Published on: May 1. 2012, No. 96
The British Hi-Fi News & Record Review is possibly the oldest audio magazine in the world which has been published constantly. In 2005, it celebrated its 50th anniversary – therefore, we are talking about a magazine that has been published for 57 years now. Over this time, the owner, layout and logo have changed frequently. The magazine clearly tried to modernize itself, and like most audio magazines it crossed through the “dark valley” of home cinema, losing part of its name in the meantime – for some time it had been called Hi-Fi News.
As the new chief editor became Paul Miller, a long-time head of the testing lab, the designer of the first commercially available jitter-meter, a significant change occurred, which can be called a return to the magazines roots. The very characteristic yellow frame on the cover returned, as well as the old logo and the “Record Reviews” sections, which found reflection in the magazine contents, with many columns dedicated to album reviews.
As most other audio magazines, HFN&RR had its better and worse times. Often the good was related to the bad, which makes it difficult to judge overall. This was the case with, for example, the 1960s period when the reviews were based on a technical overview and measurements. According to this approach, most amplifiers sounded the same, regardless of how they did in reality. To counter this approach, magazines such as Stereophile and The Absolute Sound surfaced, so we can say that this “wrong path” was useful in a way.
And this is only one of the minor elements, of which the long and beautiful history of Hi-Fi News & Records Review is made of, and such stories need immortalizing. This is why, in 2005, an unofficial history of the magazine called Sound Bites. 50 Years of Hi-Fi News was published, consisting of interviews, stories, and anecdotes – written by Ken Kessler and the chief editor at the time, Steve Harris (IPC Media, London 2005)
Other than a special chronicle, the book also became a launching pad for Ken Kessler’s writing, who later wrote three wonderful, beautifully published books – the histories of: Quad (Quad: The Closest Approach, 2003), McIntosh (McIntosh. “…for the love of music…”, 2006), and KEF (KEF. 50 Years of Innovation in Sound, 2011). And it is with this most interesting man I decided to talk about his magazine, his research methods, his workshop etc. I am sure that his story isn’t any less interesting than the history of our entire audio branch. As a matter of fact, it is hard to say where one ends, and where the other begins.
You can read about Ken in the aforementioned history of Hi-Fi News magazine as well as in an interview he gave to his magazine in June 2009 (Vol. 56, No.03, March 2011, p. 88-93). His everyday job is testing and reviewing for HFN&RR both new and vintage audio equipment, reviewing albums (mostly vinyl editions); he also has his own column, “Off the leash!”, closing each magazine issue.
So far we interviewed:
- Srajan Ebaen, chief editor of “6moons.com”, interview HERE
- Michael Fremer, senior contributing editor for “Stereophile”, interview HERE
- Martin Colloms, publisher and editor for “HIFICRITIC”, interview HERE
The Interview: Wojciech Pacuła talks to Ken Kessler
Wojciech Pacuła: Please tell me something about Hi-Fi News and its position on the English audio market?
Ken Kessler: Hi-Fi News & Record Review is the world’s oldest English-language hi-fi magazine, and the only UK title with comprehensive laboratory testing. Its contributors are amongst the most experienced, including Keith Howard, who specializes in loudspeaker testing, Barry Fox, who is the most seasoned “industry watcher”, and Editor Paul Miller, who actually designs and builds testing suites. Our music section is edited by the estimable Chris Breunig and our music writers are true experts. It now owns Hi-Fi Choice.
WP: What is your magazine circulation?
KK: I have no idea.
WP: How did you start working for Hi-Fi News? An American guy in Great Britain…
KK: I had already been in the UK for 10 years. In 1982/3, I was working for a now-defunct title called Stereo-The Magazine aimed at a young, gadget-oriented audience. It was mainly hi-fi and audio, but its attitude foreshadowed magazines like Stuff and T3 by decades. Sadly, the publisher killed it after 12 issues. I had started writing for Hi-Fi News on a freelance basis, especially because of my interest in vintage equipment and my experience as an American who had worked in audio retail in the USA in 1970-72, so I suspect that is what made me of use to the magazine. When Stereo-The Magazine closed, I was hired full-time by Hi-Fi News & Record Review.
