Remembering Julian . . .
Photos by Eleni Mylonas No editor could ask for a better contributor (or a better friend) than Julian Hirsch. He was an unquestionably honest man, a scientist who welcomed innovation, an enthusiast who clearly enjoyed what he was doing, an astute critic, and a fine writer who could address complicated technical subjects in plain, straightforward English. Julian never talked down to his readers, nor did he ever dismiss out of hand any piece of equipment that came to his lab. He listened, and measured, and listened some more. His enthusiasm for the equipment and his respect for his audience shone through everything he wrote. No wonder millions of people relied on his advice through the years. What he said mattered.
- Louise Boundas, editor in chief of Stereo Review from 1987 to 1998
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I met Julian Hirsch in 1981 on a press trip to Osaka, Japan - a few months after joining Stereo Review's principal rival, High Fidelity. Julian was a half-decade older then than I am now and had been writing about audio since about the time I was born. He accepted me immediately. Over the many years and trips that followed, he became one of my favorite traveling companions. Amiable, modest despite his depth of knowledge, experience, and relative fame, and utterly unpretentious, Julian was always good company. (And it was fun when he was noticed in an airport or on the street, that distinctive bald pate so recognizable from the pages and cover of the magazine.) When I eventually wound up on staff at Stereo Review, I found him a pleasure to work with as well, for the same reasons. Plus, he delivered clean copy, on schedule, traits endearing to editors the world over.
Among the things that set Julian apart from most audio journalists was that he was a real engineer. He worked on radar in World War II and designed electronic test instruments after. (His first visit to Japan, incidentally, was immediately following the war as part of the Allied Occupation Force. Over the following half century, he witnessed at close hand what surely must count as one of the most staggering national transformations in history; it's too bad he never wrote about that.)
His understanding of how equipment worked converged with his love of music and a flair for down-to-earth explanation in a way that profoundly affected the development of high-fidelity sound reproduction. I truly believe that without Julian Hirsch the audio industry would have evolved much differently - and achieved far less.
At the time Julian started reviewing equipment with his engineering buddies for The Audio League Report in the early 1950s, a lot of the gear was pretty bad. His solid technical approach unearthed the flaws, often in gory detail, and pointed the way to improvement. When he made the leap from what was essentially a tech-hobbyist hi-fi fanzine to writing for High Fidelity (briefly) and then Popular Electronics and Stereo Review, his audience and influence multiplied tremendously. The emerging Japanese manufacturers, especially, adopted his critical method as the foundation of their design schema. Their competition to excel when measured against his performance criteria drove home audio technology ahead at a furious clip.
Blind pursuit of that race could lead to absurdity, and the eventual, inevitable cases in point emerged as a regular theme of Julian's "Technical Talk" column. A meter can register the difference between 0.01% distortion and 0.0001%, but not the human ear. While retaining an enthusiasm for superior and, especially, innovative audio engineering, Julian did what he could to discourage unproductive "specsmanship." He was also keenly aware of how difficult it could be to correlate even significant measurable performance deficiencies with their audible consequences (another recurrent theme).
I remember asking him once for a set of frequency-response curves from a loudspeaker he had tested, which duly arrived in my office with a two-word note attached: "Good luck!" He understood both the value and the limitations of his lab results and worked to share that perspective with his readers. And he always emphasized that what ultimately mattered was the user's experience, including not only a component's sound quality (first and foremost), but also its usability in the hands of ordinary human beings.
How strange, then, that such a practical, skeptical, clear-headed gentleman came to draw scorn in the audiophile fringe as a dogmatic "tin-eared meter reader." Hard to be farther off the mark. But the folks touting this ill-considered caricature were usually peddling real dogma of their own. If you're desperate to believe - or to convince others - that every amplifier has its own distinctive sound, to take a prominent example, it probably is frustrating to endure an individual of Julian's integrity and stature insisting that the good ones now are uniformly neutral, transparent reproducers. (Worse, apparently, that it's no longer easy to find even cheap receivers that don't qualify!)
Most curious to me, however, was the way the argument so often circled back and gravitated to an exotic specification (TIM, jitter, etc.) that allegedly did tell the tale. Some meter-readers are more equal than others, I guess. Although Julian would respond seriously to reasoned criticism, he seemed impervious to the more emotional attacks, seldom bothering even to acknowledge them. He kept his feet out of the mud.
I've wanted an opportunity to say some of these things in a public forum for quite a few years. If only it could have presented itself another way. Above all else, Julian Hirsch was a good man, honest and true of heart - someone you might hold up as an example to your children and say, "Be like him." No higher praise could anyone offer. Goodbye, old friend. And thank you.
- Michael Riggs, editor for High Fidelity from 1981 to 1989, senior editor of Stereo Review from 1989 to 1995, editor in chief of Audio from 1995 to 2000