Reconsidering Julian Hirsch

They’re still at it. A recent issue of Stereophile featured a sidebar on “13 Products Julian Hirsch Got Right” — implying, of course, that Hirsch got most products wrong. Poke around audio websites and you’ll probably see his name mentioned, often with scorn. But the man retired as technical editor of Stereo Review (Sound+Vision’s forebear) way back in 1998, and passed away five years later. What did he say so long ago that continues to attract attacks?

To find out, I took the chance to (re)read selections of Hirsch’s work from vintage audio dealer Innovative Audio’s extensive collection of audio mags dating back to the 1960s. (If you’ve never read Hirsch, check out this sample of one of his later columns.)

I remember revering Hirsch back in 1976, when I first encountered Stereo Review in my high school library. He used technical terms I barely understood, and with his bald head, short-sleeve shirts, and pocket protector, he looked like (and may well have been) the prototypical audio dork. But it was obvious he knew what he was talking about. Fourteen years later, after I launched my own career as an audio/video writer, I began to spurn Hirsch’s work as I heard him criticized so often and realized that some of his statements didn’t square with my own growing experience. (Because his career was winding down as mine was ramping up, I saw him only at a couple of press events and never actually met him.)

“My impression of him was that every product he reviewed got a glowing recommendation,” one vintage audio enthusiast responded when I asked him what he thought of Hirsch. A couple of others answered by lampooning Hirsch’s conclusions as little more than, “Of all the audio products I’ve reviewed, this is one of them.”

My reading of dozens of Hirsch’s reviews and columns in Stereo Review confirmed his reluctance to make strong statements about products. But it became obvious to me that his reluctance stemmed not from fear of offending manufacturers, as most people seem to assume, but from a humble and honest concern that his personal impressions of a product — or any reviewer’s personal impressions of a product — wouldn’t necessarily square with the readers’.

Here’s a revealing quote from his October 1977 “Technical Talk” column: “A purely subjective reaction to an audio product tells a reader only what that particular reviewer thought of the product when he ‘heard’ it in a given room, with certain associated equipment, at a particular time, and under particular conditions. Such an evaluation is bound to be highly personal and limited in scope.”

The subjectivist audio reviewers Hirsch criticized certainly imply that their opinions of audio products will be largely shared by their readers; what, otherwise, would be the purpose of reading them? But 35 years after Hirsch wrote the above quote, subjectivist audio magazines still have presented little, if any, evidence that their writers’ opinions of the products they review reflect what readers will think. Most audio reviews remain, as Hirsch described, “highly personal and limited in scope.”

Hirsch was infamous among audiophiles for believing that all audio electronics — amplifiers, CD players, etc. — sound the same. For example, in April 1977, he stated: “I do not believe that any amplifier that is reasonably good and operating as intended has any sound quality of its own, at least not in the sense that phono cartridges, speakers, and listening rooms have their distinctive sounds.”

Notice, though, that he was careful to write “I do not believe…” rather than proclaim that differences in sound among such products absolutely do not exist. In fact, he was more tolerant of dissenting opinions than many believe, as can be observed in his October 1986 column on the subject of analog vs. digital audio: “To the extent that individual preferences in sound — digital, analog, or live — arise from a listener’s personal idiosyncrasies, one can hardly take issue with anyone else’s beliefs about sound quality. . . Listen for yourself. If you agree with those who say that CD sound is ‘unmusical,’ don’t make the change.”

From my reading of Hirsch’s work, I gathered that he was bothered not so much by the fact that some reviewers claimed to hear differences he couldn’t hear, but by those reviewers’ frequent (and still common) failure to put those differences in perspective. I love this quote from the October 1977 “Technical Talk”: “Calm judgment and judicious language serve us best in the world of hi-fi. Some audiophiles insist on calling a flaw ‘serious’ when it takes hours of listening to discover it. I don’t.”

There’s no question that Hirsch’s work warrants some criticism. He could occasionally be belligerent, as in May 1979 when he referred to subjective reviewers as “irrational, technical ignoramuses.” He could be narrow in his outlook, as in October 1979 when he dismissed the importance of stereo imaging because one can’t hear pinpoint images in orchestral concerts — even though precise imaging is common in the rock, jazz, folk, and chamber music performances that surely constituted most of Stereo Review readers’ listening fare.

And he was, like all of us, afflicted with sporadic lapses of judgment, as in a November 1993 column in which he suggested that speakers had improved to the point where, except for the amount of deep bass response, units with similar driver complements sounded essentially the same. Even more puzzling was his source device for this test: FM radio, which eliminated the possibility of repeating the same musical segment on different speakers. But as I encountered this slip-up, I questioned not so much Hirsch’s judgment as I did the diligence of the magazine’s editors, who in my opinion should have been more willing to question some of the statements that damaged his reputation in the minds of many audiophiles.

Even though I disagree with Hirsch on many issues, the couple of afternoons I spent reading his old columns renewed my respect for him, and left me regretting that I never got to know him. As I looked at the pictures of him at his test bench, I shuddered at the thought of the tedious, manual measurement procedures he had to endure; today’s tech editors enjoy the luxury of having all that stuff built into one automated, computer-controlled instrument. As I read his columns and test reports, I appreciated the fact that the things he said weren’t merely his opinions, they were statements he could back up with data.

And finally, as I read the Wikipedia page about him, I realized that Hirsch got something every writer hopes for but almost none earn: an obit in The New York Times. His opinions about audio remain at least as worthy of consideration as any other writer’s, especially in an era where too many audio reviewers sound the same and think the same.