It is January 5th, 1980, a Saturday afternoon, at 3pm on KQED 88.5 FM in San Francisco and John Sunier begins hosting a weekly FM radio series showcasing high fidelity sound recordings. Since Sunier had been writing about audio and music for KQED’s Focus magazine, he had suggested to station management that he host a new program showcasing what he was discussing – Audiophile Audition was born in that moment.
My current research has not yet confirmed the exact premiere date for the series on KQED. The first listing for the series in the San Francisco Examiner is for 3/8/1980, however it is not described as the premiere for the series. My current assumption is that the series started on Saturday 1/5/1980.
The series was initially scheduled as a 1-hour program at 3pm, later moved to 10pm then expanded to 2 hours and moved back to an 8pm timeslot on Saturday evenings.
Here is a small print item from the San Francisco Examiner newspaper heralding the series on KQED-FM.
The theme music for this first local version of Audiophile Audition was the New Haven Brass Quintet performing the Beatle’s Penny Lane, recorded by audiophile designer and entrepreneur Mark Levinson in 1976. This track is available on an out-of-print 1992 Cello Acoustic Recordings CD or a Red Rose Music SACD released in September 2001. (“New Haven Brass Quintet (Volume 4)” [RRM-04], 12 tracks, 49mins).
The program broadcast a mixture of classical and jazz selections mainly. “Wide music” or music from a variety of styles that fall between classical and jazz categories was also featured on the program.
Here are 2 program excerpts from a TDK SA-C90 aircheck cassette of the first local incarnation of Audiophile Audition on KQED-FM in San Francisco. Sunier reads listener mail in the 2nd excerpt.
The first ever all-binaural broadcast was on 19 July 1980.
Snap on your headphones and listen to 90 minutes’ worth of that very first binaural program right here from a 10-inch open reel tape. Sunier reads some of the history of binaural recording early in the show.
The series on KQED appears to have been an “audition” itself that lasted 6 months to perhaps 1 year. The final KQED Audiophile Audition listing in the San Francisco Examiner is for 16 August 1980. This program featured a complete presentation of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973) (43 minutes). This was likely from the Mobile Fidelity half-speed mastered “Original Master Recording” LP pressing issued in June 1979. It would be quite interesting to hear Sunier’s commentary from this show, but alas no recording is known to exist.
It is not known with certainty whether the KQED series ended right here or continued for any period of time. San Francisco Examiner radio listings after this date give no specific program title for the timeslot on KQED.
Over a year later, on Monday 3 November 1981 at 10pm, Audiophile Audition returned to radio, this time on KCSM 91.1 FM, San Mateo (South San Francisco). Initially, the program was 2 hours, later expanded to 3 hours and moved back to 8pm on Monday nights.
The theme music for the program on KCSM was Claude Bolling’s Toot Suite, 1st movement marked allegro, from the 1981 album “Maurice André / Claude Bolling – Toot Suite” [CBS Records] later reissued on a Sony CD. This remained the theme music for the series for the next 17 years. The later movements from the same piece were used as the closing theme for the series from 1994 onwards.
Here are 2 program excerpts from monaural 10-inch open reel tapes of the 2nd local incarnation of Audiophile Audition now on KCSM-FM in San Mateo.
On KCSM, Audiophile Audition thrived for several years, airing from November 1981 to May 1985.
Notably, the program was first to broadcast new compact discs on FM radio on the west coast – 24 January 1983.
Entire programs devoted to the various technical approaches to music reproduction began at this time. Direct disc, half-speed mastered, DBX-encoded [early noise reduction], CX-noise reduced recordings and audiophile cassettes were all explored on the program. Other subjects included early Ampex tape recording, with the switch from DC to AC current in the early 1940s and early stereo recordings from Leopold Stokowski recorded in 1932. Mobile Fidelity recordings were frequently presented on the program. There were 5 all-binaural broadcasts from 1982 to 1984.
Here are a couple of sample listings from the San Francisco Examiner:
In much the same way that Stephen Hill’s Music from the Hearts of Space program had moved from a weekly local 3-hour program to a national 1-hour program in January 1983, Audiophile Audition followed this path 2 years later. Stephen Hill and John Sunier knew each other well [confirmed in a personal email from Stephen Hill retained by this author]. On Easter Sunday, 7 April 1985 at 2pm Eastern, the first national broadcast of Audiophile Audition aired.
