I am delighted to welcome a special guest to the Tom Tom Club. Chris Frankland tells the extraordinary story of The Flat Response magazine – James
The Flat Response Story
by Chris Frankland
NOT in my wildest dreams could I have imagined how things would turn out after I was made redundant from Haymarket Publishing in 1983.
I had not intended to create a ‘cult’ magazine [well, three of them really if you count the later Hi-Fi Review and Motorcycle Review] but it seems that’s what I did when I decided to make the most of my new-found freedom and launch The Flat Response in March 1984.
A cult? Well, what else could you call it when you can – even as I write this – find a set of 10 issues offered for sale on eBay for £999? OK, so they haven’t been sold yet and I doubt I’ll be bidding at that price. However, it does show that TFR touched a nerve and earned a place in hi-fi history. Indeed, even last year, people were still talking about it in online hi-fi forums. It was an antidote to all those mediocre hi-fi mags of the day.
Rather than finding myself at a loose end when cast adrift by Haymarket, I knew straight away what I wanted to do. My redundancy payment provided the financial wherewithal to fund the project. Then my long-suffering father, God rest his soul, stepped in with some rent-free accommodation to help me along. Hey, it’s what families are for, right?
I found a local printer who would do the typesetting and printing – this was back in pre-desktop publishing days – but I also needed film and plate makers. I had to be a competent photographer too – a skill I picked up (luckily) quite quickly because this was also in pre-digital days and I had to learn from my mistakes. Using film meant that you didn’t know until the roll was processed whether you had done a good job or bad.
I also found a willing designer and layout person in the form of an ex-colleague from Haymarket who was more than happy to earn a bit of extra dosh in his spare time by doing TFR for me. This was essential as back then you received bromide prints of the typesetting which were cut up with a scalpel and pasted down with cow gum onto a layout grid sheet. Ah, those were the days!
During my stint with Haymarket on Popular Hi-Fi, which I joined in 1979 and of which I became editor a year later, I managed to turn it into what I thought was a half-decent magazine, but I was hamstrung to a large extent by the fact that it relied on revenue from advertising to make a profit [money from sales usually just about covers printing and distribution costs]. There were frequent threats from disgruntled advertisers – whose products had been given the reviews they deserved – to pull their advertising out of the magazine.
But they usually came back with their tails between their legs because readers like strong editorial. Advertisers ultimately want to advertise in magazines that have a healthy circulation.
When my old publisher John Houselander retired, Haymarket decided they wanted to take the magazine in a different direction – a less controversial one – and so I found myself out on my ear. Meanwhile, Popular Hi-Fi was reborn as New Hi-Fi Sound. It folded around two years later. Need I say more?
But that parting of the ways was a chance to make my mark and I decided that I would strike a blow for common sense with The Flat Response. From the very start, I vowed it would not carry manufacturer advertising and that the magazine should be distributed through good hi-fi dealers. After a couple of issues, to help keep it going, I decided to accept advertising from hi-fi shops, but I never had any of them complain because I had slagged off a particular product.
I decided that The Flat Response would not pull its punches and that it would be a no-holds-barred, no-nonsense breath of fresh air in a market where its competitors were staid, unreadable and unfathomable to anybody who was into music. They talked of treble, midrange, bass, imagery and colouration – terms that meant nothing to anybody and failed to convey a sense of the musical experience that a good hi-fi system should deliver.
I called it The Flat Response because it was ‘my response’ to those who labelled a certain faction within the hi-fi community of the day ‘flat earthers’. Now, in case you can’t remember back that far, what they actually meant by that was anybody who liked Linn and Naim products.
These were exciting, ground-breaking and pioneering days in hi-fi. Linn and Naim were the first manufacturers to talk about music. How a system has to swing, have rhythm. They talked about their systems only in terms of music – not treble, bass and midrange. To me, and many others, this was obvious and I could wholeheartedly relate to evaluating the performance of a hi-fi system by talking about how it performed on actual music, in musical terms. Isn’t the enjoyment of music what it’s all about, after all? This is what I did in my reviews and it was revolutionary.
