In 1986, the new editor of Hi-Fi News was only the fourth in the title’s 30-year history, but would go on to see us through the next two decades, during which the hi-fi scene changed beyond all recognition. Since leaving for semi-retirement in 2005, Steve Harris remains a uniquely valued contributor


Kit is racked up in one corner of the comfortably furnished room, behind the Quad speakers. Solid walls with period alcoves and window embrasures help the acoustics

As this is being written, in spring 2011, Steve Harris is looking back over a quarter-century with Hi-Fi News. Steve’s long tenure as editor began when he took over from John Atkinson in 1986.
   ‘At the time I was the editor of Hi-Fi Choice but I had written a few music pieces for Hi-Fi News,’ says Steve. ‘When John left for the USA and Stereophile, the publisher called me in and offered me the job. I couldn’t have been more delighted.’
   Needless to say, the passion for music and sound that Steve brought to Hi-Fi News was something that started early in life. ‘Although I never dreamed back then that it would be a career! At school in the 1960s, really from Sergeant Pepper on, everyone knew about stereo, but few of us actually had a stereo system at home. When anyone bought a record, it was a case of taking it round to someone who had a proper hi-fi. I was rather in awe of one friend who had a B&O stereo system.
   ‘And I still remember at another friend’s house, putting the speakers of his parents’ stereo system facing each other on the carpet, and taking turns to lie on the floor with our heads between them to listen to The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.
   ‘At home, my father had a rather smart Hacker mono record player, which could easily be converted to stereo by adding another matching unit. My brother and I tried to persuade him to do this, but he wouldn’t. When I went off to university in Nottingham, I took the old Murphy radiogram, which had been passed on to us when dad got the Hacker. It was a good machine, with its Collaro autochanger deck, but hardly hi-fi.
   ‘When I came back to live in London, I shared a flat, and a hi-fi system. In the early 1970s, unless you were rich, there were two turntables to choose from, the Garrard SP25 and the BSR McDonald MP60. My flatmate had gone for the BSR. The cartridge was a Goldring G800, which he considered so precious that if he went away he would take out the stylus and hide it. Actually, in view of the stuff that went on in that flat, perhaps he was only being sensible.

LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
‘I was an aimless and unemployed English Studies graduate, but I had to earn a living. Somebody told me that you could always get get work as a hospital porter, so I did that for a few months. Then I thought I’d better get a proper job, and I joined British Telecom as an executive officer. But after about four months I was climbing the walls with boredom and I just left.
   ‘It was sheer luck that around that time, through friends of student days, I’d happened to meet Noel Keywood. He’s now the owner of Hi-Fi World, of course, but at that point he’d just been appointed as the editor of Hi-Fi Answers. Knowing that I could at least write and spell, he offered me a temporary job on the magazine.
   ‘I really enjoyed myself as a general editorial dogsbody, learning on the job, putting the pages together and writing bits and pieces. It was all very new and exciting. I must have learned quickly enough, because at the end of the summer the publishers offered me a permanent job, on another magazine in the group. Then I became production editor, deputy editor and finally editor of a trade weekly for newsagents and booksellers. It took me away from the world of hi-fi that I was still just discovering, but I did meet some interesting people. I wrote interviews with Richard Ingrams of Private Eye and William Davis, then the editor of Punch, for example.
   ‘So there were compensations, but it was still a trade paper. When I got the chance to move back to the hi-fi magazine group, I jumped at it. ‘After working to remorseless weekly deadlines, returning to a monthly like Hi-Fi Answers seemed like a holiday at first. The editor was Richard Chapman, but he quickly left to edit partworks for Marshall Cavendish. He was replaced by Paul Benson, and I must say that working under Paul was a lot of fun.

