INTERVIEW: Gideon Schwartz on the rise, fall and rise again of high-end hi-fi
Think music sounds good enough on your phone? You really need to get Hi-Fi: The History of High-End Audio Design
What does Gideon Schwartz hear when he listens to music? A huge amount, and that includes the sound of his heart beating. Schwartz is a self-described 'audio nut', the founder of Audioarts, a New York based ultra-high-end audio equipment showroom, which oversees and installs incredible high-fidelity domestic systems for a select number of clients. He's also the author of our new book, Hi-Fi: The History of High-End Audio Design.
Yet, for Schwartz, the story of hi-fi development goes way beyond mere sound. In this all-encompassing interview he explains, among other things why, in examining the world’s best and most beautiful turntables, amplifiers, tuners and speakers, we also better understand manufacturing, design, science and art, as well as how all these fields of human endeavour came together to the set off “the 20th century big bang of existential resistance” - echoes from which we can still hear today. It's a great read.
What is the most common reaction visitors to Audioarts have when they hear what a proper hi-fi can do for the first time? Ethereal. Therapeutic. If you think about what it means, in the year 2019, to forget about your phone and the chatter-obsessed world outside - and to step inside the complex and spiritually layered world of Philip Glass, Max Richter or Sarah Vaughan, you can then sensitize to the premise behind high-end audio and its essential purpose; which is to get lost in the music.
One of the things I enjoy witnessing is how clients rapidly transform after sitting in the listening chair and getting carried away by the music; the texting stops, shoulders lower and calm sets in. The conversation (if any) perhaps turns to “do you have any Curtis Mayfeld LP’s - maybe that live one at The Bitter End?” or “can we compare the digital remaster with the original LP?” After 2-3 hours have passed, the client often understands that there is real value in the world of immersive listening and deeper musical connection; with the ultimate realization that high-end audio is indispensable for their lives.
That must be one of the real perks of your job - to see the smile on their faces? The memory which penetrates most was when, after an installation, my client’s children gathered with their parents, excited to explore their new LP collection. A family sitting together - assembled around a stereo - just listening to music; and it’s not the 1950’s - amazing. On the design side - after all, this book is about design and audio aesthetics - I take great joy in witnessing an extraordinary system in unique settings. The equipment is frequently on display and often manifests a work of art in and of itself.
Since I view audio as industrial artistic expression, it fulfills me immensely to see a Swiss designed Ensemble, FM Acoustics, Goldmund or Seidenton product, for instance - and drawing a visual connection with other Swiss (non-audio) designs, be it Corbusier - or even reduced to its purist form, Miedinger’s Helvetica typeface. Maybe it’s the Munich based Zellaton loudspeaker - with roots going back generations; a loudspeaker that would not be out of place in a Weimer-era gallery. These are the types of audio/design neural connections going on in my head.
My installations can often be found in a mid-century masterpiece overlooking the water, maybe it’s high above Central Park or internationally based; and in important ways, a modest and cozy Brooklyn flat littered with wall-to-wall LP’s.
I just love the way good audio and LP’s humanize a room. Conversely, I can’t stand seeing poor sounding speakers ensconced in the wall, since they are essentially equivalent to the audio quality in a supermarket. But this form of mediocrity in fidelity has gripped popular build pragmatism. Everything has become invisible and insipid; which leaves the sensual and tactile senses dulled.
This “home automation” reality has, in its own consolidated way, made stereo listening another box to check by the decorator, along with your blinds and thermostat. This process implies that audio is relegated to background music, and it’s difficult for me to accept! I really hope that my reader’s imbue HiFi with a “call to arms” manifesto against today’s forced-fed mediocrity in audio quality.
How did you become aware of hi-fi? Originally because of my father, actually. Which is strange because he is not an audiophile; not even close. But he had a sense for quality, and tangentially - as a child holocaust survivor I suspect - he wanted his children to have what he didn’t; so when it was time for me to have a Sony Walkman in the 1980s, he bought me a better device, which was the top of the line Aiwa portable cassette player. I recall putting its headphones on for the first time and listening to FM - and being utterly blown away. At the time, my music world was New Wave and WLIR in Long Island was my singular source. The first song I heard on this new Aiwa set was “The Forest” by The Cure, broadcast by WLIR. The way in which the opening chords sounded so deep, clear and layered, had me hooked; not just on The Cure, but on good sound as well. An idiot savant was born.