WP: Please tell us something about yourself – you have a long, beautiful history in the audio field...
KK: Classic audiophile stuff: I was hooked on music as a kid because my father was a collector of big band and soundtrack LPs, and a tape enthusiast, but the major turnaround came when I reached 12, just as the Beatles hit the USA. My first LP was Meet the Beatles and my first single was “Da Do Ron Ron” by the Crystals.
I learned about high-end gear because my two of my friends’ fathers owned rival furniture stores, which in those days sold some hi-fi, like Fisher, AR, Dual, etc. So I knew what was available, but I suffered with a basic record player until I was 16, when I bought a Dual 1019 turntable, Scott 344C receiver and Scott speakers. I used the money from an after-school job to pay for it. Took me two years to scrape together $700.
After high school, I went to the University of Maine and hated every second of it, so I leaped at the opportunity to move to the UK for my third year – that was 1972-3. I was studying English and Philosophy. For my sins, I stayed in the UK ever since. I worked assorted jobs, writing odd bits for various magazines, until I finally got hired full-time by Stereo-the Magazine, after working for music magazines, car magazines, anything that would publish me. Stereo-the Magazine found me because I had been writing for a magazine with a similar audience and tone, a sister publication called Custom Car.
WP: What was the deal with Hi-Fi Choice – you worked for them for… ONE monthly issue. I talked with Andrew Harrison when he was in Poland but he wasn’t, hmm, how to put it – ready to tell me the whole story.
KK: Of course he wasn’t prepared to tell you the story because it’s his fault I left Hi-Fi News. He ‘inspired’ my departure by tampering with my copy, among other things I won't reveal, so I said, to hell with this, and left. But Hi-Fi News’ management wanted me to stay, and after a month or so, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I felt bad about Hi-Fi Choice, but they couldn’t match the deal, and I had to be realistic: this is my career, not my hobby. Harrison was gone from Hi-Fi News not long after, to the obscurity he deserves, which tells you a lot about him rather than me.
WP: How is your magazine different from other magazines?
KK: Mainly because we balance subjective listening with SERIOUS testing and measurements. A perfect example is how the magazine actually measures downloads, to see if they really are high res. Paul Miller is the toughest editor in the business, period.
WP: How are English magazines different from the rest of the world?
KK: It has a unique position because its global influence has no relationship to its internal market sales or size. The UK market is flat like everywhere else, but British magazines still have readers all over the world, especially in former colonies like Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, etc. Also, the UK press has another strength because the UK is, after the USA, the second-most important manufacturer of high-end equipment. Italy and Germany also make high-end gear and have great magazines, but aside from the USA and the UK, most countries’ magazines do not have readership outside of their home market, since English is the “universal” language.
WP: What is your methodology of reviewing audio components?
KK: Simple: I make sure that I listen to any new component with at least two different systems, with a handful of trusted tracks. My listening room is conducive to hearing low level information, I have a great AC mains supply and the floor is 1m of poured concrete, with 50cm thick walls. Anyone can hear sound quality changes very easily in that room. I keep a selection of valve and solid state amps and pre-amps, speakers from small two-way models up to Wilson Sophia 3s and MartinLogan Summits, a lot of cartridges, multiple CD players. My reference system out of all of that is SME 30/12 turntable with Koetsu Urushi cartridge, Audio Research PH5 phono stage and REF 5 pre-amp, the Wilsons and power amps including Quad II-eighty monoblocks and McIntosh MC2102.
WP: Do you believe in a “national” sound of components?
KK: Unfortunately, yes. I thought that concept disappeared in the 1980s, but there are still components that sound like the stereotypes of yore, like “BBC sound” speakers in the UK, German horns, punchy “West Coast” American high-end speakers, etc. But it’s nothing like the way it was even 25 years ago, because the world is shrinking: companies can no longer develop equipment in isolation, primarily for their home markets, with export as a secondary consideration.