Short newspaper item from late April 1985 mentioning the switch to national distribution.
The final San Francisco Examiner radio listing for Audiophile Audition on KCSM is 5/27/1985. The exact switchover date on KCSM from local 3-hour show to national 1-hour show is not known. My assumption from research is that there was overlap in April and May 1985 where KCSM aired both the local and national versions. The final local 3-hour show was likely broadcast on Monday, 5/27/1985 at 8pm. The national 1-hour version apparently aired on Sundays at 10am from April 1985 but was discontinued at some point thereafter. There was no “home” FM station for the series in San Francisco until KALW-FM picked up the series in October 1987.
Here is a local newspaper article about the series from 1986:
The national program began with John Sunier’s golden radio voice greeting: ”Good hearing to you.” Many listeners and readers may not have heard that very first program. Here is an aircheck recording from a TEAC HDX-60 metal cassette tape.
Here is an Audio magazine spread promoting the series:
Audiophile Audition was the among the first, if not the first, to utilize a digital master for satellite upload. The national program was produced from Sunier’s home office and studio in Marin County, California. The series was initially completed on Betamax PCM tapes, an early digital tape format, later moving to Super-Bit-Mapped professional DAT (digital audio tape) around 1991 [exact date not known]. Most NPR programs at the time were edited on quarter-inch open reel tape.
Many stations opted to broadcast the series live from the Public Radio Satellite (Galaxy 4, Transponder 1) uplink time of Sundays at 2pm Eastern. This retained the high-quality sound from the digital master all the way to the FM broadcast. Many stations shifted the program 7 to 10 days from its initial broadcast, recording the program on professional DAT tapes or open reel tapes.
From January 1996, HDCD (High-Definition Compatible Digital) encoded CDs were decoded properly during production and the NPR upload was switched to the new digital satellite channel. This synergistic combination marked a sharp uptick in sound quality appropriate for the program. The upload date was moved from its longstanding Sunday 2pm Eastern to Thursdays at 3pm in 1992 and then Tuesdays at 6am in 1996. Many stations simply let the program remain at its Sunday 2pm Eastern timeslot. A few stations even aired the program twice a week.
Series underwriters over the lifespan of the program included many major names in audio technology: Telarc International, B&W, Audio magazine, Pioneer, Philips, Polk Audio, Technics, Analog Devices, Marantz, DTS and Maxell audio tape.
The national program at 1-hour was a more condensed version than the earlier local version. Whereas on the local program a music selection was explained and the entire selected played, the 1-hour duration of the national version necessitated that only a single selection from a larger piece be played.
For example, a Mahler symphony could not be played in its entirety, but an excerpt from one of the movements could.
The format of the program was generally classical music for the first half hour and jazz music for the second half hour. The program also focused on world music or unexpected instruments at the end of each quarter in June and December. From April 1994, the program focused on classical music only. Recommendations for listeners on how to get more enjoyment from their music listening systems and audio news were presented in a segment of the first half hour with an interview segment of leading figures in the world of audio or music presented in the second half hour.
The material presented on the series evolved over its 13-year lifespan. 1985 to 1993, focused on various recording formats including audiophile cassettes, open reel tapes, DAT, DCC (Digital Compact Cassette) and audiophile LPs. Programs from 1994 to 1998, focused more on the music and far less on the format, with the exception being the quarterly audiophile LP programs.
Coverage of the Home-Recording Act of 1992, a demonstration cassette explaining the copy-code chip notch filter that was proposed on all CDs, but never enacted (February 1987), hearing loss, audience manners and care of equipment and recordings are all fine examples of the audio news presented on the series.
The program focused mainly on recent releases of classical music with equal criteria of music, performance and sound given consideration. Generally, the standard repertoire of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart were mostly avoided. Composers Howard Hanson, Dmitri Shostakovich, Alexander Scriabin, Gustav Mahler, Steve Reich, John Cage, William Bolcom, Keith Jarrett, Bernard Herrmann and George Gershwin among numerous others were featured on the program.
Other special program topics over the series lifespan included:
- Best of the previous year in 8 alternate weeks early in the year
- all soundtracks
- women in music, women composers, black composers
- forgotten/re-discovered composers (often because they did not follow serialism)
- music from music laserdiscs
- surround sound
- instrument-focused programs such as: all pipe organ, piano, harpsichord, woodwind, harp, cello, etc.
