The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XC: Interview with Steve Guttenberg of The Audiophiliac
It's funny to me that I'm finally getting a chance to interview Steve Guttenberg, noted audio scribe and the man behind CNET's popular The Audiophiliac blog. Steve was the first person who ever interviewed me, many years ago, after I wrote a review of a Nitty Gritty record cleaning machine in TONEAudio (Interestingly, Steve now writes for TONEAudio as well). You can still read that 2008 article at http://news.cnet.com/8301-13645_3-9969495-47.html, which links back to my original article.
PSF editor Jason Gross, who follows Steve's blog and has often sent me links to many of his articles, asked me if I knew him. Coincidentally, I had officially met Steve just a few days before that when he arrived to cover my dealer event at Audio Doctor in Jersey City, New Jersey. Before that, I'd seen Steve at least a dozen times at the various trade shows. He was always hurrying through the halls, focused, covering as many of the exhibit rooms as possible. We had been Facebook friends for probably a couple of years before I had the honor of shaking his hand.
While Steve is perhaps best known as The Audiophiliac, his bio is one of the most interesting and entertaining in the audio world. He likes to refer to himself as an ex-movie projectionist first and foremost, although some in our industry know him from his many years as a salesman for Sound by Singer, perhaps the most famous New York City hi-fi store of all time. He has also written for such publications as Home Theater, Inner Fidelity and Stereophile. After writing about 870 installments of The Audiophiliac over the last five years, it's not surprising that Steve has plenty to say about audio, music, technology and even the inner workings of movie theaters.
Vinyl Anachronist: How did the whole idea of The Audiophiliac get started?
Steve Guttenberg: Well, I had been writing for CNET for five years at that point, and my boss came to me with the idea of doing an audio blog. I didn't really jump at the chance to do it. I said to him, “I don't even read blogs so I don't know if I know how to write a blog." The great thing was that as soon as I started to do it, I realized I had a platform to talk about high-end audio to a mainstream audience. It's a weird thing to pat myself on the back for, but it might be the only mainstream outlet that talks about high-end audio in a serious way on a consistent basis. Once I figured that out I was thrilled to do it, and I knew I could talk about cheap stuff, I could write about crazy expensive things, and I could reach people who had never heard about high-end audio, or The Absolute Sound, or Stereophile or anything other than Bose.
VA: While you cover everything that's interesting to fellow audiophiles, there's an undercurrent of value-oriented articles that seem to focus on getting new people into the hobby. These people are usually searching for those “giant killers"--inexpensive products that allegedly achieve the same performance as much more expensive products. Which products do you think come closest to being giant killers?
SG: I shy away from calling them ‘giant killers.' I'm a huge fan of the Dayton Audio B652 speaker, which are like $35 a pair. It has a 6-inch woofer, a 1-inch tweeter and a fairly nice box considering the price. It's a phenomenal speaker, but it doesn't sound like a $300 or $400 speaker. For someone who says, “I'm a college student and I want to get into audio," that speaker and the Dayton 20-watt amplifier that sells for the lofty price of $22, well, you can hook up your phone to that and have a really decent hi-fi. It certainly sounds a thousand times better than a jambox and most $200 Bluetooth speakers--which some people spend even more money on. It doesn't sound better than a high end system, though.
VA: Today's audio landscape is more complicated than ever, with plenty of emerging formats and technologies vying for a piece of the market. What particular new technologies or formats have you excited to the point where you believe it's a “no-brainer" for newbies?
SG: I'm not exactly the best booster for new technology [laughs], so I don't have any new technology that I'm excited about. I think for newbies though, those people who are curious about what's going on in high-end audio, I think the most direct path is headphones. Cheap headphones are getting better and better, and to get a real glimpse of high-end audio on the cheap, well, that's the way to do it.
The other thing that is really important, by the way, is how people always say because of iPods, we can have music everywhere and there are more people listening to music than ever before. Me being me, I'm always looking for a different view of that. Yes, people are surrounded by music, but that doesn't mean that they are actually listening to it. Having music on is not the same thing as listening. There's definitely a gigantic difference. And if you are not listening--really focusing on it as opposed to reading or talking or working--sound quality is not that big of a deal. That explains why people listen to crappy things, because they aren't really “listening" to them.
VA: On your Facebook page, you like to ask provocative questions about audio concerning listening habits and preferences. Which question do you think received the most enthusiastic response, resulting in genuinely thought-provoking discussion?
SG: The one I did about the top ten reasons why compression is good. That was generally designed to provoke and it succeeded. The ten reasons that I wrote down are real reasons. I didn't just write it to be provocative. The purpose of doing these things is not just to say ‘I'm right,' but to make people think. Audiophiles like to complain about dynamic range compression, they talk about it all the time and say “if this recording wasn't compressed it would sound good," but the thing is that people like compression. You know Chesky Records, who I worked with for many years, doesn't use compression and over the years people would always say to me, “those Cheskys are too quiet, and I have to turn them up all the time!" I would say that it's because they are not compressed, the average dynamic level is lower, and people--especially audiophiles--who should know better often mistake compression for dynamics. When they say a recording is really “punchy" and “powerful," that is because it's compressed.
VA: After looking at your Google numbers, which one of your columns gets the most hits?
SG: I did one about how to set up a subwoofer about four years ago and every day a few hundred people read that.
VA: That's your number one?
SG: Of all time, yes. And it's funny because it's not all that good, it's really kind of basic, but I guess it struck a nerve. To constantly see what people are reading out of all the columns--it's informative. When you work for print magazines, you don't know how many people have read your article. The circulation may be 80,000, but it doesn't mean 80,000 people have read it. But when you write a blog like this daily, I know exactly what people are reading. And that's really helpful.
