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Julian Hirsch Passes away


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Published: December 3, 2003

Julian Hirsch, an electrical engineer and writer who was among the first to help a growing audience of audiophiles sort through the good, the bad and the indifferent in electronic sound equipment, died on Nov. 24 in the Bronx. He was 81 and lived in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Starting in the 1950's Mr. Hirsch began to keep track of the hi-fi hobby as it bulged into a billion-dollar industry. By his own count he wrote about 4,000 laboratory test reports for various publications by the time he retired in 1998. About 2,400 of those were articles appearing in Stereo Review, a bible and buying guide for droves of audio fans. (Months after his retirement, it merged into Sound & Vision, a 400,000-circulation magazine that publishes 10 times a year.) Mr. Hirsch's monthly column in Stereo Review first appeared in 1961 when it was called Hi-Fi/Stereo Review. He titled it "Technical Talk" and used it to explain how he performed various measurements and what the results meant. He listed the specifications that a buyer should look for in a component and others that were chaff. At the same time, he sought to describe features not readily measurable and to address readers less technically inclined. It was his technical approach that at times drew disfavor from other experts, who asserted that he so admired each new line of speakers or amplifiers that he ignored the aesthetic quality of the sounds coming from them. It was, his critics said at the time, like judging a wine by chemical assays.

Julian Hirsch warmed to the technology at 14 with amateur radio. He graduated from Cooper Union in 1943 and spent World War II in the Army Signal Corps. He then worked in the electronics industry on laboratory instruments for spectrum analysis. Having adopted hi-fi as a hobby in 1949, he and his engineering friends started testing products as the commercial audio industry caught on in the early 50's. They circulated a newsletter to spread the results, the Audio League Report, and eventually found 4,000 subscribers. The pressure of putting out the report while holding down full-time jobs prompted Mr. Hirsch and a colleague, Gladden Houck, to quit the Audio League in 1957 and form Hirsch-Houck Laboratories. There they tested stereo systems, turntables, receivers, speakers, woofers and the lot, leaving the write-ups to others. In 1960 Ziff-Davis Publishing asked him to test equipment for it exclusively. His first test report, "Technical Talk," appeared in the fall of 1961 in Hi-Fi/Stereo. Mr. Hirsch is survived by his wife of 57 years, Ruth; a son, Steven, of Burlington, Vt.; a daughter, Barbara Harrison of Chappaqua, N.Y.; and two granddaughters.

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>Published: December 3, 2003



>Julian Hirsch, an electrical engineer and writer who was among

>the first to help a growing audience of audiophiles sort

>through the good, the bad and the indifferent in electronic

>sound equipment, died on Nov. 24 in the Bronx. He was 81 and

>lived in New Rochelle, N.Y....

From a Hachette Filipacchi press release

Julian Hirsch

Hi-Fi Pioneer, 1922 - 2003

(NEW YORK, December 2, 2003) Julian Hirsch, an engineer and magazine writer who was instrumental in transforming hi-fi from an esoteric hobby into a multibillion-dollar global industry, died Monday, November 24, at the age of 81 after a long illness. Through more than 40 years of testing and reporting on the performance of audio equipment for consumer magazines, and especially for Stereo Review, the leader in the field, Hirsch helped demystify high-fidelity sound reproduction.

He set a high standard of scientific and journalistic integrity in his reviews, and he was always ready to debunk the gimmicks and fads exploited by overzealous marketers. Under the auspices of the Institute of High Fidelity, which was later absorbed into the Electronic Industries Association (now the Electronic Industries Alliance), he helped draft standards for the testing of power amplifiers and FM tuners that made specifications for these components easier to compare and more useful to shoppers. Some audiophiles felt he gave too much weight to what was measurable, but during his long career many music lovers refused to buy new gear absent his seal of approval.

Bob Ankosko, editor in chief of Sound & Vision, the successor to Stereo Review, said "Julian Hirsch was one of the most influential writers in the history of consumer electronics. His enlightening columns and no-nonsense product reviews were key factors in propelling audio from a small hobby in the 1950s to a huge, mainstream industry. His writing also inspired thousands of loyal readers to become audio enthusiasts, and many moved on to become distinguished in the field as designers, engineers, manufacturers - even writers and editors."

Hirsch developed an interest in technology when he discovered amateur radio at the age of 14. He received a Bachelor in Electrical Engineering degree from the Cooper Union in 1943 and served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II. After the war, he worked at various jobs in the electronics industry, mainly developing sophisticated laboratory instruments for spectrum analysis.

He became hooked on the then brand-new hobby of hi-fi in 1949, building his own mono gear. As the commercial audio industry expanded in the early 1950s, Hirsch and his engineering friends began testing products to see how they met their performance claims. In 1954, Hirsch and three others joined forces to publish their results in a newsletter, the Audio League Report, whose circulation eventually peaked at 5,000. Publication ceased in 1957 when Hirsch joined with League member Gladden Houck to form the audio testing service Hirsch-Houck Laboratories.

