Does anyone know where this J. Gordon Holt comes from?

Interviewer: “Do you see any signs of future vitality in high-end audio?”

JGH: “Vitality? Don't make me laugh. Audio as a hobby is dying, largely by its own hand. As far as the real world is concerned, high-end audio lost its credibility during the 1980s, when it flatly refused to submit to the kind of basic honesty controls (double-blind testing, for example) that had legitimized every other serious scientific endeavor since Pascal. [This refusal] is a source of endless derisive amusement among rational people and of perpetual embarrassment for me, because I am associated by so many people with the mess my disciples made of spreading my gospel. For the record: I never, ever claimed that measurements don't matter. What I said (and very often, at that) was, they don't always tell the whole story. Not quite the same thing.

Remember those loudspeaker shoot-outs we used to have during our annual writer gatherings in Santa Fe? The frequent occasions when various reviewers would repeatedly choose the same loudspeaker as their favorite (or least-favorite) model? That was all the proof needed that [blind] testing does work, aside from the fact that it's (still) the only honest kind. It also suggested that simple ear training, with DBT confirmation, could have built the kind of listening confidence among talented reviewers that might have made a world of difference in the outcome of high-end audio.“


He founded Stereophile.  He died in 2009 at which time he was very bitter about the direction of high-end audio and maybe life in general.

Gordon actually believed audio should attempt to sound like the real thing. And he believed that most audiophiles had forgotten that and were looking for sounding good to them, sort of what too many people call musical. And that was the wrong fork in the road. It frustrated him.

Thanks for posting the link Mike. It's too bad the gentleman has passed away. I like they way he thought.

While seeking to reproduce the sound of real instruments in a real space is an admirable goal, I don't think it's practical for most people.  If you have a large room, it might be possible to achieve with chamber music (string quartets, etc.) but many people listen to jazz and rock music.  Is there anyone who wants to listen to a jazz or rock band performing in their homes?  It would be an experience for sure, but not one you'd want to repeat very often.  If you listen to live rock, most of it I've heard doesn't rate very high on sound quality.  A concert can be enjoyable, but not audiophile quality. 

I'd love to see reviewers be given a blind test from time to time, but it would be impractical for every review to be double blind.  I don't recall J Gordon ever doing or publishing a double blind review when he ran Stereophile either.

But I do believe the attempt to reproduce the sound of real instruments was Gordon's goal whether it was practical or not I think he would still be the goal and the closer one came to the goal the better

I was done in by time, history, and the most spoiled, destructive generation of irresponsible brats the world has ever seen. (I refer, of course, to the Boomers.)

Perhaps Mr. Holt would reevaluate the above were he with us today.


     He's been dead fourteen years and his perspectives trouble you?

     I'd formed/held those same opinions, years before his first article.

                       It was good to finally see them in print.

"Seeking to reproduce the sound of real instruments in a real space . . .  might be possible to achieve with chamber music (string quartets, etc.) but many people listen to jazz and rock."

Given the large listening space @tomcy6, realism should also be approachable with acoustic jazz ensembles -- Ramsey Lewis Trio at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, RLT at Bohemian Caverns, Brubeck at Brandenburg Gate, that sort of thing. Also very spare rock cuts -- "Six Blade Knife" comes to mind. Plus acoustic folk rock (examples are endless). But as for orchestral pieces, rock concerts & such -- agreed, don't try this at home.

Tomcy6 wrote: While seeking to reproduce the sound of real instruments in a real space is an admirable goal, I don’t think it’s practical for most people. If you have a large room, it might be possible to achieve with chamber music (string quartets, etc.) but many people listen to jazz and rock music. Is there anyone who wants to listen to a jazz or rock band performing in their homes?

I do believe (and JGH would agree) that "seeking to reproduce the sound of real instruments in a real space is an admirable goal," Note, this says "real space" and not your space. Multichannel reproduction can achieve a reasonable simulation of that goal to a degree that stereo cannot and recent developments in "immersive audio" advance that in ways that JGH would have appreciated.