As I got older, it was always an evolution from that first experience. Hearing, for the first time, Mark Levinson’s HQD stacked Quad speakers, Goldmund Mimesis 2/3 preamplifier/ amplifier, Ensemble PA-1 speakers, Spica TC-50 speakers, Infinity RS-1B speakers, Tandberg 3001A tuner & 3014A tape deck, Jadis JA-30 amplifiers, Celestion 600 speakers, DNM anything, ASR Emitter, Naim NAIT, Linn LP12, Fisher 500 receiver, Stax ESL speakers and a Studer-Revox reel to reel, left me thoroughly stunned.
Sorry about the laundry list; it is actually much longer and unbearably endless; especially fatiguing for non-audiophiles so I kept it to a minimum. These experiences fueled my passion for great sound and inspire what I do at Audioarts today; continually searching for the state of the art - and rediscovering the goosebumps originally induced by the vintage equipment of the past.
In writing this book, what, apart from the incredible history of hi-fi, did you want to get across? Great question because the answer is connected to what is happening globally, in other commercial areas of quality design/ build. I was recently talking to a friend who is looking for a new car, but feels uninspired by the industry’s (cookie cutter) current offerings. Namely, ubiquitous overuse of plastic, space ship ethos digital displays replacing analog gauges, a slew of silly options, and, in the end, the feeling that one is ultimately driving a computer, not a car.
The sentiment here is that the mechanical essence of cars - and what distinguishes one car from the next - is vanishing. The car industry is not alone, of course - as the world shifts to “making things that are good enough, just not good.” When planned obsolescence drives so much; where does that leave the great engineers and industrial designers, desirous of creating enduring products of lasting merit?
Perhaps now, we can understand why Dieter Rams’ designs for Braun have become so lauded, cherished and religiously preserved. The beauty about high-end audio is that it is one of the very few areas where the current day Dieter Rams’ can be found. The extreme and perfectionist driven approach of high end audio, lends itself to freedom in engineering and design exploration, often resulting in the ultimate coexistence of science and art. For instance, I have never had a “how can we compromise?” conversation with an audio manufacturer, as opposed to “how can we make it sound better?” give and take discussion.
So there’s a noble framework underlying this process, and in many ways perpetuates audio’s golden period of audio manufacturing in the 1950’s. Since the world of High-End audio preserves older, yet venerable values of craftsmanship and build, I felt it important to tell its story; even more poignant now, as much of manufacturing/globalization moves towards uniform mediocrity in quality.
How would you describe the book – is it a greatest hits of hi-fi or something else? Well, not a greatest hits as opposed to a “remastered” greatest hits, meaning it was ripe for an update on this incredible history of passion inspired audio; and it was high-time to forget about specs and move the conversation towards musical appreciation/ awareness, design and audio culture.
What were the things that surprised you along the way? Not so much as surprises as extreme feel good moments. While researching Mark Levinson in the early days of starting his newborn company in the early 1970s, I came across an inspiring NYT article. In it, he relays a story of how he brought to the legendary Saul Marantz, a prototype of his first preamplifier in order to get his opinion, validation and sign off. Just the process of a young designer going to the elder audio patriarch for affirmation and approval sits well with me.
There are some great pics of Elton John and Frank Sinatra in the book but, in general, musicians don't have good systems do they? Well, not necessarily. You should see (and hear) legendary Jazz bassist - Ron Carter’s - high-end system. I did, and can tell you it is amazing, especially when listening together with the great master. Surreal. But generally your point holds true. I suspect this is because musicians “live” music internally which serves as integral to their being. Therefore, this obviates seeking it out externally, namely in audio equipment. As for myself and increasingly painful to admit - having quit piano at a young age despite my mother’s insistence, high end audio replaces that mistake with Martha Argerich or Bill Evans in my living room.
What are the groundbreaking products you write about in the book and what made them special? This is so personal since every audiophile will probably give you different answers (and I already buried you with too many above,) but these were really special to me and still resonate until today:
Quad ESl 57 Speakers - with all its faults I still come back to it for holy listening. No bass. No highs. You need to sit directly in the middle for fear of being banished from the sweet spot. Can’t play loud. I can keep going, but none of these faults can yuk my yum, which is the most natural and breathing midrange ever envisioned. Getting sucked in by these vintage speakers is my temple.
