How Does the Music Make You Feel?

Stereophile‘s first change in editorial leadership in 33 years calls for a restatement of the magazine’s core principles.

Stereophile was founded in 1962 by J. Gordon Holt, on the premise that the best way to review an audio component is to listen to it. Following Holt as editor, John Atkinson turned that premise into a viable concern—a real magazine—and, in 1989, added a regular suite of measurements to Stereophile‘s otherwise subjective mix.

With his commitment to listening first, JGH created a new genre of audio publications; many others followed in its wake, of which only a handful survive. For Holt, it was a question of expediency—measurements weren’t telling the whole story. JGH was not against science. On the contrary, he embraced the pursuit of quantifiables, if inconsistently, and regretted it when the subjectivist-critical world he’d created lost its bearings. Perhaps I flatter myself, but in this respect JGH seems like a kindred spirit.

I’ve spent most of my professional life doing science or writing about it—but this task is different. Music isn’t science, and the experience of music—its emotional impact—is Stereophile‘s chief concern. For the moment, forget about the bits, bytes, and electrons, the clever firmware encoded on field-programable gate arrays and assess how the music makes you feel. Then switch out a component—just one, since we do have a methodology—and do it again.

There’s no doubt that we owe a debt to science-based designers of fine audio equipment. But it’s our right as music lovers to judge how successful a component is in conveying music’s emotion. Were you deeply moved or left cold? Fifty-seven years since JGH’s audacious experiment, I suppose we could, if we wished, apply science to that question, perhaps by hooking listeners up to an MRI machine as they listen to the same music with different DACs or preamps. That would be interesting, but it would be too expensive to do routinely, and it would probably result in boring copy.

Stereophile‘s reviews are what you might call narrative listening journals, documents of sonic/musical experience composed by skilled listener-writers. As a college professor taught me years ago when I was still studying theater: Watch, respond, and figure out what it was that made you respond that way. Substitute “watch” with “listen”—that’s what Stereophile does.

The argument objectivists make against this approach is that it’s soft and uncertain—too many sources of bias: How can you be objective? But that’s just it: we can’t. The same humanity that gives us standing in assessing how well emotion is conveyed renders us imperfect judges of said conveyance and the reasons for it. Ours is a human assessment, not a scientific one. But is this not also true for many other things—living, eating, loving?

Learning to assess audio components is a bit like learning how to live: Pay attention to how you move through the world. Assess your own responses. Develop your sensibilities. Accept uncertainty as a fact of life. When was the last time you attempted to measure how much you love your children?

Let us not, however, give the floor over entirely to the artsy music-appreciator crowd. Despite my just-stated humanist perspective, I have a little bit of scientist pride left.

Hence, measurements.

Measuring error may be low, but there is much uncertainty in measurements’ relevance to the conveyance of emotion. Subjective assessment is uncertain, but its connection to what we wish to assess—our emotional reaction to music—could not be more direct.

And speaking of uncertainty: We’re not against statistically valid listening tests. We’re just more aware than most of the challenges of doing them well and their tendency, as typically performed, toward missing effects that are subtle but real. Plus, as the cliché goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Stereophile, then, is a subjectivist journal that measures. As Herb Reichert would likely point out, listening is our yin (bringing spirit) and measurements our yang (offering form).

We are fortunate to have on our team some of the best ears in the business, allied with the best pens—and one of the best and most experienced measurers of fine audio equipment. This potent combination is why Stereophile is the most popular high-end audio magazine in the world.

This column is about values, so let me not forget to mention some other important ones. Stereophile practices an old-fashioned, strict separation between its editorial and business sides. You can’t buy a review in Stereophile. No advertising contract or other financial transaction can ensure a Stereophile review. The best way to get a review is to make an interesting product that promises excellent sound. Good value matters, too, and so does having a track record of excellent customer support.

Editorial independence gives Stereophile a credibility that keeps readers coming back. It’s not just readers, though: Our integrity is one reason a good review in Stereophile means as much as it does, and why ads in Stereophile still have impact.

A final point: Stereophile writers hold a wide range of opinions. I don’t tell them what to think or write. With thanks to my colleague Jon Iverson for providing the metaphor: Stereophile is a clubhouse where people can come together over a shared love of music—but with widely disparate views on pretty much everything else: tubes or transistors, classical or rock’n’roll, digital or analog. We gather to respectfully but energetically discuss and engage—then toast our shared love of music with a favored beverage, beer or scotch or protein shake.

Welcome to the club. Take off your shoes. Stay a while.—Jim Austin

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