- multiple instrument recordings such as piano 4 hands, multiple cello, etc.
- historical recordings, including stereo-processed 78s
- Reissues were presented with ear-opening comparisons between the current reissue at hand and the earlier release of the same material.
- Brad Kay’s 1987 serendipitous stereo discovery from a 1932 Duke Ellington recording session
- bargain CDs
- world music, unusual instruments
- “7 versions of Pictures at an Exhibition”
- “Avant But Accessible”
- “Contemporary Music for People Who Hate Contemporary Music”
The program overall represented Sunier’s listener bias of “preferring instrumental over vocal, non-standard repertory over warhorses, small labels over majors, tonal over atonal, and mainstream over fusion and traditional in jazz.” (quoting from his Best of the Year listing).
The all-binaural broadcasts were initially once a year (2 in 1985) then twice-annual from 1989, usually February and August. These were the most fun and informal of any in the series. Headphone-wearing listeners were transported to unique sound environments from the comfort of their listening room. This was the first and only regular national FM broadcast entirely in binaural sound from 1985-1998.
Binaural broadcasts usually opened with John Sunier in his home office and studio with a window open on one side – a great ear-opening demonstration of binaural sound to start the show. Silliness such as the old “paper bag over the head” routine, identification of the left and right sound channels whispering into each ear and variations of explaining binaural sound were featured. Typically, one of Sunier’s cats would walk into the room and vocalize during the show.
A showcase of the binaural programs was Sunier’s personal recordings. From 1986, a Sennheiser dummy head and 2 omni-directional mics were used to record for the program. Sunier named the dummy head “Oscar II” after the dummy head used in Bell Labs’ 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago – the first public demonstration of binaural sound.
Sit back and experience on headphones the audio pleasure of 2 sample binaural programs. These are the type of programs that compelled me to listen attentively and truly won me over.
The Annual April Fools programs consisted of humorous music and dry wit, approximating Sunier’s 1960s radio series And Not Without Humor. Peter Schickele was a frequent composer featured on these programs.
The quarterly all audiophile LP programs showcased a then-dying format long before its resurgence in recent years. The LPs as presented destroyed the myth of “scratchy old records” and sharply clarified how wonderful a well-treated analog LP can sound.
Here are excerpts from the series, where Sunier explains LP cleaning and why audiophiles love those “licorice sticks licks” (his phrase).
The program was, in the words of its creator, “Entertainment in the Elizabethan sense – enlightenment and delight.”
Interviews with figures in the world of audio and music was a highlight of the program from 1980 to 1997. Like a roving reporter, Sunier attended the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and other Bay Area Stereophile shows for 20 years to record many of the interviews.
Here is just a sampling of the major interviewees featured on the program:
- Bert Whyte (Everest Records), 1985
- Emory Cook (Cook Binaural, early stereo recordings), 1985
- J. Gordon Holt (Stereophile magazine), 1988
- Mark Levinson (audiophile designer and entrepreneur), 1989, 1994, 1995
- Wilma Cozart Fine (Mercury Living Presence), 1991
- Wendy Carlos (composer), 1985
- George Martin (Beatles producer), 1986 and 1989
- Michael Fremer (then of The Absolute Sound), 1992
- Doug Sax (mastering engineer), 1995
- John M. Eargle (sound engineer), 1996
- Gordon Hempton, (binaural nature sound recordist), 1996 – appropriately recorded in binaural sound!
Many of the interviews recorded for Audiophile Audition from 1982 to 1994 are extant on 175 open reel tapes at Stanford University’s Archive of Recorded Sound within the John Sunier Collection [Collection Number: ARS.0110]. Sunier donated these reels to Stanford from 1988 to 1996. Most of the interviews are 10 to 15mins in length; many are longer. They are available for research listening on request at the University.
Like his father and grandfather before him, John Sunier had a music store. The Binaural Source opened in 1990. The mail order business sold LPs, cassettes and compact discs of binaural recordings – in many cases the exclusive source for such material. The Binaural Source was in business for about 11 years, closing in December 2000. In 2006, the business was sold and later discontinued as an e-commerce site.