Of course, other reviewers and many manufacturers couldn’t relate to this at all. We were therefore branded ‘flat-earthers’. Those who spoke out against this new approach were in the main followers of the new vanguard of products – the resurrected valve amplifier brigade and those who loved ultra-expensive and ‘exotic’ imports from the States. They cost a fortune, so they had to be good, didn’t they? Ironic that we were branded flat-earthers when they were the ones getting dewy-eyed over old-fashioned valve amps, which by and large sounded warm and friendly but hardly competed with state-of-the-art transistor technology from the likes of Naim, Exposure and Meridian. Okay, there were one or two decent valve amps, but these came from British mavericks like the talented Tim de Paravicini with his EAR monsters. Now, they were good, but he was an exceptionally gifted designer who could make good-sounding amplifiers irrespective of whether they were valve or transistor.
I recently read a post on a Naim forum saying that they were confused as to why when TFR, or its later newsstand persona Hi-Fi Review, recommend Linn, Rega, Naim or whatever, it was bias, whereas when the other mags recommended Audio Research, Oracle, Krell or other such exotica, that was perfectly fine and in no way biased. It’s a fair point, isn’t it? And I would like to take a stab at answering that, because there aren’t too many people around now that could or would.
To understand it, you have to understand what was happening to the hi-fi world back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I said earlier that these were pioneering, ground-breaking days, and they were. At the forefront of this hi-fi revolution were Linn and Naim (but let’s not forget Rega, Nytech, Creek and a few other worthies). And by Linn and Naim, what I really mean is Ivor Tiefenbrun of Linn and Julian Vereker of Naim. Up until this point it is my opinion [and that of manufacturers like those named above] that virtually all hi-fi reviewers had written nebulously in terms such as treble, midrange, bass, coloration and soundstage. Therefore their reviews were completely incomprehensible and meaningless to any normal person.
When Ivor and Julian came along, they talked about music, rhythm, pace, real things in the music that normal people could relate to and hear for themselves in a proper, well-conducted in-store demo. They weren’t having to think if there was enough bass, treble, or whether the coloration was a bit pink, or a bit green. All they needed to know was could they follow the bass guitar? Could they hear what the hi-hat was playing? Could they tap their feet in time to the music?
Now this was scary and made scarier by the fact that on a regular basis, at shows and on visits to their respective headquarters in Glasgow (Linn) and Salisbury (Naim), Ivor and Julian would sit reviewers down and do them a blind comparison. They could not see what was being played.
Ivor did it to me the first time I visited Linn in Glasgow. After all, even though I wrote in glowing terms about his LP12, how was he to know I was not just as incapable of hearing these real differences as some of the others? So, he played me a Rega Planar 3 versus an LP12. He never let me see which was playing.
First, he played A then B and asked what I thought. I told him that on B I could hear far more of what the musicians were doing and could follow the rhythm of the music much more easily. B was of course the LP12. Then he did another two-way comparison, and this time when he asked which I preferred, I said: “Well, I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t really hear much difference.”
Ivor smiled and said that he had played the Rega twice. Even though I was writing glowing reviews of his products, he still wanted to establish whether I was just following the crowd and paying lip-service to his products, or of I really could hear the differences. Ivor was a man who did not suffer fools lightly – a bit like myself really – which is why I liked him straightaway!
I think it was this uncompromising, maybe ruthless, approach, their strong views and their unwillingness to suffer fools lightly that made people afraid of them. They were intimidated by Julian and Ivor, especially those who realised that they just could not hear the kind of things that they were talking about. And so they were built up into some kind of unholy duo, the bêtes noires of the industry, and people either loved them or hated them. But like it or not, they changed forever the face of the hi-fi industry in this country and perhaps the world. They got people listening to music. And that legacy still lives on today. Of course they made enemies because of it, and they were vociferous. Ivor and Julian were the antichrist and I was their most outspoken apostle.
They also introduced the concept of a system hierarchy, whereby the turntable was the thing that determined how good the system could be and not, as had always been believed, the speakers. They were the first to say that a system that had a £1,000 pair of speakers fed by a Dual CS505 and a Creek amplifier would be worse than one that had an LP12 at the front, the same Creek amp and a £100 pair of speakers.
