"Hi-Fi" — Gideon Schwartz's Image-Rich Coffee Table Book

Gideon Schwartz's "Hi-Fi" is a sumptuously produced "Coffee Table" style book published by Phaidon, a self-described publisher of "creative arts" books including art, photography architecture, food, travel and fashion.

Using high quality images, New York based audio importer/retailer Schwartz spins a loosely constructed, turgidly written, frustratingly incomplete, oddly-shaped, Euro-centric history of "Hi-Fi" subtitled "The History of High End-Audio Design" that's far easier to look at than to read.

Within a few pages you'll figure out that the author is not by profession a writer. The simple declarative sentence is mostly out of the author's reach so one has to slog through overly complex, comma dammed, passive tense sentences that produce an inadvertently pretentious, off-putting narrative that to use audio terminology, is 180 degrees out of phase with a breezy, coffee table style book's intent.

The book's focus is unclear. The introduction is an academic and interesting history of recorded sound technology beginning with the familiar (to anyone who might be interested in a book called "Hi-Fi")— Edison, Berliner, Bell Labs and Stowkowski, to the somewhat more esoteric and lesser known Frenchman Clément Ader who invented the Théatrophone a means by which music could be transmitted to homes over the telephone. It was demonstrated at "The Paris exposition" (which took place in 1900, though Schwartz doesn't include the date).

The introduction then moves on to pretty pictures of stylish gramophones, "needle" box art, Art-Deco radios, Bang and Olufson industrial design and the like, all out of proportion to what was supposed to be a 'history of audio' introduction. Schwartz also lavishes two introduction pages on the relatively obscure, though innovative German company Zellaton, which goes back to the 1930s. Why? Perhaps because he imports the brand!

Schwartz divides the book by decades: the 1950s is the "Industrial Stereo Utopia". In the 1960s "Stereos Get Sexy". The 1970s sees "The Birth of High-End Audio", while the 1980s finds "High End Audio in Full Bloom". The 1990s are billed as the "Return of the Vacuum Tube" (though Audio Research, Conrad-Johnson and others would probably beg to differ!), while the 2000s is the "Post-Digital Analog Renaissance".

is "Hi-Fi" a history of sound? Or of audio industrial art? Because Schwartz failed to put a laser on it, the chapters meander between the two, using display advertising and sexy photography (some iconic and familiar, some not). Proportionality is "gone missing" as is a narrative thread explaining how design thinking changed in relation to technology.

Why page after page of Goldmund speakers? Why such a lopsided emphasis on Swiss products (other than that some are also imported by Schwartz [a double truck full sized picture of a Soulution circuit board?], while others, competitors that he doesn't import like CH Precision and darTZeel, the latter of which offers stunning industrial Swiss design, are conveniently omitted)?

There are a few pages of old Wilson and old Sonus Faber speakers but few of the new and quite striking designs from those companies and others like Vivid that should have been included in any book billing itself as providing "The History of High-End Audio Design" (perhaps Vivid's "sin" is being from Africa and not Europe?). Of course the striking looking MBL speakers deserve and get coverage as do a few others. There's no rhyme or reason to the image choices, or their size or what's included and what's not.

The section on turntable design is wholly inadequate. There's old B&O for some reason in the "2000s" chapter and appropriately SME and Thales (more Swiss) as well as Brinkmann, but come on! Nothing from Japan (there are Miyajima and Koetsu cartridges) but no TechDAS turntables? No AR turntable (if you're going back to the '60s with B&O)? No Immedia, which produced a handsome 1990's era industrial design copied by Clearaudio, Feickert and others? No Grand Prix Audio? No Continuum? No Doehmann or other striking looking modern turntables?

The problem with "Hi-Fi" is that the author's narrative does not focus on the intended subject. Instead, it meanders between company histories, technology and industrial design, though there's little or no analysis of the latter. Sometimes it feels as if the pictures came first and the narrative followed. "Hi-Fi" does not deliver "The History of High-End Audio Design". "The History of Mostly Swiss/ EUROPEAN Audio Design" would have been more accurate.

Ending on a positive note: "Hi-Fi" includes many striking-looking, well-reproduced pictures and digging through the thick prose, you'll find some useful information but "The History of High-End Audio Design", it's not!

Schwartz writes in his preface "I wrote this book as a tribute to these transcendental machines, while paying homage, too, to their compelling industrial designs, beauty of sound, and the inspiration behind their brilliant designers." No wonder the result is an out of focus book.

dhyman's picture

well, you have your own biases too! ch precision in history of hifi book? goldmund's been around forever and is legendary. so is b&o... new sonus faber is not legendary. stereophile caters to its advertisers. no one is unbiased!... :) i enjoyed this book.

Michael Fremer's picture
Does not cater to its advertisers. How many VPI ads have been in Stereophile compared to VPI reviews for example? I can say that I've never reviewed anything based on advertising history in the magazine! If CH (owned by former Goldmund employees BTW) doesn't belong than why does Soulution (including a pointless two page spread of a circuit board!!!!) other than that the author imports and sells it? Those two pages could have been used for other SWISS products, especially since the Swiss emphasis is so ridiculous to begin with... you may have enjoyed the book but editorially in terms of product mix and emphasis it does not make any sense other than as an importer's showcase. At least be subtle about it!
Russo7516's picture

But no mention of Grado Labs which has been around during the golden ages of Audio. No mention of VPI or Technics either .What is with that ?

Montpier's picture

I'm hard pressed to come up with a less ubiquitous/more niche consumer* hi-fi component in any era of audio history than reel-to-reel.

Yeah, they're kind of cool looking but nowhere near as prevalent sources as turntables or tuners in the 50's-60's. Even 8-track tape decks were probably more commonplace during their (thankfully) very short heyday. And of course by the 70's cassettes became the predominant tape format, beginning to challenge vinyl before CD's.

* I'm not counting DAT, minidisc and other assorted failed formats that never made any inroads whatsoever amongst consumers

Tom L's picture

about the photos being more important than the text in guiding the course of the book. The cover shot also was likely chosen because it's a very strong image resembling a human face, rather than because reel-to-reel made a big impact on the home audio marketplace. The comment from Russo7516 is also right on target, showing that this is not a serious attempt to memorialize the best of audio design.
It's a freakin' coffee table book pretending to be an in-depth exploration of the subject. I guess "The REAL History of High-End Audio Design" is still waiting to be written.

Barretter's picture

No such thing

Michael Fremer's picture
Did you flunk grammar?
Barretter's picture

No, you flunked grammar. There is a past tense, a present tense, a future tense, a future conditional, a pluperfect tense and so on, but there is no "passive tense". What you mean is "passive voice" as opposed to "active voice" but then you appear to think that "lay" is the imperative of "lie". Lay, in the present tense, is a transitive verb which must have an object, You can expect a bricklayer to lay bricks or a hen to lay eggs but if you want to ask somebody to assume a horizontal position on a bed you have to say "lie". Both you and Bob Dylan are wrong to think that "Lay, lady, lay" is correct English ; it isn't. Consult any reputable dictionary.

Barretter's picture

Since you haven't deigned to respond to my rebuttal of your remark I can only assume that you have consulted a dictionary and discovered that, in the context of "grammar", "tense" means "time in grammar, the form of a verb to indicate the time of the action" (Chambers, 12th ed.). "Passive" is not a temporal adjective, hence the phrase "passive tense" is completely meaningless.

Michael Fremer's picture
I've not revisited this post until now. You are correct. I meant "passive voice" Not "passive tense".