For myself, trying to recreate the live sound of whatever I’m listening to is exactly what I’m trying to do. I really enjoy systems that can sound live as opposed to highly detailed, overly etched “hifi” that like many high end speakers do. 

If you read Holt’s reviews from the 60’s of the large speakers of the day, Altecs, EV, Bozak, he described them as 1st row, 10th row, mid venue etc. This clearly was his standard of reference also.

I have a big room, very nice horn loaded speakers & a good, powerful tube amp. When I play Eva Cassidy’s Nightbird ( recorded live at a small club), you could easily believe you’re at the show. It’s loud, very dynamic, clear, full of body & a ton of fun!! Even the talking in between a few songs & the audience clapping sounds right on. 

Unfortunately, w/ today’s heavily digitized & digitally powered line arrays at every rock or blues concert, the sound is really hard & often annoying. This is why for myself, it’s even more important than ever to have a system capable of reproducing sound realistically. For example, I recently went to a Tedeski Trucks Band show in Boston. They’re a great band but the sound was all over the place & I had primo seats. When only a few instruments played, the sound was quite good but when the full group played, it became unclear & lost most of the group’s exquisite nuances. My system, for the most part, with some of the same dongs, sounds better. 


I don't want my music to sound like the real thing - I'd get thrown out of my apartment very quickly and all those amps wouldn't fit anyway.

Besides, what does the real thing sound like? Does an acoustic guitar played outside in the woods sound like the same acoustic guitar played in a shower stall? They're both the 'real thing'.

The 'real thing' is the recording/source, not the performance.  

tomcy6 surely has a point, as several posters have acknowledged: that an audio system should at the very least aspire to "reproduce the sound of real instruments in a real space," just as J. Gordon Holt stated. But... A good friend of mine (who also writes and reviews for Stereophile, by the way) is a musician and a recording engineer, and he insists this dogma is mistaken, for a simple and persuasive reason. What an audio system should aspire to do is to accurately reproduce what the sound engineers heard in the recording booth. Unfortunately, for a lot of reasons (historical, technological, aesthetic...), that sound is not necessarily the same thing as "the sound of real instruments in a real space." 

My point is that Mr. Holt's principle, to which I do subscribe, is compromised by the fact than the listener cannot compensate for whatever was done by the recording engineers. If your system succeeds in making recording #1 sound like "real instruments in a real space," it will fail to do that persuasively on recordings #2 through #n. My guess is that this is at least partly why personal taste in audio equipment—which Mr. Holt rejected as a proper criterion—nevertheless comes into play.

Be that as it may, I still agree with tomcy6: solo acoustic instruments or voice, and small ensembles (chamber music, perhaps up to chamber orchestras if your room is large enough) are the likeliest targets for this aspiration. But that does not mean that rock music can't be very compellingly reproduced in your listening room, of course. A Tool concert is an astonishing assault on one's senses, but listening to Tool LOUD on a good audio system is, in some respects, an even greater treat.

@clearthinker … “Hey, which of us DOESN’T want our rig to SOUND LIKE THE REAL THING???”


Honestly? I think many (most?) try to make it sound better to them…. More detail, more slam… microdetails. That is what I did for the first twenty or twenty five years of my pursuit of the high end… I wanted it to sound better to me. Which was Gordon’s point.

I found when I did that I would make a change that would make one kind of music sound better, then others would not sound as good. I realized I was chasing my tail. 

I needed a ruled with which to judge. I quickly realized that had to be live acoustic music. Only after careful listening and tuning in to what live acoustic music sounded like did my system truly start sounding great… for all forms of music. Over a decade going to the symphony and small jazz concerts… or sitting next to a piano calibrated my ear. My system went from an interesting thing I liked to listen to for a half hour to a completely involving system I have to drag myself away after hours of listening.


I think Gordon was right on point with the pursuit’s goal should be recreating the real musical experience. After all, the musicians have worked endlessly to make tell music as appealing as humanly possible.

