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Martin Colloms
– HIFICRITIC Publisher

Martin Colloms is one of the most interesting characters in the audio world. Co-founder of Monitor Audio speaker company, contributor to “Hi-Fi News”, “Hi-Fi for Pleasure”, “Hi-Fi Choice”, “Stereophile”, “Hi-Fi Plus”, currently involved in the role of the publisher of “HIFICRITIC”.

Martin Colloms PO BOX 59214


Text: Wojciech Pacuła | Martin Colloms | Paul Messenger
Photographs: „HIFICRITIC” (1, 2) | Wojciech Pacuła

Published on: March 1. 2012, No. 95

I know Martin Colloms in two related contexts – as an editor and contributor to audio magazines but also as the author of one of the essential books on loudspeakers design and construction, High Performance Loudspeakers. It may turn out that his current occupation will be the next significant contribution to his professional biography – since January 2007 he has also been known as the publisher of “HIFICRITIC”. The magazine, initially published bimonthly, now quarterly, is quite unusual – it only brings opinions, tests, reviews, and no advertising.
There were similar attempts in the past but they usually failed. Most of publishing costs of a typical magazine fall on advertisers; the retail price does not even cover half of printing costs! Not to mention distribution, returns, production, etc.
Yet evidently there has been a need, a niche on the market that Colloms, together with the chief editor Paul Messenger, has met and – it seems so far – has been successful. It will never be a large magazine, in terms of sales volume. Martin says that he currently sells 2,000 copies, most of them in subscription. However, it is very significant in terms of being an opinion-forming center, disproportional to its rather modest print run.

Of course, I have a few doubts about this approach that I can sum up with the following question: “Announcing left and right to all concerned that I publish a magazine with no advertising in order not to have any pressure from advertisers and to be able to publish reviews without their “censorship”, while at the same time contributing to classic magazines, with advertising and the alleged “censorship”, is it not by any chance hypocrisy?”
I let the readers decide. However, despite our personal opinion, is really SOMEBODY and will remain in the audio world one of its brightest stars that many times influenced its development. As a lead-in to the proper interview for “High Fidelity” readers, I asked both Martin Colloms and Paul Messenger to first introduce themselves.

Martin Colloms
I remember that from my earliest memories my obsession with sound reproduction can be traced to an abiding fascination with the mystery of the wireless. How on earth could sound emanate from an earphone via a coil and crystal and a long wire, from a radio station in Russia but with no evident source of power? It was pure magic. I had this compelling need to find out how things worked. Advancing from play and imagination, the constructor hobby took hold, building valve sets from Practical Wireless articles running on B136 dry batteries with 90V for the anode supply and 1.5V for the directly heated filaments. I also built many radios in the late 1950's with the earliest junction transistors, primitive, low bandwidth germanium; they were the equivalent of £15 each: now a wide band silicon equivalent is 5 pence! However at the time these tiny amplifying devices worked with a miraculously low 3V supply and were seen as a miniaturised technical wonder as compared with valves. As a 7 year old, spinning a jumble sale 78 rpm shellac disc with a pencil shoved through it and a curled paper horn fitted with a darning needle, I heard the Grand March from Aida for the very first time, in sound bites of about 2 seconds. I was now also hooked on the gramophone.
After an abortive year's dalliance with Special Physics at LU, sooner or later I qualified in Electrical Engineering and Electronics at the Polytechnic Regent Street ( now Westminster University), though not before an extended part time apprenticeship as a product tester and sales assistant lasting several student years at pioneering audio retailer Audio T (thanks be to founder John Bartlett). I then spent a few years on research and development in both high frequency communications, advanced pagers and then 1GHz oscilloscope instrumentation for a subsidiary of Tektronix, while continuing to deny my hobby obsession with high fidelity.
Then in 1972 an opportunity arose with two partners to found a loudspeaker company, Monitor Audio Ltd, which proved to be a formative business experience. After nearly three years of technical management and speaker designing I parted company with co-founders Mike Beeny and Mo Iqbal to work as an independent Hi Fi journalist, concentrating on audio writing and product reviews. The product research undertaken at Monitor Audio also gave rise to my enduring design book 'High Performance Loudspeakers' first published in 1977 and still around in its recent 6th edition.