Besides, the US and UK companies have always exported a lot of product, so a more universal sound is what everyone strives for – and that sound should be the sound of accuracy and neutrality and realism.
WP: What do you think about the future of audio? Any reflections?
KK: I’d rather not pour out my pessimism here. Suffice it to say, the iPod won, and killed sound quality and the love of it while doing so. Most of today’s younger audiences don't give a damn about sound quality. They listen to sound via computers, or consoles, or phones, through horrible earbuds. Compounding this is the desire for smaller systems – which mitigates against separates – while convenience is more important than quality. As a result, most of today’s consumers care more about the remote control than the sound. It’s sad, but that’s evolution, I guess.
WP: How do you perceive web-based online magazines? New opportunities or a dead end?
KK: For the most part, with contempt. They do not have to adhere to any standards, like libel laws. Any moron with a mouse can contribute to an online magazine. Print journalists have to get past editors and lawyers. Some webzines are OK, but I’m suspicious of most of them. Every print journalist I know writes as a profession, and cannot afford to jeopardise his or her occupation. Too many of the web geeks are hobbyists with axes to grind, or weird agendas, and it shows.
WP: So in your opinion, if the “working skills” are good, if it is a job, not a hobby, if the journalist writing for the web magazine is a professional – is there something that printed magazines could learn from online magazines or not? I am asking this because the most popular web magazines have many more readers than the printed ones. Something’s up, don’t you think?
KK: The cause is simple: web magazines are free and people are fundamentally cheap. That’s why they have so many readers. Print magazines don’t cost a lot of money for what they offer – and they’re permanent if you want to keep them on your shelf – but millions would rather not pay, period. They’d rather eat free garbage than pay for filet mignon.
There is nothing to be learned from the web magazines by the print magazines because of the technical/practical/physical nature of their differences – what webzines offer can never be matched by print magazines, and that includes the speed at which they appear (after, say, a hi-fi show), and the interactivity. Print magazines force readers to think, not just click a mouse.
As for the content, well, most web writers seem to be idiots who couldn’t get published if they had to write for professional editors. The only web magazines that matter are those connected to serious, professional print titles, using professional journalists. I am not interested in the opinions of undisciplined geeks, devoid of experience, culpability or responsibility.
WP: What are the strengths and weaknesses of printed magazines?
KK: The weaknesses are simple: they cost more to produce than web mags, they eat trees, they take up shelf space. But the strength is that they are legally responsible for every word they publish. They have ‘bricks-and’-mortar offices, so the manufacturers can find them if they have to. Try suing some dolt with an IP address in Korea or Peru, no mailing address, etc, etc.
Also, I’d rather hold and read a printed magazine, than an iPad.
WP: Do you think that the vinyl revival is a growing tendency or just a hype?
KK: It’s a cult, nothing more. I have this argument with my dear friend Michael Fremer on an annual basis. The fact is, for the whole of last year, the total world sales of vinyl was less than the Beatles alone sold in ONE DAY in 1964. I love vinyl, but it is strictly a cult pursuit. It will never be the dominant music form again. It’s like pipe-smoking, mechanical watches or using film cameras instead of digital: a much-loved retro pursuit.
WP: What kind of music do you listen to (in private)?
KK: I truly relish standards from singers like Louis Prima, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Keely Smith, Doris Day, Tony Bennett. Lots of British rock from the 1960s, lots of blues, soul and R&B. My favourites are the Beatles, Buddy Holly, the Buffalo Springfield, Howard Tate, Sam & Dave, the Kinks, Aretha Franklin. For singers still functioning, I like Kings of Leon, the Strokes, Weezer, Seasick Steve, Wheatus.
WP: Is high-resolution PCM the future of audio?
KK: I’m not sure. I think there will be quite a few more changes to come, due to too many current situations in flux. For example, the anti-piracy legislation is creating problems, a lot of high res programme material is simply copied from SACD, there’s a rumour that iTunes is being revamped – hopefully to work with high res – and lots of other more pressing issues. But like I said, the next generation doesn't care about sound quality, and high res eats up space on the 64GB iPod Touches or their even smaller iPhones. What I wish more people could hear are Blu-spec CDs, SHM-CD and SHM-SACD – all really fine-sounding formats. And the latest vinyl from Mobile Fidelity and Analogue Productions is fantastic.