Marantz 10B tuner - Much of my passion for high-end audio rests in tuner design and the 10B was unparalleled, both in design and sound. While it led the way to the extraordinary solid state Sequerra tuners to follow, it was the first real “super tuner.” Its scope which displays signal strength, looks so convincingly 1960s sci-fi; simply a wondrous piece of audio design. Mitigating my current-day enthusiasm for the 10B, is to witness what has become of FM and its (mostly) disastrous transmission quality, making this marquee product increasingly irrelevant. However, in those geographic areas where the transmission is not compressed or public/college stations are broadcasting curated music - and in some cases vinyl - the 10B is still essential. When FM broadcast is good, it convincingly trumps compressed MP3 streaming.
The world of Hi Fi is quite male dominated, ego driven (and can actually be quite bitchy) why? ' Bitchy' - wow, I didn’t see that one coming! I could probably muster up a smart answer to deflect, but have to admit you’re right, sadly.
Yet, I’m confused by this male dominated reality, since music and audio’s gifts of immersive listening are naturally universal. While the truth is that the minority of my clients are women, the often deeper and emotional connection they form with music, is very rewarding to witness. For instance, I had a French woman visit the studio and I played LPs from Edith Piaf, Juliette Greco, Joe Dassin, Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg and Mylene Farmer. During the Juliette Greco LP, she just started crying.
After we finished, she said the authenticity of the music and emotional reproduction of the records, brought her back to her childhood spent with her grandmother in France. She mentioned how intimate and personal the listening experience was; feelings not inspired by her headphones, smartphone or computer.
Have I ever experienced this with a male client? Never. I suspect the answer lies in the way audio has historically developed; namely as guy/ techie - and not as an art form or conduit for the musical message. This cumulative labeling of audio as male gear, 60’s bachelor pad, hobbyist driven and over-emphasis on technical specs, has contributed to a myopic channeling into the male realm.
With the resurgence of Millennial interest in vintage high-end audio and LPs, I’m seeing evidence of change, with more and more women embracing this world - and it’s so gratifying to be a part of this demographic shift.
As far as the bitchiness goes, it’s like that for anything high-end. I’ve been to wristwatch and car events where you’d think it was a casting call for Downton Abbey, and high-end audio snobbery is no different. Elitist audiophile culture has always made me laugh. The image of old men in ripped underwear, opining on audio while feigning noble polemics, is incontrovertibly comical.
What are the records people play in demos that surprise you, and what ones do you never want to hear again? I can’t stand the banal music that many audiophiles obsessively play over and over again. With that said, what a relief it is when a client walks in with a James Brown LP - singing “Summertime” with Martha High, maybe Jimmy Smith at his Hammond organ in “Root Down,” or Julito Rodriguez, the great Puerto Rican Bolero singer and guitarist, lassoing your soul with “Por Qué Ya No Me Quieres. I want music, not audiophile fireworks.
And what should people bring that will really assess a system’s qualities? The music they love.
What is the singularly most beautiful looking piece of hi fi you’ve come across – and was it also the best sounding? The Goldmund Reference Turntable with T3F Linear Arm. Released in the 80’s, it was a masterpiece of audio industrial design and fidelity. I don’t think it has ever been surpassed; the beau idéal of what “Swiss Made” truly stands for. Please note that I did not just say that in a “bitchy” manner! I realize that deifying a turntable can be held to be suspect, but spinning a record on this table can be a religious experience - especially if you cherish vinyl.
Digital versus analog - Could you give us a viewpoint we might not have heard before? This one I did see coming, but see no way out of this corner; so with some degree of reluctance, I’ll dive in: While analog advocates repeatedly point to this diagram, illustrating analog and digital sine waves - and drawing from it (in their view) analog’s superior flow and organic aural continuity - seemingly fails to address the bigger, more nuanced picture.
Firstly, it’s an issue of music awareness and availability. Not all the music that was recorded to LP made its way onto CDs - and not all CD-recorded music has made (or will make) its way into the streaming realm. Meaning that as time passes and we change mediums, music is tragically lost along the way; and illustrates why, regardless of the Analog v. Digital debate, we need to preserve humankind’s musical library. That means enjoying the variety of LP’s, tape, CDs and streaming derived content; refreshingly leaving (which is better) debates out of it.