AN EASY CHOICE
‘Then I was given the editorship of the market leader What Hi-Fi?, which was great, because I really had the chance to improve on what had gone before. I tried hard to give readers honest reviews that they could understand, with basic measurements included.
   ‘After three years on What Hi-Fi?, though, I was ready for a change. In the autumn of 1981, I got a call from Paul Messenger, asking if I’d like to take over from him as editor of Hi-Fi Choice. He was leaving to rejoin Hi-Fi News as publisher.
   ‘I was told that there was a plan afoot to relaunch Hi-Fi Choice as an upmarket monthly to compete with Hi-Fi News. This seemed an exciting prospect, so I jumped ship.
   ‘As it turned out, the relaunch as a monthly didn’t happen, mainly because the UK economy was now in recession, and hi-fi was in the doldrums anyway, with CD still a couple of years away. Fortunately, CD did take off, the economy seemed to improve and interest in hi-fi picked up again. But by then I had moved again and was commuting to Croydon as the new editor of Hi-Fi News.
   ‘In those days I had what now seems like a very large permanent staff of six – in contrast to PM’s one – but there was just always too much to do. Then, before desktop publishing, the production process was very cumbersome, and contributors sent their copy in as typescript. Like John Atkinson, I could at least write my own copy on a computer and send it to the typesetters on a floppy disc. But it was some years before the owners, Link House, slowly and painfully, moved into the desktop publishing era by providing Mac computers and replacing the old paste-up system with on-screen page make-up.

AND THE HIFI?
‘Of course, I had continued trying to improve my own system. With hindsight, I think one of the biggest steps I ever took towards better sound was acquiring a Thorens turntable, during that first temporary spell on Hi-Fi Answers. I wouldn’t have been able to afford a complete Thorens deck. But Noel Keywood had mounted a TD150 chassis on a simple acrylic plinth and fitted it with a Micro Seiki MA77 arm and Audio-Technica AT66 cartridge, and he sold this to me.
   ‘This was quite good as it stood. But as I was really on fire to improve things, there was only one thing to do. I went up to Tottenham Court Road and bought a brand new SME 3009 Series II, with detachable headshell. I think it cost about £39. I still remember how nice it was to get home with that SME box, happy in the knowledge that I’d just bought the best there was.
   ‘I strayed later for a while in a flirtation with a massive Empire Troubadour turntable. This had a big diecast suspended subchassis and what seemed to me a very eccentric arm design, with a flimsy plastic detachable headshell. I fiddled and faddled with it in an amateurish way but never got it to sound as satisfying as the old Thorens.
   ‘Like the rest of my generation, I eventually succumbed to the lure of the Linn/Grace/Supex. I still remember the first night spent rediscovering my record collection with it. It was a magic combination, and I stuck with it for several years.
   ‘But I didn’t continue to follow the Linn path after that. By now, like other journalists, I’d reached that incredibly privileged position of being able to try out equipment without having to buy it, as new products were constantly being loaned for review.
   ‘Around 1989 I was able to start using a Roksan Xerxes, and this was like a rejuvenating tonic. Apart from anything else, it seemed subjectively more pitch- or speed-stable than other turntables. ‘Today I have an SME 10, which I think is a great turntable for reviewing purposes as well as just for listening pleasure. Apart from being beautifully made, like everything from SME, it has an utterly consistent, neutral sound. You know where you are with it, so it provides a solid and dependable base for comparisons. You can change cartridges easily and because of its precision engineering you get repeatable results. It never goes out of adjustment.


The turntable is the SME Model 10, with Benz Micro Glider SL cartridge. Sharing the shelf to the right is an Acoustic Signature Tango phono stage

 

