J. Gordon Holt: An Appreciation and a Remembrance
[This is a preview of a piece that will appear in Issue 197 of The Absolute Sound—RH]
This isn’t going to be a conventional farewell. Gordon wasn’t a conventional man. He followed some inner star known only to himself, and in so doing managed to shine a light for others to follow, including me.
Perhaps the critical moment, as far as the field of high-fidelity sound is concerned, was when he decided to break away from the audio journalism of the—the very early Sixties—and to become a pioneer, cutting away from the conventional everything-sounds-good reviewing of the major magazines. He worked for almost all of those magazines, reviewing, at various times for HiFi Review (later, HiFi/Stereo Review, then Stereo Review), Audiocraft, and High Fidelity. His conflicts with the powers-that-were at High Fidelity led to his “sabbatical”—for two years or so—during which he worked in the nascent component industry for Paul Weathers, designer of a legendary FM cartridge.
In September 1962, Gordon started Stereophile, then dubbed by one and all, because of its absence of manufacturers' advertising, an “underground” publication.
All of this arose out of the sour experiences he had at High Fidelity, then itself making the transition from a new kind of audio magazine to a more commercial one, like the rest of its competition. Early on, when he and I first began talking, he told me that what finally decided him was the response to his review of the KLH Model Nine full-range electrostatic system, which he endorsed with an enthusiasm that helped begin that speaker’s rise into the annals of legend. Unfortunately, said Gordon, other speaker manufacturers, advertisers all, did not cotton to the notion of one speaker's being declared the best, and in such a way that left no doubt that it was far beyond the competition.
So he sent around a single-page flyer announcing his new magazine, one that would remain untainted by commercial pressures. In those days, ardent audiophiles, such as one Harry Pearson and his great audio buddy, John W. Cooledge, perused, nay, parsed every review in the Big Magazines, in a search for a closer approximation to the truth of music than components then usually afforded. We were at the mercy of the reviewers who, all, save J. Gordon, relied on measurements rather descriptive opinions based on careful listening. Q.E.D., the component had to be good, if the measurements they used were. The only variables? Cost, the number of features, and perhaps design complexities.
Gordon’s early Stereophile issues were like manna for those of us who knew and loved live music. His approach was a combination of descriptive and experientially based analyses (entirely “subjective,” said the mainstream press). He expanded and refined the descriptive terms he had been using before, thus laying the foundation for the work that I would do later. He ranked equipment and made no bones about what he thought was best. (Did I say he could really write?)
He had problems. His was basically a two-person operation, and his outside work on instruction books for component manufacturers (he needed the money) and his famous loquaciousness on the telephone meant that issues of his magazines appeared more and more infrequently. And major components weren’t getting reviewed.
It was this infrequency that finally got the better of my patience. The Bose 901, you may recall, got the sort of review from Norman Eisenberg in High Fidelity that led to Gordon’s departure (two pages in the feature section of the magazine—unheard of), and that review was followed by 12 out-of-the-ordinary raves elsewhere. Holt didn’t review the speaker, and, indeed, said Bose wouldn’t lend him a pair, thanks “to production demand.” I borrowed the speakers more than a few times, listening on my own (not bad) system, and on JWC’s better one, against the KLH Model Nines, and decided that the Bose 901s were disastrous. That experience, led me to believe that another and somewhat more observationally-oriented alternative voice was needed, one that published more frequently—the last laugh being my assumption that I could publish more regularly. Naively enough, I thought a few issues of TAS would spur Gordon into production and I could retire from the field.
Gordon's more pragmatic solution, after he moved to Santa Fe, was to find an investor to underwrite the magazine and thus make it a real-world (and commercial) publication. Thus Gordon Holt was the beginning of our history. The rock from which future streams of component design would flow.