Of course I’m an advocate for great sound, but sometimes we need to step outside of ourselves and bring it down to the music. For instance, I love many 12” LP remixes that were popular in the 80’s and 90’s, especially in DJ scenes when clubbing was popular. Many of these 12” records are not available on CD or streaming. Additionally, I have CDs that are not available via streaming.
So when I’m listening to this “extinct” music, I’m not thinking which is better, I’m just enjoying. As to the merits of fidelity, I truly love and enjoy both LPs and CDs. A bad recording will reveal itself whether on LP or CD, so the better question focuses on the quality of the recording itself and the quality of the playback equipment. Eventually, it turns to a re-mastering issue; is it a digital reissue on LP or pure analog transfer - and so on. With all these variables, it can get a little overwhelming, assuming one endeavors to peel the layers.
Still, the overriding point is that listening to CDs on a high-end system leaves me just as fulfilled as an LP does. It’s about releasing different endorphins from different mediums. They are not mutually exclusive and can co-exist beautifully. Many of the best non-upsampling and non-oversampling digital to analog converters came out in digital’s nascent years of the 1980’s. While many decried those early digital days, I still have a Revox 225 CD player from 1986 which draws me in CD after CD. But on those nights when my every cell is yearning for a Miles Davis, Johnny Hartman or Julie London LP - well, nothing else will do.
Different mediums for different moods. As to streaming, the early days of MP3 were undoubtedly dark, especially for audiophiles. Unfortunately, MP3 still pervades much internet derived music - and it continues to sound compressed and one-dimensional. Happily, notable exceptions have developed recently with sites like Tidal, HDtracks and Qobuz; streaming excellent fidelity without the compression - assuming the end user is using a quality digital to analog converter, along with commensurate playback gear. Presupposing that streaming is sourced from a quality site dedicated to excellent sonics, current high-end gear can convincingly maximize streaming’s potential. Finally! With that said, and as optimistic as I am about streaming’s progress, I still prefer tape, LPs and CDs.
What did we lose when we swapped quality for convenience and will we ever get it back? I’m inclined to say no but ask me again in a few years. This is why: The convergence of social and cultural elements of the preceding century all contributed to a dynamic drive towards quality in audio reproduction.
It's evidenced by way of musical artistry and the recording arts, ultimately flourishing through high-fidelity. This 20th-century big bang of existential resistance, having fueled the arts and industrial design, is no longer a driving force. Perhaps the future will recycle these values, but for now society puts more weight on convenience, whether it's thousands of MP3 songs on a smart phone or a robot “curating” a playlist based on tastes. The depressing common denominator here, is that we are removing the human spirit from musical discovery and playback. With all this convenience, is anybody actually “listening” to music anymore? And does all this convenience really facilitate one’s attention span, which musical appreciation ultimately merits and deserves?
Flying in the face of this bleak reality, is vinyl’s reportedly estimated 9.7 million album sales in 2018. Vinyl sales have been steadily increasing in recent years and this trend appears to be unstoppable. Reports even suggest that for the first time since 1986, vinyl sales have eclipsed CD sales. Where this data ultimately takes us is still up in the air; so I’ll side on a more measured reaction to all this, despite my inherent and natural desire to overstate its relevance vis-a-vis (my hopeful) society’s return to quality. Yet, as I have been selling more turntables now than ever, this news resonates assuringly well - and suggests that human beings, in the end, have an innate desire for the tangible - and for the experiences that our senses have gifted us. This is why high-end audio exists.
To learn about the development of great hi-fi equipment and to see many more pictures, buy a copy of Hi-Fi: The History of High-End Audio Design here. The book is an exquisitely detailed examination of the world of high-end audio design, made for passionate collectors, obsessive audiophiles, and design fans.
This unique book explores just how, when, and why the world fell in love with the look, feel, and sound of top-of-the-line audio equipment. Hi-Fi traces this fascinating evolution from the 1950s to today (and tomorrow), taking readers right up to the current renaissance of all things analog and the emergence of cutting-edge designs for die-hard audiophiles. Get Hi-Fi: The History of High-End Audio Design here.