WP: Is there any future for CD?
KK: Not really. Sales are dropping so fast that it’s terrifying. There are even rumours that the major labels will kill it off within three-to-five years, and Apple – now the most influential electronics firm on earth – wants to stop everyone from using optical discs and move to iCloud. CD will dwindle away to nothing, so Apple continues to do its damage on music.
WP: So what is the future for hi-fi? Or for the music industry?
KK: Not good. Software sales – CDs, LPs, DVDs, - are declining in favour of streaming, downloads, etc. And if the labels make less money, they have less to invest in new music, new artists. I am not optimistic. I expect to see simply a tsunami of crap, fuelled by ‘reality’ talent shows like Pop Idol and America’s Got Talent. And most winners seem to be chosen on their commercial, rather than musical worth.
WP: Is “anachrophilia” characteristic for elderly audiophiles or is it something really competitive to modern equipment? What makes it so special?
KK: Like vinyl, it’s a cult. Old equipment is not outselling or threatening new equipment. But the cult is just as active as the vinyl brigade. But it takes knowledge and a bit of repairing skill to keep old equipment functioning. When you hear Radford valve amps or vintage McIntosh or Marantz, driving Quad ESLs, it’s pretty special.
I know a lot of collectors, and I’m lucky to live near John Howes’ Audiojumbles, which take place twice a year and are always packed with people buying vintage equipment. In the USA, for example, Audio Classics does great business with vintage gear, especially McIntosh. The Japanese and Korean collectors are the most fervent, with strong segments of the Italian and French audiophile communities also devoted to anachrophilia. The French love valves, while the Italians are particularly enthusiastic about vintage turntables and tuners.
For me, anachrophilia has always been a passion, which is why John Atkinson allowed me to write about it back in 1983 in Hi-Fi News, and he even coined the term “anachrophilia”. So I don’t distinguish between new and old in absolute terms because I use both. But I have to review with systems that are currently available, or at least recent. The only truly old component I use when reviewing is the Marantz CD12/DA12.
Some of the new equipment out there is spectacular, like the latest Audio Research pre-amps, Wilson speakers and SME tonearms and turntables. But, like wristwatches, most of my favourite components are long out of production.
WP: Are you going to stay in UK forever or, maybe, someday...?
KK: I am not in a position to leave.
WP: What was your biggest surprise when you were writing your books?
KK: With the McIntosh book, it was uncovering new, unpublished material about Woodstock, about Howard Hughes and about the Beatles. With the Quad book, nothing specific, but it was an education learning about the years before hi-fi became a recognisable industry. The KEF book was revelatory in learning just how many companies used KEF drive units, and not only in the UK.
WP: The deepest disappointment?
KK: I’d prefer not to say.
WP: Your top “wow”?
KK: Selling 200 copies of the Quad book in 60 minutes, at the launch, and getting to communicate with the legendary ‘Bear’, who worked with the Grateful Dead.
WP: Any new ideas – I mean, any new book on the horizon?
KK: I’m working on the Wilson Audio history for January 2014 publication, and I am involved in the planning of three or four others, but no contracts have been signed yet. Then I hope to retire.
WP: If you could advise your readers how to read reviews – what would you tell’em?
KK: If one can presume that the readers are seasoned audiophiles, what they need to do is recognise the various reviewers’ preferences and prejudices. That is the only way they can appreciate the remarks in any sort of context. I, for example, am not the guy to read for extreme bass – I’m more concerned with the midband. Others are obsessed with imaging, etc.
Once you are equipped with knowing how the reviewer works, then you need to hear what they heard, by finding a shop that can demonstrate the product. Sadly, this is becoming more and more difficult. So perhaps the best way to hear equipment is to have a wide circle of friends who own a variety of components!
WP: Thank you!