I apologise: I do not care for writing about myself so this might not turn out to be the most coherent piece of prose that you will ever encounter. It is also the umpteenth biography I have been asked to write recently so I am not exactly overflowing with enthusiasm for the task.
I began my working life with a ten year stint in telecommunications engineering. After not too long, I decided that I couldn’t handle the nine-to-five routine and so, one morning when I was feeling especially full of ennui, I resigned from the world of ‘proper’ employment and moved to London to see if I could find some of those streets paved with Gold.
While working in Soho as a photographer in advertising, a job into which I had fallen more through the grace of God and my girlfriend than good judgement, I wound up, through a circuitous connection, writing reviews for The Flat Response, an infamous, underground hi-fi magazine. Ultimately I exchanged my Mamiya RB67 for a Canon electronic typewriter and joined the magazine’s staff. The title went more mainstream as Hi-Fi Review and I became its editor. With crime-writer, Ian Rankin as my deputy, I set about putting the world to rights.
That was the only job from which I was ever sacked. However, I won my wrongful dismissal case and embarked on what proved to be a successful career as a freelance writer. This was during the 1990s when AV was just starting to muddy the waters for hi-fi buyers. Towards the end of the decade, when Haymarket had closed titles such as Audiophile (formerly Hi-Fi Answers) and Hi-Fidelity (formerly Popular Hi-Fi) and taken all of What Hi-Fi’s writing in-house, and other publishers had forsaken hi-fi in search of more lucrative fields, I gave up writing for consumer magazines and focussed on a trade title that my wife and I published alongside doing commercial writing, web design and other projects. I was tempted out of reviewing retirement in 2006 by Hi-Fi Choice magazine and HIFICRITIC Magazine, and discovered that after a ten-year absence nothing much had changed significantly in the performance of hi-fi equipment. In August 2008, Naim released its audiophile hard disk player, the HDX, which I consider represents the biggest paradigm shift in home entertainment since CD was introduced. It looks like the start of a very exciting, and potentially perplexing for some people, new era. [I ignore the iPod because its advent had zero impact on my life although I recognise that it has kept music alive for many others.]
I find it fascinating that my hi-fi system has fundamentally changed so little in the past 20 or 30 years. My speakers have grown larger but that is not exactly what one could call a sea change. Hi-Fi certainly hasn’t kept up with television, telephony or computer technology where we have seen dramatic steps forward in performance. Someone on an internet forum was recently berating my use of a Naim CDS CD player for reviewing: “It’s well out of date,” my critic opined. I would have responded to his criticism but I doubt he would have understood reason; most people who are not allowed unsupervised near sharp objects usually have trouble with it. I have pitted that aging player against a multitude of more modern machines and it has seen them all off – in terms of musical communication – with ease. Why should I replace it with something ‘more modern’ for the satisfaction of someone who has never so much as heard my system?
The criteria upon which my system was chosen and which I use for assessing review equipment are completely musical: hi-fi performance is very much a secondary consideration for me, never more than the icing on the cake. I know that those who profess their belief in pace, rhythm, timing and dynamics are frequently accused of dumbing down music to suit their own agendas but I do not regard music primarily as an intellectual exercise. Composers write music to stir the soul rather than tax the brain: performers play to influence their listeners’ emotions not to assess their intelligence. Equipment either allows music to communicate fluently or it does not: it is as simple as that. Other performance aspects merely serve to provide you with more words to read in the reviews!
My musical tastes, for what it’s worth, are eclectic but I draw the line at Prog Rock, Country & Western, modern so-called R&B, and rap. I thoroughly enjoy acoustic and electric guitar–based rock, and blues. When it comes to jazz I don’t pretend to be an aficionado but I prefer Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Art Pepper and music from that era to more modern and older stuff. Neither do I appreciate a great deal of classical music, finding much of it to be derivative and uninspiring. That having been said certain works and composers can light my fire: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Aaron Copeland, and Edgard Varèse being just three members of that select group.
Do I prefer The Beatles or The Stones? Led Zeppelin, thank you!
Sources: Funk Vector Sondek LP12 with Naim unipivot tone-arm and Lyra Clavis DC moving coil
Naim CDS CD player
Naim HDX Hard disk player/XPS
Pre-amplifier: Naim NA52/SuperCap.
Active crossover: Naim SNAXO 3-6/SuperCap
Power Amplifiers: 3 x Naim NAP250s
Loudspeakers: Naim DBL (active)
Cables: Naim Hi-Line and Chord Company Indigo interconnects; Naim NACA5 loudspeaker cables
Supports: Quadraspire Sunoko Vent
Linn Sondek Pink Link with Naim unipivot and various moving coils
Roksan Kandy CD player
Cambridge Audio Azur 640H hard disk player
Integrated amplifier: Naim SUPERNAIT
Loudspeakers: Neat Acoustics Motive 1/Petite Mk2 (passive) with Chord Company Signature cables
Supports: Quadraspire Sunoko Vent
Marshall MG Series amplifier
Chord Company Cream instrument lead.
Malcolm passed away in January 2020, after a long illness following a serious car accident.
Look for features and reviews by Malcolm Steward in the Annual Indexes of the magazine and here for articles available online