Ian Rankin fondly recounts his early career as a staff writer for 'Hi-Fi Review' magazine.
It all started with a Dansette record player given to my teenage sister by our parents on her birthday. I'd have been ten years old, and I think I was more excited than she was. I started buying chart singles shortly thereafter.
The ones I couldn't quite afford I kept as a list. By the age of 14 I had my own record deck, a flimsy thing with flimsier speakers. In 1977, I started a summer job at a chicken hatchery outside Glenrothes and took my first week's wage-packet to the Comet store in Kirkcaldy, picking out my first 'separates' system: record deck, amplifier, speakers. It was cheap and cheerful and I loved it.
I was lucky that my schoolfriend Colin was a hi-fi nut. As he traded up, so I bought his unwanted bits and pieces. We had not long started at Edinburgh University when I found myself the proud owner of Colin's Rega Planar record deck. This was far superior to my old Garrard, even though you had to manually remove the glass plinth and adjust the rubber band beneath in order to switch between 45-RPMs and 33.
A chunky Marantz amp was my next purchase, followed by Mission speakers. My girlfriend at university had a friend who worked in a hi-fi shop in Edinburgh. Big Al became my friend, too, and sold Miranda (who had a job by now) a gorgeous Nakamichi tape deck to add to my system. I would head round regularly to Colin's to listen to his latest vinyl purchases. The Rega he'd sold to me had been replaced in his system by a Linn Sondek. This, I learned, was the crème de la crème of record decks — designed and constructed in Glasgow. Linn seemed to represent the 'new wave' of British audio manufacturers. Their advertising was brash and confident and when they put on listening demonstrations at hi-fi shops and trade shows their staff were evangelical.
Previously, the perceived industry wisdom had focussed on the loudspeakers. The bigger the better. But Linn (and others) thought otherwise. The quality of the source was all-important. If information didn't make it to the speakers, there was nothing those speakers could do to improve what the listener was hearing. Better an expensive deck and cheap speakers than the other way round. This made sense to me then and still does to this day. It was a lesson I was grateful to have learned when, having finished university, got married, and joined Miranda in London (where she worked as a civil servant), I scoured the job ads in 'The Guardian' and saw that a hi-fi magazine needed a staff writer.
This was 1988 and I was working in a clerical capacity at Middlesex Polytechnic. I still bought hi-fi magazines, lusting over high-end equipment while still listening to the same system I'd had since undergraduate days. My application for the job consisted of a short essay discussing my Nakamichi tape deck. I was summoned for interview and offered the job. (I later learned that I was the only person who'd applied.)
So it was that I started work as a journalist on 'Hi-Fi Review', in a distinctly unglamorous windowless office in Upper Norwood. That the job required a 90-minute each way commute from my flat in Tottenham didn't put me off. I was a journalist, being paid for my writing — and I had sudden, seemingly unfettered access to the best hi-fi equipment in the world. I was in heaven.
I got to know a lot of the figures at the top of the industry, visited their workshops and factories, and was sent a lot of LPs, cassettes and CDs. Unfortunately for 'Hi-Fi Review', the focus of the big international players was shifting to the CD. That's where the bulk of the advertising revenue was — and the magazine's mantra was that vinyl sounds better. The more we said so in print, the harder our advertising department had to work to bring the (relative) high-rollers such as Sony and Yamaha on board. Not that we writers worried too much about that. We were too busy listening to systems and separates from the likes of Linn, Naim, Exposure, Quad, Pink Triangle, Roksan, Meridian, Arcam and dozens more, most of them UK start-ups, a few of them with an eccentric genius or two at the helm.
I remember a visit to Eaglesham, outside Glasgow, to tour the brand new state-of-the-art Linn factory, interviewing owner Ivor Tiefenbrun in the process. We even put him on the cover of the magazine — a first, as far as I know, in an industry where the hardware has always taken centre stage. This was one of our big headaches — the covers of all the hi-fi mags looked almost identical, featuring as they did black boxes with maybe a few lights on the fascia. We tried to be different. We placed those same black boxes in a mock-up fridge to photograph them (I forget why), or made the magazine cover look as if it had been torn, allowing a peek at the contents page. Anything to stand out from what was a very crowded field.
I doubt I realised at the time that these were glorious years to be a fan of hi-fi equipment. The likes of Linn and Naim kept pushing the envelope as well as the price-tag. Naim, previously known for amplification, moved into tuners and speakers. Linn, known for the Sondek and the coffin-sized Isobarik speakers, began designing tonearms, cartridges and a much wider range of speakers to suit all budgets. My favourites were the tiny Linn Kanns (I still use mine, bought in 1989).