@ghdprentice      That's perceptive and I agree with you.  Whilst misguided producers mess when they record acoustic sound in a space, most try to recapture the original event.  Multiple miking of orchestral symphonies just creates an artificial mess.  Did you hear the Zimerman/Rattle Beethoven concertos recorded on DG during the COVID?  I have the LPs.  Pretty well every instrument was individually miked and the signals taken back to a presumably enormous mixing desk where one imagines the producer flexing the sliders in an effort to outthink Beethoven.  In doing so the 'original event' was expunged.  By contrast, those who record orchestras with a simple stereo pair can produce a good reproduction of the live performance.

By the same process almost all music involving electrically amplified instruments is artificially mixed so that even those who were in the studio cannot relate the recorded event to the original event.  There can be no worthwhile objective of trying to reproduce the 'original' sound.  This cannot be done and indeed the original sound cannot be identified.

But I think we are agreed that accurate reproduction of a correctly recorded acoustic event is a worthwhile objective.  More artificial 'events' and recordings just have to follow along.  I can still enjoy such recordings but there is no 'real thing' with which to compare them, so I don't.

+1 @ghdprentice. The listener needs a sonic standard of reference, however this might be described in words. I share the "recreate the live event" standard. Just finding this much easier to achieve via LP than streaming (the quest continues).

If we visited the listening rooms of all the people on Audiogon who say that their systems sound like real instruments in real spaces, I'm pretty sure each system would sound different from the others. 

Then there is the problem of what does real sound like.  The venue you listen in and your seating location while real instruments play greatly affects how that instrument sounds.  We all hear differently too, very differently.

Then there is the fact that we are listening to a recording.  On the first Stereophile test CD (yellow booklet) there is a track where none other than J Gordon Holt reads an editorial from a very early Sterophile entitled, "Why Hi-Fi Experts Disagree."  He is recorded through 19 different microphones and it is not that hard to tell when a microphone change occurs.

So, it seems to me that real instruments in real space is not a hard objective reality.  Of course, most of us want our systems to sound as real as possible and I'm striving for that too. I try to get vocals to sound natural.  I'm closer than I used to be, but I don't think I'll ever get to the point where a large percentage of my recordings fool me into thinking that there is a real vocalist standing between my speakers singing just for me.  YMMV

One’s perspective of what constitutes “real live sound” can be different depending on one’s circumstance - and all can be true.

For symphony orchestra listeners, it isn’t just what seat in the house you like to sit in. We who play in orchestras are right in the midst of the action, and acclimated to that sound. I play hundreds of professional orchestra concerts a year, and am lucky to get to go to one. It is probably why 60s Columbia recordings with all their myriad close mics picking up the bows’ rosin, the clarinets breath escaping the reed, and the horn’s spit splaying out the mouthpiece, sound very much ‘correct’ to me. That is my milieu and my baseline for judging orchestral recordings (I miss John McClure’s aesthetic for producing orchestral recordings).

I suppose I also belong in the camp that ANY recording is a synthetic creative product, and never an actual exact representation of the live event (like Glenn Gould), as opposed to the “2 or 3 mics in the prime spot of the hall” crowd (although many of those recordings sound fantastic!). So why bother fighting this reality?

In other words, the whole “high fidelity” concept is a product of it’s original time, back in the 50s when it was very difficult to acquire equipment that was not fraught with technical problems. We might just live in “post hi-fidelity” times.

@jonwolfpell  - What do you think of Tedeschi Truck's Layla Revisited?  IMHO, it ranks up there with the best live rock albums of all time.  I don't understand why more people aren't raving about it.  I'm sure the album sounds better than what people at the LOCKN' festival heard.  No drunk behind you whoopin' at the top of his lungs and spilling beer on you either.

@tomcy6 . Great album by a great band! Susan is a really good guitarist & a great singer & Derek is probably the best rock / blues guitarist of our time now. 

So funny how you described their concert. Not 20 minutes into the show, a fairly young woman ( all relative) in the seat directly in front of me was drinking & passed out & had to be carried off. Additionally, everyone was standing & half dancing the whole show which is fun but at 65, it’s a bit much for over 2 hours straight. It was worth it but thankfully my home system reproduces their music quite faithfully 

J. Gordon Holt was one of the earliest pioneers of high-end audio.  Having founded Stereophile magazine back in the 1960's, his candor and steadfast intent to improve the quality of home audio systems would become the foundation for the hobby that so many of us enjoy in the modern day.   The Absolute Sound's Harry Pearson followed suit and both TAS and Stereophile would help to define and foster the high-end audio industry in the decades to come.  IMHO, this hobby would not be  where  it is today without Gordon and Harry.  May they both rest in peace.