I have written extensively for nearly all the major UK titles, but have put most effort into Hi Fi News, (33 years), also Hi Fi for Pleasure, and the A5 Hi Fi Choice series, not forgetting Stereophile. More recently Roy Gregory at Hi Fi Plus had encouraged me to produce some more challenging and extended investigative product reviews.
I remain delighted, surprised and intrigued by the effect of various sound technologies on music reproduction, and how plastics and metals, paper and wood, valves and transistors, wielded by sensitive skilled audio designers can make worthwhile contributions to the quality of the reproduced music experience. Music replay in the home is a privilege, hearing more of the music, more of the production and not least more of the musicianship is why I devote massive time and effort to audio systems.
I have known Paul Messenger for decades, and worked with him at HiFi News and also when he was editor at Hi FI Choice. I had long wished to collaborate with him again. He finally accepted my invitation to edit a new independent audio magazine. HIFICRITIC became airborne in January 2007, much to our surprise and delight.

Paul Messenger: HIFICRITIC Chief Editor
I guess I was born into the world of hi-fi. Although my parents had very little interest in recorded or live music, there was a piano in the house, and a well respected aunt taught the instrument and played organ in the local church. But having quickly discovered I lacked the genetic inheritance to play any sort of traditional instrument well, I decided to take up the record player.
From the point of view of both popular music and consumer technologies, 1949 was a good year to arrive on this planet. My childhood ears and brain picked up on enough of the rock’n’roll and skiffle eras to spark an interest, and this quickly turned into a passion as my teenage years coincided with arrival of Britain’s early-‘60s ‘beat groups’ – the Beatles and Stones, of course, but they were just the tip of an extraordinary iceberg of talent that also included Animals, Kinks, and Yardbirds to name but three.
Happily, all these groups were acknowledging their debts to black American artists like bluesmen Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins et al, rock’n’rollers Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and the emerging soul scene from Stax, Atlantic and Tamla Motown, providing new areas for exploration. Dylan and the Beach Boys added to the pop music riches that expanded my musical horizons considerably, partly thanks to good reception of the new pirate radio stations, but mainly through borrowing discs from schoolmates and taping them from a Dansette record player onto an Elizabethan reel-to-reel tape recorder. One can hardly accuse home taping of killing music, given the daunting size my collection of LPs and CDs has grown to today!

A key problem back then was the records were seriously expensive (an LP cost the equivalent of £25 in today’s money), and student grants didn’t go far. (One university friend regularly used to blow his grant cheque on a record collection at the beginning of each term, then sell it off disc by disc during the term in order to eat!)
Ironically, I still reckon that the pop, jazz and rock music produced in the 1950s and 1960s was more than a match for the products of the music industry in subsequent decades, in musicianship, originality and often recording quality too. And although the latter was decidedly variable, the simplicity of the process (and the quality of the vinyl itself) meant that the very best examples are rarely equalled today.
Classic mono 1950s LPs from Ella Fitzgerald and Buddy Holly still sit in my ‘frontline library’ today, along with plenty of stuff, both obvious and obscure, from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Favourite discs from bands like the Grateful Dead, Captain Beefheart and Little Feat, and artists like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Ry Cooder are still regularly played today.
The hi-fi bug first bit me in the late-1960s. After an unsuccessful attempt to convert a record player to stereo operation, I got a well paid summer job and spent the proceeds on some secondhand ‘real’ hi-fi – a Thorens TD135 turntable and a Leak Stereo 30 amplifier (first mistake!). I replaced the Leak with a Quad 33/303 combo, and was searching around for some ‘proper’ loudspeakers, with things like Lowther Acoustas and Tannoy Lancasters on the shortlist, when I had my first real stroke of hi-fi luck. A BBC friend was working alongside one Derek Hughes, whose father was making some speakers, so I took a chance on them. They might have been called Hughes speakers at the time, but that was Spencer Hughes, and the speakers he was then building in his garage after work were amongst the very earliest Spendor BC1s, a design that’s still justifiably regarded as a classic tool today.

Those BC1s certainly stimulated and inspired my enthusiasm for hi-fi, as well as teaching me plenty, but early examples eventually suffered from surround sag, and I found myself collected a repaired pair of speakers just as Spendor was planning to move from Redhill to Hailsham – quite near my Brighton home. Instead of taking a poorly paid job as a secondary school science teacher at the end of my college course, I decided it would be more interesting to follow my hobby and help build speakers instead.
The next strokes of luck came a couple of years later, in the mid-1970s, when my wife spotted a job ad in the paper for a journalist on Hi-Fi News. By chance the magazine was just about to publish an article I’d written a couple of years earlier, which probably helped me get the unlikely post of Deputy Editor. Even that turned out a bit of a surprise, as the Editor – the legendary John Crabbe – had to take the next six months off to get his heart fixed up. Improbably, and somewhat ludicrously, I found myself running the country’s leading hi-fi magazine with no previous journalistic experience.
I somehow survived, as did the magazine, and learned a lot very quickly indeed, while getting the chance to try out all sort of interesting kit. I still have very fond memories of the stacked (original) Quad Electrostatics and Radford STA25 III I used around that time, but they weren’t ideal partners for the reggae music I was getting into.