At the magazine, our remit required us to pick the equipment apart to get a sense of how well put-together it was. Having removed the speaker cones and internal baffling from a pair of Kanns, I was amused to see the words 'Clyde Built' stamped on the inner casing — where no one other than the person who'd built them would ever know. Linn also started a record label, specifically (in the early days) to showcase their own product. They had a winner with their very first pressing, 'A Walk Across the Rooftops' by Glasgow band The Blue Nile — an album I play to this day, especially if I want to show someone how good my system at home is.
Our shared tenets included Vinyl Sounds Better Than Digital and British is Best
I visited the Pink Triangle workshop in south London one day and built one of their turntables more or less from scratch (under careful supervision). Other day trips took me to the south coast for a tour of Exposure Amplifiers, and to the outskirts of Cambridge to visit the ebullient boss behind Monitor Audio. The man behind NVA (Nene Valley Audio) drove me to a meeting in his open-topped sports car. At trade fairs, members of the public would ask technical questions I often wasn't qualified to answer. Chutzpah often saved the day. We weren't quite gonzo journalists, but in the fairly staid world of hi-fi, we definitely counted as mavericks.
'Hi-Fi Review' consisted of probably no more than a dozen full-time and part-time staff. Our shared tenets included Vinyl Sounds Better Than Digital and British Is Best. (This despite regular blandishments — one manufacturer from the Far East flew us in a private plane to Edinburgh for a demonstration of their latest range, gifting us leather jackets before our return to London. We still ended up giving their equipment a less easy ride than they'd given us.) But although I had principles, I didn't mind bending them when a well-remunerated offer came along to write about luxury hi-fi for some deluxe lifestyle magazine. I praised the design aesthetic of B&O, the ingenuity of this or that Japanese manufacturer, the heft of American amplifiers and speakers.
Perhaps 'Hi-Fi Review' was too narrow in its scope ever to hit the big time. Neither our publisher nor our editor could see past Linn and Naim. I opted for Exposure amplifiers in an attempt to be at least a bit different, and for a long time I had Monitor Audio speakers. In fact, my tiny one-bedroomed flat in Tottenham was full to bursting with borrowed equipment awaiting review. The one time I was burgled, they probably couldn't believe their luck. They took everything except the most expensive item in the room — a Linn LP12 I'd just purchased. I reckon it's because when they picked it up it wobbled (having a sprung chassis). They probably thought it was broken. I still had some explaining to do to my insurers: four amplifiers, three pairs of speakers, five CD players, two tape decks, six sets of high-end headphones …
As the 1990s approached I was ready for a new challenge. I was going to move to France with Miranda and attempt to become a full-time novelist. I would take with me my Sondek, my Exposure amp and my Linn Kanns. In May 1990 that dream became a reality. 'Hi-Fi Review' folded shortly afterwards. There was no stopping the rise of the CD as a listening source (in part because manufacturers and shops loved them — they were cheaper to manufacture than vinyl LPs and there was a bigger profit margin).
The likes of Linn and Naim could see the way the wind was blowing and had already started designing their own high-end CD players. And yes, I succumbed, too, especially as shops selling vinyl in rural France were hard to find, while our local supermarket sold CDs. Some of those small, zealous, hard-working UK hi-fi manufacturers folded; but many prospered. Linn are still with us and still based at the same site I visited in Eaglesham.
my system … dates from the late-1980s and it still sounds great
All the people I've met in the business down the decades have been passionate about music and about making the listening experience at home as involving and authentic as possible. Yes, I've met a few cranks too — or at least people with an esoteric view of how to make recorded music sound better. One theory of the 1980s had it that you should turn down the corner of every page of every book in your listening room, or else the sound would be less than optimum. Another theory involved the wearing of an ionised safety-pin or 20. I never became quite that fanatical.
But in the room where I'm writing this sits my system from 'Hi-Fi Review' days: Linn Sondek, Exposure XV integrated amplifier, and Kann speakers. I've hauled that same set-up from Tottenham to south-west France, and from there to a series of homes across Edinburgh. All of it dates from the late-1980s and it still sounds great.
So here's to vinyl and to great British design and engineering. Music was my first love, as the song says, and it will be my last.
The National Library of Scotland has more content for the hi-fi enthusiast than you may care to imagine. Here are just some of the hi-fi magazine titles in the Library collections: