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. A die-hard fringe of audiophiles felt he gave too much weight to what was measurable, but during his long career many music lovers wouldn't buy new gear if it didn't have his imprimatur.
Bob Ankosko, editor in chief of Sound & Vision, the successor to Stereo Review, said "Julian Hirsch was one of the most influential writers ever in 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 in the 1960s.
"By the time the rock/pop music scene exploded in the late '60s, everybody wanted a good stereo system, which back in those days was simply a turntable, a receiver, and a pair of speakers. Julian played a crucial role in helping us find that system. His writing also inspired thousands of loyal readers to become audio enthusiasts, and many moved on to become distinguished in the field themselves 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 his B.E.E. 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 began to expand in the early 1950s, Hirsch and his engineering friends would test various products to see how well they met their performance claims. In 1954, Hirsch and three others joined forces to make the results of these tests more widely available in a newsletter, the Audio League Report, whose circulation eventually reached 5,000 and whose influence was felt even more widely.
But after three years, maintaining the Audio League Report as a labor of love while holding down full-time jobs was no longer feasible for Hirsch and the one other remaining original member, Gladden Houck. In 1957 they disbanded the Audio League and formed Hirsch-Houck Laboratories to do testing only, leaving publication of the results to others. For a while their reports appeared in several magazines, but in 1960 Ziff-Davis Publishing contracted for Hirsch's exclusive services, buying out his partner but keeping the name Hirsch-Houck Labs.
Initially, Hirsch tested gear for Ziff-Davis's Popular Electronics, and in October 1961 his first test report appeared in Stereo Review (then called Hi-Fi/Stereo Review). In 1961, he also began writing a monthly column in Stereo Review called "Technical Talk." There he explained things like how he performed various measurements, what the resulting numbers mean in practical terms, and which specifications are important when you're shopping for a component (and which aren't). He would also talk from time to time about the aspects of a component's performance that are important but not readily measurable, such as usability. Despite the column's title, the last thing he wanted was to speak only to the technically inclined.
Hirsch continued to write monthly columns, test reports, and occasional feature articles for Stereo Review - appearing on its cover more than any other person - until 1998, when he retired and was given the title editor at large. He estimated that in the course of his career he contributed around 4,000 laboratory test reports to various publications, including about 2,400 for Stereo Review alone.
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.
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