The latter half of the 1970s were, as the Chinese might put it, “interesting times” for British hi-fi. Reacting to high inflation in the mid-1970s, a panicky and naive Labour government opened the door to the Japanese multi-nationals and wiped out much of Britain’s indigenous hi-fi industry. Some disappeared (Armstrong, Lustraphone); some changed hands (Rogers, Tannoy, Cambridge Audio); only a few survived relatively unscathed (Quad, SME, KEF, B&W). Happily a number of newcomers (Linn, Naim, Rega) were then too small and energetic to be seriously affected, and went from strength to strength once the recovery got under way.
Britain’s speaker makers had long had international credibility and healthy overseas sales, so were much better able to survive the upheaval. But the arrival of the newcomers – swiftly followed by Meridian, Arcam, Creek etc – with new ideas about sources and amplification quickly led to a revival in British hi-fi.
This period was a genuine watershed. Prior to the mid-1970s, Britain’s hi-fi establishment was in denial at the very idea that turntables or amplifiers could have any serious influence on system sound quality. Measurements had proved it, and only loudspeakers were believed to make a significant difference.
It was a viewpoint that the new companies – and journalists like yours truly – completely rejected. Indeed, the alternative view, put forward most vigorously by Linn and Naim, was that the source component was the most important, followed by the amplification, and that the speaker fundamentally did as it was told. Backed up by impressive demonstrations, it was a persuasive perspective, and the rest, as they say, is history. British hi-fi had re-invented itself.

Loudspeakers were still important, and unfailingly interesting too, of course, and they still represented the most obvious and gross differences in sound quality but they no longer dominated our perception of the hi-fi system.
After a couple of years with Hi-Fi News, I moved to become Editor (and bottle washer) on the then new Hi-Fi Choice. In those days Choice was a small (A5) format magazine/book, exclusively devoted to comparatively reviewing something like 50 competitive components at a time, and published four or five times a year. Because of its format, Choice represented the leading edge of product reviewing. Each project took something like six months, and meant getting involved in planning the test programmes, and working closely with the country’s leading reviewers. It was another steep learning curve, in both the technicalities and politics of reviewing – indeed, I ended up doing the Amplifiers edition myself, because none of the established reviewers at that time acknowledged the amplifier’s contribution to sound quality.

After several years at Choice, I was lured back to Link House to become Publisher of its Audio Group, which included Hi-Fi News and Studio Sound. My Choice boss (the very capable and impressive Felix Dennis) had warned me I wasn’t Publisher material, and was quite correct in his assessment. I spent a couple of years playing at middle management, became thoroughly exasperated by the experience, and decided to go freelance.
A year or two away from hi-fi didn’t do me any harm, especially as everyone was getting over-excited about CD in the second half of the 1980s. I learned, amongst other things, a lot about video from a Pro perspective, which came in useful later. As the 1980s starting winding down, a game of Editor’s Chairs began. John Atkinson moved from Hi-Fi News to Stereophile; Steve Harris moved from Hi-Fi Choice to Hi-Fi News. So I returned to Hi-Fi Choice.