They also got dealers doing proper demonstrations so that people could hear real differences for themselves. Demos where there was only one pair of speakers in the room at a time, rather than the usual wall of speakers. They singlehandedly consigned the dreaded comparator to the dustbin because of the signal degradation it caused, thereby making it more difficult for customers to tell the difference between things. They went round dealers’ showrooms proving to them that the very act of introducing a second pair of non-driven speakers into the room made the sound worse. So, the more speakers there were in a room, the more the sound would be degraded and the more difficult it became to hear subtle differences between other components in the system the dealer was demonstrating. I tried it myself at home and it proved to be true. So when I reviewed speakers at home, only one pair would be in the room at a time when I was listening. This was radical stuff and that’s why I see it as a pivotal time in hi-fi. It seems as if no one had a clue what they were doing before they came along.
All of this challenged conventional thinking and the establishment inevitably felt threatened. It even led the likes of Quad to say that when listened to at the same volume level, all amplifiers sounded the same. Now, we all believed that didn’t we?
I remember when I joined Haymarket, working on what was Hi-Fi Sound – but which latterly was renamed Popular Hi-fi, of which I eventually became editor – they didn’t have a clue how to put a system together. They reviewed complete systems, but they were just haphazardly assembled without any idea of how they would sound or work together. Random components were strung together in the hope that it would all work OK. And sometimes it did, but usually it didn’t. And no one thought the source components was the most important. They all thought it was the speakers, because that’s where the sound comes out.
And so it was that into these exciting, radically changing times, The Flat Response was born. And above all it was tremendous fun, with a capital F. I no longer had to bite my tongue and if I thought a cartridge selling for £800 was in my opinion worse than a Linn Basik at £20, I would say so.
It has always struck me as one of the great ironies that when it comes to hi-fi, the old adage of ‘pay more and get better’ just did not always apply and some of the most expensive products I came across were some of the worst. With most things, cars, TVs, motorcycles, the more you pay the better the product. But in the wacky world of hi-fi, it seemed that price was no guarantee of good sound quality.
One of the reasons for this – one that I have not hitherto shared in print – is that I believe that on cheap products, the indifferent designer does not have much latitude to indulge his crazy design ideas and things have to be kept pretty basic. Especially with loudspeakers, you would find that as the designer gained the freedom on more expensive models to incorporate more of his lame-duck ideas, the worse they would sound.
Apart from outrageously frank reviews that were not influenced by brand name or price, Flat Response also enjoyed some notoriety for its Curse of the Claw gossip page. Fearlessly pillorying industry figures and practices, it became almost de rigueur to be mentioned and so it built up a wholly deserved cult following. To this day, I still cannot reveal the identity of The Claw. Many have speculated but I never revealed the Claw’s true identity, as they were well-known in the industry at the time. Many have tried to wheedle out of me who it was, but, even after all these years, my lips must remain sealed.
TFR also enjoyed a special relationship with retailers. Remember, these guys are at the sharp end. They have to convince Joe Bloggs that product X is worth spending £1,000 on or that it’s worth the extra against product Y at £500. In this environment, nebulous talk of treble and bass and images floating like fluffy clouds between the speakers just won’t cut it. Well, not with anyone who’s got any common sense, anyway. They played music, people listened and suddenly realised that they could hear more of the music on one product than another, and so they’d buy it.
Retailers too had grown tired of reviews that meant nothing and were fed up with customers coming through the door saying magazine X had recommended product Y, which they knew was crap. Canny dealers kept product Y in stock just to demonstrate to people how terrible it really was. This is why they welcomed The Flat Response and Hi-Fi Review with open arms and sold it in their shops.
The Flat Response of course was never available through newsagents. It was not that I did not have the capability or contacts to get it sold through newsagents because it was ably demonstrated with the later Hi-Fi Review. This was available everywhere that rival mags were, but I knew that TFR’s content and unique style would appeal to a more limited audience. The average magazine reader would probably not have gotten it.
I decided that it would be sold only through hi-fi retailers. And in the end, all of what one would have considered to be the best retailers in the country were selling it and backed it enthusiastically. Because they could see that it was saying the things they thought. They had a very poor opinion of the other newsstand magazines and TFR was just what they had been looking for.
Before long, I also secured strong sales overseas with the help of a couple of British hi-fi manufacturers who kindly shipped TFR out to their overseas distributors. This meant that TFR was actually read throughout the world in countries such as the USA, Australia, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, Italy, France, Germany, Hong Kong and Canada.