FIRST CD
‘When CD came along, I had bought a first-generation player, the Marantz CD63, which of course was a badge-engineered Philips CD100. After a year or two, this simple top-loading player with no numeric display (it just had a string of LEDs to tell you which track you were on) seemed almost absurdly out of date, so I thought I’d better get rid of it while it was still worth something. I sold it at a big loss, of course, and now I slightly regret not hanging on to it as a collector’s item. It would be interesting to hook it up and see what it really sounded like now.
   ‘After that I more or less stuck with Philips and Marantz players for a long time. The move from 14-bit oversampling to true 16-bit seemed like a big step forward, and I found myself liking CD a lot more after that. And I still remember going round to Paul Miller’s house to hear the Sony amp that had the first Bit Stream DAC built in. It seemed for a moment as if we’d now be able to start enjoying a much more flowing and musical CD sound, but the production bitstream players never really lived up to that promise.
   ‘In fact, I think there’d been a long period when CD sound didn’t really progress very much, before there were some big leaps forward. As a magazine editor, I was lucky enough to be able to get my hands on Wadia and dCS players and learn what they could do.


On the lower shelves of the elegant BCD rack sit Steve’s Pathos Endorphin CD player and Classé CAP 2100 amplifier

DECENT AMPLIFIER
‘As a child of the Linn era, I did always tend to believe that the source was more important than amplifiers and speakers. But even in my early days on Hi-Fi Answers, I had managed to buy what was then regarded as a really decent amplifier, the Sugden A48. Mine was among the last of the old ones with the traditional wood sleeve, black front and understated knobs and switches, which preceded the hideous Nextel-painted Series 2.
   ‘To go with this, I acquired a beautiful pair of Spendor BC1 speakers. These weren’t the earliest type, they were the ones with the revised bass unit. They were very good, but unfortunately, I was always mentally comparing my pair with the experience of hearing an early pair. When people talk about the magical midrange of the original BC1, it isn’t a myth!
   ‘After the Sugden, of course, I was able to listen to many different amplifiers on loan for review. Over the years I’ve used many valve amplifiers, and got some fabulous results with them. There’s no denying the kind of organic quality and immediacy you can get from valves. But funnily enough, although I always enjoy those qualities, I can actually live without them. I survive quite happily, for most of the time, with a neutral, noise-free solid-state sound.
   ‘And for some years now my main amplifier for reviewing purposes has been the Classé CAP 2100 integrated. It is a very well-designed and well-built product, and it sounds neutral, consistent and completely dependable. In other words, I really know where I am with it. ‘The same applies to the relatively modest loudspeaker which I’ve generally used as a reference when reviewing less expensive products. This is the Dali Ikon 6, an unpretentious but very cleverly designed under-£1000 floorstander, which I consider to be particularly truthful and revealing.

 

    
The Dali Ikon 6 speakers – useful when reviewing budget or mid-price products. The Quad's take centre stage at other times. Steve’s two aren’t adjacent serial numbers but both were refurbished to make a well-matched pair

 

FOREVER QUAD
‘I’ve never become a big equipment collector, although I have got quite a few older items which might get brought out on special occasions. In truth, there is really only one vintage product that I just have to own, and which I love to use, and that of course is the Quad electrostatic. I bought my pair in the early 1990s, and they were then brilliantly refurbished by Andy King, to whom I’m eternally grateful.
   ‘It’s been a fantastic privilege, over the years, to be able to try out so many stunning high-end products at home, and I’ve got a huge amount of enjoyment out of it. And whatever anybody says, hi-fi really has got better and better as the decades have gone by.
   ‘But the old Quad electrostatics, which were already a long-established reference and an aspiration all those years ago when I first got involved in audio, still seem miraculous in their own way. ‘Whatever other delights come my way, I wouldn’t be without them.’


Relaxing with vinyl. Steve’s main musical interests are classical, jazz and blues

 

THE LISTENING ROOM
In a rambling old house with thick, solid walls, Steve’s current listening environment is a cosy living room rather than a purpose-built studio. It’s big enough, pleasingly proportioned and acoustically quite friendly, although the ceiling could ideally be higher. In earlier years, he’d used the bigger drawing room for listening and reviewing, but this has had to be temporarily sacrificed to storage use while remodelling other parts of the house. ‘One day I’ll have that high ceiling again,’ he says.