). Happily a number of newcomers (Linn, Naim, Rega, Monitor Audio) were then too small and energetic to be seriously affected, and went from strength to strength once the recovery finally got under way.
Britain’s speaker makers had long had international credibility and healthy overseas sales, so were much better able to survive the upheaval. But the arrival of the newcomers – swiftly followed by Meridian, Arcam, Creek etc – with new ideas about sources and amplification quickly led to a revival in British hi-fi.
This period was a genuine watershed. Prior to the mid-1970s, Britain’s hi-fi establishment was in denial at the very idea that turntables or amplifiers could have any serious influence on system sound quality. Measurements had proved it so, and only loudspeakers were believed to make a significant difference.
It was a viewpoint that the new companies – and magazineists like yours truly – completely rejected. Indeed, the alternative view, put forward most vigorously by Linn and Naim, was that the source component was the most important, followed by the amplification, and that fundamentally the speaker did as it was told. Backed up by impressive demonstrations, it was a persuasive perspective, and the rest, as they say, is history. Much British hi-fi had re-invented itself.
Loudspeakers were still important, and unfailingly interesting too, of course, and they still represented the most obvious and gross differences in sound quality but they no longer dominated our perception of the musicality of a hi-fi system.
After a couple of years with Hi-Fi News, I moved to become Editor (and bottle washer) on the then new Hi-Fi Choice. In those days Choice was a small (A5) format magazine/book, exclusively devoted to comparatively reviewing something like 50 competitive components at a time, and published four or five times a year. Because of its format, Choice represented the leading edge of product reviewing. Each project took something like six months, and meant getting involved in planning the test programmes, and working closely with the country’s leading reviewers. It was another steep learning curve, in both the technicalities and politics of reviewing – indeed, I ended up doing the Amplifiers edition myself, because none of the established reviewers at that time acknowledged the amplifier’s contribution to sound quality.
After several years at Choice, I was lured back to Link House to become Publisher of its Audio Group, which included Hi-Fi News and Studio Sound. My Choice boss (the very capable and impressive Felix Dennis) had warned me I wasn’t Publisher material, and was quite correct in his assessment. I spent a couple of years playing at middle management, became thoroughly exasperated by the experience, and decided to go freelance.
A year or two away from hi-fi didn’t do me any harm, especially as everyone was getting over-excited about CD in the second half of the 1980s. I learned, amongst other things, a lot about video technology from a Pro perspective, which came in useful later. As the 1980s starting winding down, a game of Editor’s Chairs began. John Atkinson moved from Hi-Fi News to Stereophile; Steve Harris moved from Hi-Fi Choice to Hi-Fi News. So I returned to Hi-Fi Choice.
This was still the small one-product-at-a-time A5 magazine, but things soon changed, and towards the end of 1987 I found myself sitting on a Boeing 747 heading for Tokyo, starting to compile the Product Directory for Hi-Fi Choice’s first glossy monthly A4 edition (on a laptop with a total memory of 32kB!).
Although I’d enjoyed re-launching Choice as a regular magazine, I was still freelance, and wasn’t prepared to commute to central London to supervise staff, so John Bamford took over the Editor’s chair, and I became a full time reviewer, mostly doing loudspeakers for Choice.
Plenty has happened since then. The first Mac arrived in 1990, changing the way we wrote (though it was still to post copy, now on floppy discs, to the office – e-mail was still some years away). Home cinema came on the scene around the same time (as did some rather bulky mobile phones), so I reviewed TVs for Choice’s sister magazine Home Entertainment through much of the 1990s. I eventually gave up towards the end of the decade when the first plasmas appeared, because those early examples were rubbish and also ludicrously expensive; and of course no magazine wanted to print that!
By the time the century ended, I’d rather lost interest in the AV and multi-channel scene, and wasn’t much impressed by the music available on SACD or DVD-A either. Two channel stereo seems to work very nicely, without making demands that are too severe to accommodate comfortably, and while the prospect of digital audio music with higher-than-CD resolution is tempting in itself, it has been hard to envisage a commercial model that will successfully deliver a sufficient variety of such material to customers.
I’ve therefore stuck firmly to stereo hi-fi during the current decade, and haven’t found myself short of work (rather the reverse). Hi-Fi Choice continues to take up much of my time, but I also regularly contribute to Stereophile, HiFi+ and BAJ.
But the real buzz has been deciding to go with HIFICRITIC Magazine. Although listening and writing is very satisfying, I’ve always enjoyed editing too, and my ideal job combines these disciplines. I therefore needed no second invitation when Martin (Colloms) called me and started talking about his ideas, and the last few years, bringing out each new quarterly edition of HIFICRITIC Magazine, have been hectic, even occasionally frantic, but also enormous fun – hopefully for the readers as well as the Editor.
As ever, the guiding principle is that CRITIC contains the sort of intelligent articles and reviews that Martin and I want to read, and which seem to be difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. Hi-fi has been through massive changes in the past forty years, but in a way it seems to have gone full circle. The mass markets of the 1970s and 1980s are long gone, and in a sense hi-fi has reverted to the sort of enthusiast-led scene that existed back in the 1960s. The people and the brands may have changed, but the attitudes, enthusiasms – and a surprising amount of the music and the hardware – are surprisingly similar.