This special relationship with retailers meant that often we would be alerted to things the mainstream mags would not be privy to. I remember vividly one retailer sending me a photocopy of a training manual issued by a major manufacturer on how to sell their first CD players. This was when the first CD players hit the UK and everyone was predicting that vinyl was doomed. But anyone with a decent pair of ears could tell that those early CD players were substantially worse than even a humble Dual CS505. The fascinating thing was that this sales manual specifically warned its reps not to attempt to demonstrate the indestructibility of CDs (one of its major claims) and under no circumstances to compare it directly against a vinyl LP. I wonder why?
Not long after the first CD players appeared, I fondly remember staging a Flat Response road show, and over a period of several months, I would take Flat Response to dealers all over the UK and we would meet our readers and stage direct comparisons between the first Philips and Sony players and a Dual CS505. No prizes for guessing that the Dual was virtually universally preferred to the CD players. I enjoyed that road show trip tremendously and it allowed me meet many of my retailers face to face. It was on that trip that I met Adam Meredith at Cloney Audio in Dublin. He came to work for me on Hi-Fi Review some years later.
I mentioned earlier how hi-fi is one of the very few sectors where spending more money is absolutely no guarantee you’ll end up with something better and saying so in my reviews got me into hot water quite a few times. Never more so than when we reviewed a system comprising some extremely highly regarded American exotica that had been well reviewed in the mainstream mags.
Having quickly established that any one Linn or Naim component inserted into the American system would improve the sound, and that any component from that system introduced into the Linn/Naim system (Linn LP12/Ittok/Karma, Naim NAP135 amps, Linn Isobarik speakers) made it worse, I soon turned my attention to the question of, just how bad were some of these alternative products in terms of sound quality. I ended up comparing the £2,500 American pre-amplifier against the pre-amp section of a lowly £100 NAD 3020 integrated amp. To my astonishment, I found that I preferred the NAD 3020’s preamp section.
This had the hounds baying for my blood. Even as late as 2012, I could still find references to that test on a hi-fi forum on the internet. That’s 30 years later! It obviously had a profound impact, but that was why I had started TFR. These things needed saying and no one up to that point had dared say them in print. There were many retailers who shared these sentiments but their voices never got heard. On the forum, they asked if I was insane. Well, all I can say is that I did the test and I had no reason to favour NAD, which after all was not Linn or Naim. I just spoke my mind honestly because I was incensed at the prospect of seeing people spend their hard-earned cash on products I believed were not worth the money.
Although in the early days I was very much a one-man-band, I was soon joined by fellow reviewer and music lover Malcolm Steward who used to work at The Sound Organisation shop in London, where I first met him. I was also aided and abetted by technical reviewer Noel Keywood, also a music lover, who helped us with any bench tests that might be needed. Malcolm left some years later, after I had launched Hi-Fi Review and my motorcycle magazine – Motorcycle Review. I started this because I felt all the other motorcycle magazines of the day were not up to very much.
Noel Keywood played a crucial role in Flat Response, because although many people of a technical bent poured scorn on ‘subjective’ reviewing as unreliable, Noel brought to Flat Response a great technical knowledge and the ability to put equipment through a rigorous test procedure in his lab, combined – and this was unusual – with the ability to evaluate hi-fi components in a musical way.
Noel gave us the technical credentials to back up our claims with fact. But more than that, because of his open-mindedness and unwillingness to swallow some of the nonsense spouted by manufacturers in the early days of CD, he joined us in blowing apart some of the ridiculous claims made for Compact Disc. I remember well a couple of ground-breaking articles in Flat Response where we debunked the myths surrounding CD with a full set of measurements on the players, followed up with an article that looked in great detail at what was contained on a CD and LP and how the two formats compared technically.
The results were shocking and uncovered unpalatable facts that none of the other mainstream magazines had ever hinted at, nor ever would. To my mind, this elevated Flat Response from what might have been dismissed by some as a gossip mag or scandal rag to a magazine that brought its readers serious technical and investigative journalism they could find nowhere else.
I know that digital and iPods and downloads are now part of everyday life and has all but laid vinyl to rest, but even the MD [Gilead, son of Ivor] of Linn Products, which is heavily into digital music, said not that long ago that he hoped one day digital might even be as good as LP. Need one say more?
Even today, though, those articles that Noel and I collaborated on make astonishing reading. Take for example the May/June 1985 issue of The Flat Response where the front cover proclaimed in large letters ‘40% THD: Compact Disc – We explode the low distortion myth’.