This was still the small one-product-at-a-time A5 magazine, but things soon changed, and towards the end of 1987 I found myself sitting on a Boeing 747 heading for Tokyo, starting to compile the Product Directory for Hi-Fi Choice’s first glossy monthly A4 edition (on a laptop with a total memory of 32kB!).
Although I’d enjoyed re-launching Choice as a regular magazine, I was still freelance, and wasn’t prepared to commute to central London to supervise staff, so John Bamford took over the Editor’s chair, and I became a full time reviewer, mostly doing loudspeakers for Choice.
Plenty has happened since then. The first Mac arrived in 1990, changing the way we wrote (though it was still to post copy, now on floppy discs, to the office – e-mail was still some years away). Home cinema came on the scene around the same time (as did some rather bulky mobile phones), so I reviewed TVs for Choice’s sister magazine Home Entertainment through much of the 1990s. I eventually gave up towards the end of the decade when the first plasmas appeared, ‘cos those early examples were rubbish and also ludicrously expensive; no magazine wanted to print that! By the time the century ended, I’d rather lost interest in the AV and multi-channel scene, and wasn’t much impressed by the music available on SACD or DVD-A. Two channel stereo seems to work very nicely, without making demands that are too severe to accommodate comfortably, and while the prospect of digital audio music with higher-than-CD resolution is tempting in itself, it’s currently hard to envisage a commercial model that will successfully deliver a sufficient variety of such material to customers.
I’ve therefore stuck firmly to stereo hi-fi during the current decade, and haven’t found myself short of work (rather the reverse). Hi-Fi Choice continues to take up much of my time, but I also regularly contribute to Stereophile, HiFi+ and BAJ.
But the real buzz has been deciding to go with HIFICRITIC. Although listening and writing is very satisfying, I’ve always enjoyed editing too, and my ideal job combines these disciplines. I therefore needed no second invitation when Martin (Colloms) called me and started talking about his ideas, and the last two years, bringing out a new edition of HIFICRITIC every other month, have been hectic, even occasionally frantic, but also enormous fun – hopefully for the readers as well as the Editor.
As ever, the guiding principle is that CRITIC contains the sort of articles I want to read, and which seem to be difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. Hi-fi has been through massive changes in the past forty years, but in a way it seems to have gone full circle. The mass markets of the 1970s and 1980s are long gone, and in a sense hi-fi has reverted to the sort of enthusiast-led scene that existed back in the 1960s. The people and the brands may have changed, but the attitudes, enthusiasms – and a surprising amount of the music and the hardware – are surprisingly similar.

Wojciech Pacuła: Please tell me something about HIFICRITIC and its position on the British audio market?
Martin Colloms: HIFICRITIC is a pure print colour magazine on high quality paper covering high quality stereo reproduction, with wide ranging intelligent content written by industry experts and enthusiasts , including equipment reviews backed by lab testing . We do not censor the content for anyone. Despite this, famous makers have shown confidence in HIFICRITIC and do loan review product, including MSB, Wilson Conrad Johnson, Avalon, Audio Research Corporation, Raidho, PMC, Martin Logan, Franco Serblin, Sonus Faber, B&W, Krell, Kef, Monitor Audio, Tannoy, AMR, Music First , Musical Fidelity, Townshend, Audio Note, Dynavector, Koetsu, Miyabe, Roksan, Arcam, Meridian, Robert Koda, Continuum, Lyra ,Eminent, Nu Force, Pioneer, DCS, etc.

WP: What is the current circulation of your magazine?
MC: About 2,000 readers but a number of copies are shared by readers. Our web site gets 10,000 good visits a month and the HIFICRITIC Forum is well supported

WP: How did you start HIFICRITIC? It is very hard to start a magazine without any ads…
MC: Newsstand circulation requires retail margins and a threshold print run, say 10,000, to break in. To get the margin, the print run and cost of production needs to be largely paid for in advertising and to get the advertising you need to employ an ad manager. You need about £100k to get started, this at great risk to all concerned in a falling market, both for HI FI sales and for magazines. And you have to be nice to advertisers or you will fail.

We wanted to write opinion articles and equipment reviews free of commercial pressure, and a model had to be devised which did not require ads or an ad manager. The only answer was to budget for pure subscription revenue with no ads.
The costs of production, editorial content, editing, testing subscription management, mailing had to be found from the subscriptions. I took a chance, launched the magazine, gave away 5,000 copies of the first edition and have since received sufficient subscription returns to continue.

We began bi-monthly but this proved to be impossible from a cost and production viewpoint. So save print and mail costs I chose to increased the number of reviews and pages per issue, and publish quarterly; so far this has worked. I put this proposition to my existing readers and only one objected, demanding his slice of flesh!

WP: How does your magazine differ from other magazines – advertisements aside? Do you know any other magazine of this type?
MC: HIFICRITIC has much greater editorial content, intelligent, expert features and reviews, industry comment More good content in our four quarterly issues than two years of some monthly audio magazines.
I have a poor knowledge of foreign language magazines, but we do respect the work Stereophile does and published an extensive interview with the editor John Atkinson

WP: Do you know any other such magazine?
MC: I am not aware of another subscription only full print feature and review audio magazine.

WP: How the British market differs from the rest of the world? MC: Hard to say, we are more sceptical and believe that we have uniformly higher standards of critical assessment; there is a long tradition of neutral accurate sound, a good foundation.

WP: What is your methodology of reviewing audio components?
MC: To rely on long term anchors or references which aid comparisons and quality judgments. To score numerically after careful assessment. To judge improvement as a percentage gain over an existing reference of historic score. To take extreme care in system setup and matching to make sure the variables are understood and controlled.