VA: My number one blog article was on bad customer service, which was just an angry rant on a bad day. People search Google for “bad customer service," and my article always ranks high for some reason. It has little to do with audio, although I think I kind of wrote something at the end to tie it all in. It's hard to decide what people are going to read and what you are going to get the most hits on.
SG: My favorite blog that I wrote, however, is called “The 30-Year-Old iPod." I had this friend who called me about getting a belt for his turntable, a Linn LP12, and I had been with him when he bought it--30 years previous to when I wrote this piece. I said, “Yeah, I remember when you bought that!" This guy is a musician and home a lot during the day and he is really into analog, not into digital. He plays that turntable every day and it started me thinking that even though it was expensive to buy at the time, he is not a rich musician, But he has gotten 30 years' worth of play out of this turntable. So what I did in this blog is ask people who buy iPods and iPhones, “How many phones will you own over the next 30 years, assuming you change them every 21 months (which is the average rate they change phones)?" So if you add it all up, it's much more expensive than a high-end turntable.
The subtext of the thing is that high-end audio isn't as crazy or as expensive as it appears to be. I started working at Sound by Singer in 1978, but in 1981 or '82, I sold a guy a Krell KSA-50 amplifier and he has been using this Krell since then. He needed some money, so through a friend of ours he contacted a bunch of people and said he wanted to sell it, so I bought it. He paid maybe $1800 for it 31 years ago, and I bought it from him for $1200. It's in perfect condition, and it sounds amazing. It still blows my mind how good it is.
VA: Have any of your questions resulted in the usual Internet bloodbath, with people yelling at screaming at each other over audio?
SG: Oh yeah, it happens all the time over the most innocuous things. When I started and people would react that way, I would think my writing wasn't clear enough and I needed to be more specific and not leave things up to the imagination. Then I thought no no no, I don't need to do that, I would purposely leave holes in order to get people those types interested in it. I decided to let them go at it and give them spaces where they can get outraged. I want to encourage them to get crazy, let's just say. They don't need a lot of encouragement but I might as well give it to them.
VA: Years ago, you were part of the sales force at one of the most famous hi-fi stores in the world--Sound by Singer in New York City. If you could give one piece of advice to someone walking into a fancy high-end store for the very first time, what would it be?
SG: First, depending on the type of person they are, is to really think about what it is they want. Not necessarily to think of a specific budget, but a general range. One of the things that is going to be especially helpful is to bring music that they are very familiar with and play it, and to be open to having things sound different. Then, instead of thinking of which one is the best, think about which one you most enjoyed listening to, which one grabs you the most. That is the bottom line in hi-fi: what do you enjoy listening to?
VA: Do you listen to a lot of vinyl these days?
SG: Yes, definitely. I'm experiencing a vinyl renaissance since I bought a VPI Classic about three years ago.
VA: Put on your expert cap and tell vinyl newbies one most important tip for getting the most out of LP playback.
SG: One of the things I remember when I was selling a lot of turntables is what you put your turntable on, what kind of furniture or shelf--especially with inexpensive ‘tables. It makes a huge difference. Try to put it on something light but rigid, and keep it away from your speakers. And make sure your table is level.
VA: I still occasionally see someone who puts their turntable on top of a speaker.
SG: Remember that old Kenwood ad with the turntable on top of the speaker?
VA: Yep. Sometimes you see people post photos of their systems on audio forums, and the turntable's on the speaker. Then everyone jumps all over the poster.
VA: Finally, I really enjoy how you always mention your background as a movie theater projectionist in your bio. That leads me to one conclusion... Either you have some amazing stories from that time, or you are scarred permanently from the experience!
SG: Do you want to hear one of my projectionist stories? Okay, I'll give you the one that has the most star power. So I was working at a theater that doesn't exist anymore on 59th and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, across from Bloomingdales. It was a very fancy very East Side theater. I used to do screenings of movies for movie studios or East Coast premieres. So one day my manager says we are going to do a charity screening of Schindler's List about six weeks before it was released. Each ticket was a thousand dollars, at a theater with a thousand seats, so they raised a million dollars for the Holocaust Museum in one screening.
So the print arrives from Steven Spielberg, hand delivered by his editor. He explains that because it's his personal print, don't be offended but I couldn't touch it. I start the movie, having never touched it, and 15 minutes into the movie the film breaks, and within seconds there were people from the movie company and the theater management and the editor screaming, “What is going on? You have to get the picture back on the screen!" I said to the editor, “But I can't touch the print!"
So he threads the head that controls the speed of the platter drive system and hands the film back to me and I thread the projector and restart the movie. I look over and see the platter drive isn't turning (he mis-threaded the head), and the film was about to break again. So I run back to the platter and start feeding it by hand to the projector. At that point we had three hours of film left, which weighs about 120 pounds. I told the editor we could either intentionally break the film, stop the show, rethread and move on from there, or for the next three hours turn the very heavy platter by hand. He said we couldn't stop, so we took turns every ten minutes. I feared that once the film was over someone from the movie company would demand that I be fired because I screwed up, but I didn't screw up. Before the break, I had never touched the film, I told Spielberg's editor I was counting on him owning up to the fact that he had made the mistake. He did, and I didn't lose my job.
I was a projectionist for twenty-five years, with a pension and benefits, which supplemented my audio related careers. I really enjoyed working in some of the best movie theaters in NYC, which turned out to be great training for writing about home theater for magazines and websites!
You can check out The Audiophiliac at www.cnet.com/audiophiliac.
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at firstname.lastname@example.org and see his Blog site
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