Remember that the manufacturers were claiming pure, perfect sound forever and ‘negligible’ distortion. But that’s not what we discovered. Under the headline ‘Lies, Damned Lies and Digital’ Noel stated from the outset that “Compact Disc players are not distortion-free, they don’t have a flat frequency response and, at present, the system is not capable of providing perfect sound.” And being the technical guru he is, he went on to prove it.
Noel admitted that just stating that CD had 40% distortion was about as meaningful as trying to say that it had negligible distortion, but he pointed out that digital differs in one vital way from analogue. And that’s in the fact that with analogue, as the signal level gets louder distortion goes up, whereas with digital distortion drops as the level goes up. At full volume, it is very low indeed, around 0.001%. But at the levels we mostly listen at, distortion is far from low. His tests showed that the ear can easily hear signals recorded at a level of -65dB below full output (0dB) where he measured distortion on the CD player at around 4% – a far cry from 0.001%! At -90dB, we got a distortion level of 38.5% THD [total harmonic distortion]. He also pointed out that where with analogue distortion harmonics are ‘even order’ and pleasing to the ear, all of the significant distortion on digital is ‘odd order’ and extended right up to 20kHz, which is particularly nasty to the ear.
As for the other claim of 90dB dynamic range, Noel blew the lid of that one by saying: “CD may well be capable of 90dB, but anything greater than 30-40dB is unusable in the home [so say the recording companies]. Quiet passages would be inaudible and loud passages would blow the roof off.”
These were serious issues back in the day and far from shying away from them The Flat Response embraced them and blew apart some of the myths and misconceptions in a way that most magazines seemed unwilling to do.
Fun as The Flat Response was, in terms of an ongoing business proposition, it was only ever going to have a limited circulation and it was not long before I started to think that it would be a good idea to develop the concept into something that I could sell through the newsstands and run as a proper business – something to really give the likes of Hi-Fi Answers and Hi-Fi News a run for their money.
And so in March 1986, Hi-Fi Review was born. Under its skin, the same values applied and the same people were doing the reviews. We still rattled cages but we broadened out the scope to have something of interest for all hi-fi enthusiasts. Sadly, niche interest elements, such as Curse of the Claw and Derek Whittington’s irreverent Read All About It critique of the other mags, had to go as they would have gone over the heads of the casual reader, but I did introduce columns from such luminaries as Paul Messenger and Paul Benson, former editor of Hi-Fi Answers, for whom I had freelanced in the Seventies.
I am also very proud, looking back, to remind everyone that Hi-Fi Review was the very first UK hi-fi magazine to use full colour in its editorial – the other mags may have had colour adverts, but all the editorial was black and white (because it was cheaper!). Needless to say, it was only a couple of months before Hi-Fi News followed suit, and then the rest were not far behind. Oh to be a trendsetter!
Hi-Fi Review was still fun, but I took a slight step back from it when I launched Motorcycle Review. Motorcycling was my other passion and I felt strongly that the mainstream motorcycle press had gone rapidly downhill since the late 70s. I decided that motorcycle publishing needed the kind of shake-up I had given hi-fi and it launched in September 1988.
I find it personally very gratifying and fulfilling to reflect that people genuinely loved The Flat Response and Hi-Fi Review. It fulfilled a real need and sadly we have never seen its like since nor, I suspect, ever will. I have read many posts on recent hi-fi forums where people have said they wished they had Hi-Fi Review back today. They seem to feel that the mainstream hi-fi mags today are little better than they were when I started The Flat Response. Some things never change!
Reader response to Motorcycle Review was every bit as enthusiastic. But sadly, when the recession hit, I found that I had stretched myself too thinly. I had launched Motorcycle Review without having sought the extra funding I needed and by the time the downturn had taken hold, banks were no longer as willing to lend as they were before the recession. Easy to see that now, of course, with the benefit of hindsight!
But when I look back, I smile because I enjoyed that period in my life tremendously and met some great friends. It gives me a warm glow to feel that what I did back then really made a difference.
It only remains to thank all of my collaborators on TFR and HFR (and Motorcycle Review, of course) and my loyal readers who made it all possible. I hope you all had as much fun reading our scribblings as we did producing them.
© Chris Frankland
No part of this article may be reproduced without the express permission of the author