@pythonboot  touche.  Our younger generations, X,Y,G, whatever don't seem to have much respect for truth.

Gordon and Harry both emphasized that the supreme goal of a high quality audio system is high fidelity to real sounds in a real space.  Nowadays, the lesser goal of merely what sounds good is pursued.  The latter goal merely relegates such an audio system to a toy, not necessarily devoted to reality.

The other day I was in a subway car in NYC.  Guys came in with unamplified guitar and accordion.  Even in a crowded car, the snap of the strummed guitar strings was instantly apparent.  Almost no audio system of today recreates this live excitement. That's because of lousy recordings drenched in muddy processed effects, warm dynamic speakers and tubed or euphonic SS electronics.

You don't need fancy concert halls to experience this live quality of sound.  People should get exposure to close encounters with the real thing, not audio shows and dealers who promote high priced goods that still don't deliver the excitement of real music.

Holt's main system had a pair of active ATC 50 towers, the anniversary edition I believe.  I'm pretty sure they were sold here on Audiogon after he died.

@clearthinker 👍

About a year ago I pulled out a classical album and put on to play. I was really disappointed in the somnics of the venue… not natural at all. The back of the record cover extolled the incredible lengths that were taken to capture the venue and ambience of the concert. Then showed all the partitions that were put around small groups of instruments… each with their own microphone. The narrative went on and on how great the concert hall was. I was completely flummoxed. There was no sound of the concert hall what so ever… it was a dead… terrible recording. I couldn’t believe the description vs reality… No correspondence, what so ever.


This is not the norm… but hilarious if you know better.




@viper6: Have you read Stereophile editor Jim Austin's As We See It column in the current (May) issue? It's a good one. In the column Jim makes quite a few points, some of which you may disagree with, or perhaps not. Here are a couple of them:


" album shouldn't sound like live music unless it was recorded to sound like that." I have many times here made the case that Harry Pearson's ethos of the job of a hi-fi system being to make reproduced music sound as close to the sound of live unamplified acoustic music as possible---the "absolute sound"---is, simply put, a gross over-simplification. Sure, that goal is of course appropriate when any given recording was made in such a fashion as to make that even possible. But 99.99% of Pop studio recordings will NEVER sound---couldn't POSSIBLY sound---like live unamplified acoustic music. Austin goes on to say "Every album should sound like itself." The way most music is recorded, that is the only realistic, sensible way to view the situation.

Another: "Great-sounding recordings form a tiny fraction of all recorded music, and they rarely intersect with the very best music." That was one of "Holt's Laws", seen in print way back in the 1960's. Gordon said "The better the music, often the worse the sound. And visa versa." Nothing has changed in the intervening years.


Jim Austin is---in my opinion---doing quite a good job of filling John Atkinson's shoes.  


I liked JGH when he wrote for Stereophile.  His objective and mine were the same.  When I had my shop, we always brought in our instruments to compare to the recordings we were listening to on our systems.

It was how we determined, back then, that the MOST ACCURATE reproduction gear playing HIGHLY PROCESSED recordings, belonged to ARC and Magnepan.  When Mayorga came out with his Direct-to-Disc recordings, we realized we were still correct.  Now, everything had to be set up properly, and yes, this was before the "interesting" cable thing descended upon us, but no matter what speaker we played, and I had about 45 different kinds in the shop, the only ones that sounded most like the recordings were the Maggies driven by ARC gear.