WP: Do you believe in “national” sound of audio components?
MC: Not really, the best designers converge on a common reference of natural sound. For lower cost items there was some expression of national temperament e.g. UK ‘cooler’, France ‘brighter’, Germany ‘closer’, USA ‘larger’!!! But this is a simplification. Hi-Fi is international now.

WP: What do you think about the future of audio? Any thoughts?
MC: Quality stereo is shrinking people have fewer rooms, often no ‘music room’, nowhere for a good stereo installation. Stereo separates are contracting, the money is in iDocks with Bluetooth and Airplay connectivity. But stereo enthusiasts remain, who love high quality music.

WP: How do you perceive web-based magazines? Opportunity? Dead end?
MC: Specialist webzines are hard to finance, our website is run to promote the print magazine, but itself cannot pay its way. Only a few readers, maybe 10, have asked whether we will do an Emag edition. It will cost money to put on the site to upload, probably not worth the effort at present and then it can be pirated.

WP: How about other web magazines – I mean what is so interesting about them that people read’em so intensely? Free content maybe?
MC: People have become accustomed to free content and are often not very discriminating. We all read opinions in fields in which we are not specialist. Free opinions vary in quality. The practiced readers can usually work out who knows what they are doing and who doesn’t. There is the quick rush, and then there is more leisurely perusal of quality printed writing .

WP: What are strengths (S) and weakness (W) of printed magazines?
MC: S: Print can be a beautiful product , fine layout, keep and file , read when you wish.
W. You have to store it and post it out, and print costs and postage go up all the time.

WP: How about content? I mean – what printed magazines do better and what worse than web magazines? Is there any distinction between them?
MC: Tough question , I do not have the information… but ….. so far the good print magazines are continuing so they must be doing something right . There have also been a number of webzine failures.

WP: Do you think that vinyl revival is a growing tendency or just a hype?
MC: I think it will continue to grow but not at an exponential rate, just remain another sector of a specialist market. Handled well it is still a great replay medium and unrivalled for replay of older recordings. It is the music which matters not the equipment.

WP: What kind of music do you listen (in private)?
MC: The whole lot, Bach to Reich, Mozart to Glass, Floyd and Dire Straits to Hendrix and Sting, Jarrett to Gabarek, Grusin to Coldplay, Mitchell to Clapton, Anderson to KLF.

WP: Is PCM high-resolution the future of audio?
MC: Part of the future; most audiophile/and great existing recorded music is analogue, or Red Book transcriptions of analogue. A tiny proportion of show pieces e.g. Aja, have been transcribed to Hi Res. There is also a little new music originated in Hi Res, but this is only a few per cent of the total out there.

WP: Is there still a future for CD?
MC:Yes, yes, yes, it is a durable long lived medium which can make very good sounds. And there are millions of tons of them out there. The replay is still getting better, and thus so does the sound of good CD recordings . It will remain alongside the crowding Network Audio field

WP: Network Audio?
MC: The future is moving to wired Network audio with a range of resolutions according to source. All resolutions play well including quality CD rips, while Hi Res, when available, drops in naturally. Once you have an app driven music library you won’t give it up!

WP: What affects the sound quality of Network Audio ?
MC: It seems everything: the cable, the power supplies, the HDD, the SSD, the NAS drive processor, the routers the streamers and the DACs, just like an analogue chain! As always: Take nothing for granted!

WP: How about the upper limit of hi-res – is 24/192 enough?
MC: It’s more than good enough but we need to improve digital and analogue filtering techniques…….. And make sure the ADC and DAC sections are true HI FI and not generic microchips running on local switch-mode 3V supplies.

WP: How about DSD streaming?
MC: Raw DSD can be very good, nearly as good as master-tape but SACD never got to this standard commercially. I have an issue in general with such low bit, higher order processing regarding rhythm and timing and also dynamics, though I like the transparency.

WP: Do USB cables make any difference? If yes, why? What is the cause?
MC: Yes, all cables make a difference, even if it is only the way RFI and vibration is conducted, communicated between equipments. After that, the interference across the wires inside the cable may affect matters. There is a lot of noise on the power wires and even these benefit from screening. The errors are nore to do with noise, than jitter on the data, though that is an issue too.

WP: Do you think that wireless hi-res connecting between the products is real, viable option?
MC: Never say never, advances in wireless chips are relentless and the 8channel 16/44 wireless chip will arrive, and could be hi jacked to do stereo 24/192. My concern is the local transmit/receive interference level, located so close to the audio system proper.

Martin Colloms, Tech Editor, Publisher HIFICRITIC