In 1960, Ziff-Davis Publishing contracted for Hirsch's exclusive services, buying out his partner while keeping the name Hirsch-Houck Labs. Initially, Hirsch tested gear for Popular Electronics, and in October 1961 his first test report appeared in Stereo Review (then called Hi-Fi/Stereo Review). That year, he also began writing "Technical Talk," his long-running monthly column in Stereo Review. He wrote test reports, monthly columns, and feature articles for Stereo Review until 1998, when he retired and was given the title editor-at-large at Sound & Vision. He estimated that in the course of his career he contributed 4,000 laboratory test reports to various publications, including 2,400 for Stereo Review.

At the time of Hirsch's retirement, Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S. - publisher of Stereo Review, and now Sound & Vision - established the Julian Hirsch Scholarship Fund at his alma mater, the School of Engineering of the Cooper Union. Those wishing to donate in his memory can make checks payable to The Cooper Union, with "Julian Hirsch Fund" in the memo, and send them to the Cooper Union, Development & Alumni Relations, Attn: Michael Governor, 30 Cooper Square, 8th floor, New York, NY 10003.

Hirsch is survived by his wife of 57 years, Ruth, of New Rochelle, NY; his son, Steven, and his wife, Donna, of Burlington, VT; his daughter, Barbara Harrison, and her husband, Daniel, and their daughters, Emily and Deborah, all of Chappaqua, NY.

--Tom Tyson

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I was very saddened when I heard the news. Julian was a superb engineer and one of the most level-headed reviewers in the history of our industry. But most important, he was a true gentleman and a kind, warm individual.

He and his wife Ruth lived in a modest home in New Rochelle, NY. The older members of our Forum will remember New Rochelle as the home of Rob and Laura Petry. (If you don’t know who they are, there’s no use in my explaining it.) It was like a slice of Americana—a nice suburban ranch, two unassuming mid-sized cars in the driveway, some slightly worn carpeting in the living room, and a few framed covers of Stereo Review with Julian’s picture in the foyer. Just like your uncle’s house.

The famed "Hirsch-Houck Labs" were in the basement of his home. Julian and Mr. Houck departed company many years ago, but he always kept the H-H name because he "liked the way it sounded."

One wall was all electronics and test equipment. He had a Pioneer 50 wpc 4-channel power amp that he used continuously for decades for various tests and listening because it "worked perfectly well and had inaudible noise and distortion." That’s not to say that he used this amp for critical listening evaluations of expensive speakers under test, but the fact that he continued to use a piece of perfectly good gear after it was no longer "fashionable" attests to his pragmatic unemotionalism with regard to equipment evaluation.

I know that the various golden ears at the other audiophile magazines didn’t hold him in particularly high regard, but he was unfazed by fads, the cable of the month, or green magic markers. He was an engineer, and he placed his faith on meticulously conducted instrumented tests and controlled listening sessions. When I asked him one day about his seeming refusal to write a negative report, he smiled and said, "If a unit from a well-known manufacturer tests bad, we’ll call them and give them the chance to submit another sample, since test units are often pre-production units that my not be completely ‘right.’ If a unit is truly bad, Stereo Review’s basic policy was that they’d rather not waste the reader’s time, or our editorial pages, with something negative. The editors would rather report on something pretty good, so the reader might learn something or expand their buying choices. I know some people may disagree with this policy, but I think it serves our readership well. You can tell the difference between a decent product and a really outstanding product pretty easily when you read our reviews. And we NEVER say something is good if it’s not."

I never had any quarrel with this policy. If I wanted to read a slam, there were lots of people in Stereophile only too willing to oblige. The completeness and accuracy of Julian’s measured results were way ahead of the competition for years, and he knew—very correctly and early on—that frequency response, distortion, and signal-to-noise were by far the prime determinants of listening quality, no matter how much we may want to believe that some other, more esoteric factor is the ONE.

He always loved the classic AR speakers. He had a mint condition AR-1 that he proudly showed me the first time I was there. "I knew that things had changed forever when I first saw this," he said to me. Mounted on his wall, opposite his test equipment, was a pair of AR-7’s. The last time I was there (maybe in 1998, about 6 months before he retired from Stereo Review), I asked him why he still had them up. "I still listen to them on occasion. I tested them in 1973, and found them to be flat within +/- 2 dB from 60-15,000Hz. They were such remarkable speakers."

And he was a remarkable guy. Knowledgeable, practical, experienced, well-respected, well-liked, and kind-hearted. We’ll mss you, Julian.

Steve F.

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Julian's importance to audio, and consumer electronics in general, is inestimable. He was a simply wonderful human being. And, contrary to the straw man some later constructed, he never wanted to attack or "debunk" anything. He simply and sincerely wanted to steer consumers towards quality products, and broadly informed decisions.

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