I don't remember if JGH liked that gear or not--he probably did--but in MY shop, playing musical instruments--trumpet, sax, guitar (both kinds) electric piano, and snare drum--this was the most accurate system.  SOME customers did not have the room for that type of system, and of course, some disagreed, which is why we carried so many brands and models--we were running a business, not a charity--but we DID play live instruments to compare.  Obviously, this is NOT the same as a live performance, and I know for a fact that my former band sounded like garbage when the various players decided to "turn it up," but many bands are like this.  I haven't heard a live show that was any good for years, with the possible exception of Joan Jet outdoors a few years ago.  Most rock concerts today are walls of noise that I refuse to attend.  Evidently, with all the advances in sound gear, if the person running the board is deaf, you get garbage for $1500.00 a ticket.


Idiotic statement of Jim Austin--" album shouldn't sound like live music unless it was recorded to sound like that." 

Why are albums recorded NOT to sound like live music?  Deliberate distortion like this, antithetical to the live experience of reality, is merely a toy at best.  The equivalent in visual art is throwing a paint can on a canvass and calling it great art. Why would a sane person throw the price of a nice house into playback of such crappy deliberate distortion recordings?

Austin' statement is true--"99.99% of Pop studio recordings will NEVER sound---couldn't POSSIBLY sound---like live unamplified acoustic music."  These pop recordings are created mainly for teenagers to have fun with that type of music and who don't care about high fidelity.  Natural unamplified instruments sound more exciting than when they are deliberately distorted on these recordings.  The pity is that the listeners to these bad recordings and bad  pop/rock concert PA systems don't have sufficient exposure to natural sound to appreciate what I have said.

"The absolute sound" of course varies with the acoustics of the venue and seating position.  As an experienced performer, my most exciting listening has come from immersion at close distances.  Maximum detail is revealed close up, and greatest appreciation of the intricacies of the music is obtained.  Greater distances allow acoustics to cause time smearing and loss of musical detail.  Similarly, recordings with a close perspective offer more musical understanding from greater detail, than recordings with a distant perspective.  Accurate playback of both distant and close perspective natural recordings meet Harry's quest for the absolute sound, but a live experience way back in the hall has lost much of the musical detail, most severely at high freq.  I actually prefer an audio system designed for accuracy playing a closely miked recording, to the live distant experience of the natural absolute sound.  Am I inconsistent in my values?  Possibly, but the real objective is to obtain the greatest understanding of the details of the music.  This is best done with live listening at a close distance.

I was looking up something else and this turned up in my search results so I thought I’d contribute. My dad (JGH) was all about wanting to re-create the live listening experience at home, but he had enough knowledge of acoustics to know that it would never be the same as being in a concert hall (he actually wrote a textbook about the science of sound back in the 60s). As he got older he became more interested in recreating the movie theater experience at home. I remember when Tony Grimani from Lucasfilm came to our house to set up one of the first home THX systems. I remember watching Terminator 2 with the volume so loud that it knocked over his martini glass! 

My dad was definitely a bitter and acerbic individual, but his sarcasm and wit was appreciated by his friends. I know that one of the things that my dad was most frustrated about was that when Stereophile was sold to Pearson, Larry Archibald and John Atkinson both got extremely well paid for it and my dad got nothing. From a business perspective it made sense, as he was merely a “contributor” at that point, but he felt that Stereophile capitalized on his image without ultimately rewarding him. Keep in mind he sold the magazine to Archibald for only a few thousand dollars (paid in cash!) back in the 80s, and although he tried to start many new projects (such as Laserfile magazine—I believe Laserphile was trademarked), his lack of focus ultimately doomed them all to eventual failure. 

I think all I have left of my dad’s audio legacy at this point is a box full of audio cables and some old magazines. The rest was sold to settle his estate. I may have to sell the magazines off soon to pay my own bills, as life has gotten complicated. 

Thanks for the walk down memory lane with this thread. 

I know that one of the things that my dad was most frustrated about was that when Stereophile was sold to Pearson, Larry Archibald and John Atkinson both got extremely well paid for it and my dad got nothing.

Sorry to hear that your dad was treated this way by people who owed their positions to him, @jcharlesholt . It seems that nothing trumps money in our value system.

Thanks for sharing the info about your father, Charles. And sorry to hear about the realities of the biz. Best wishes.

I ran in to him on an elevator at a Stereophile Audio Show in West LA in the late 80's.  The only thing I remember about the ride was the smell.  Very bad personal habits.