Audiophile Audition started on anywhere from 53 to 70 FM stations in 1985, peaked at about 180 FM stations around 1992, but never fell below about 110 FM stations for its entire 13-year history.
Over the lifespan of the series, the series was broadcast at one time or other on a total of about 270 unique FM stations, covering all but 8 U.S. states. New England was the main outlier. Sunier stated in a 1989 interview that most of the mail came from the Midwest and the South.
From December 1991 through 1995, the program was heard 3 times weekly on the Spectrum Channel on Digital Cable Radio (DCR). DCR later evolved into the Music Choice tier of audio-only channels available on Direct TV and some digital cable TV systems today.
Program listeners ran the gamut from table radio to high-end. Some listeners mentioned that they had become more aware of the value of improved sound reproduction and purchased new components. Surveys showed 3.2 out of 4 quarter hours’ Time Spent Listening, and a roughly balanced male/female audience for the program. (paraphrasing from the 1996 version of aud aud website).
In 1994, Iowa City, Iowa public radio station KSUI 91.7 FM, sister station to WSUI-AM, where John Sunier began his radio career almost 40 years earlier, was among those stations broadcasting the series – his radio career had come full circle.
Audiophile Audition was the pinnacle of John Sunier’s career in radio, audio and music reviewing.
John Sunier’s writing for publications continued throughout the 1980s through 2017.
Numerous publications included: The Audiophile-File, The Sensible Sound (since 1954), High-Performance Review, Bound for Sound, Secrets of Hi-fi and Home Theater (online), Audio Revolution (online) and finally Australian Hi-Fi magazine (20 years). He was Contributing Editor for Audio magazine for about 10 years. There are 3 major articles on binaural sound in the March 1986, November and December 1989 issues written by Sunier.
These Audio magazine back issues are available online to read for free.
After 13 years of national broadcast, NPR decided to discontinue carriage of Audiophile Audition. 693 programs were produced from 1985 to 1998 with no repeats.
As with the first show, many listeners and readers may not have heard the last show in the series, 6/30/1998. Sunier makes comments about how the radio industry was changing at that time.
The series ended just 7 programs short of reaching the 700-program milestone. Imagine for a moment if the series had continued. The “program 1000” milestone would have been reached in May 2004, its 19th year on the air. April 2005 would have been its 20th anniversary + 5 years as a local show. Imagine that.
Apparently, lucky listeners in the West Palm Beach, Florida area got to hear reruns of Audiophile Audition for 2 more years after the series ended. In the Palm Beach Post newspaper from 11/29/1998 to 5/21/2000 there is a recurring listing for the series on Sundays at 12pm on WXEL-FM. This is either an error (for 2 years?) or the station broadcast repeats from a library of tapes.
In June 2001, John Sunier moved away from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon, living in semi-retirement. The radio program transformed into this website, publishing monthly reviews from January 1999. Sunier’s career that started with writing a weekly newspaper column on audio and music ended in semi-retirement, publishing reviews within a monthly internet magazine.
I never knew or even met John Sunier, though I wish I had. He must have been a fascinating person to talk to as much he knew about music and audio. The FM radio series he created ignited my interest in music and extended my awareness of sound like no other. I thought it was the most interesting program on FM radio during its’ era. I told Mr. Sunier this every time I wrote him for program playlists. It has been my pleasure compiling this article for his readers.
What are your memories listening to Audiophile Audition on FM radio? We would love to read your comments.
Sources for information in this article:
San Francisco Examiner, 1980-1997 via newspapers.com
The Palm Beach Post, 1998-2000 via newspapers.com
newspapers.com search engine
Audio Magazine, 1985-1989 via americanradiohistory.com
Audiophile Audition information sheets: playlists, station lists, best of the year, 1990-1998, collected by author
archive.org Wayback Machine [1996-2006 versions of aud aud and binaural source websites]
Author Bio — William Lonergan
I was an avid listener of Audiophile Audition on FM radio back in the 1980s and 1990s. I was drawn in by the binaural broadcasts and then stuck around to hear what else John Sunier had to say. The program ignited my interest and enthusiasm in film scores, non-standard repertoire classical and headphone listening.
I’m sort of the unofficial archivist and “Beard of Knowledge” for the FM radio series of Audiophile Audition. I am currently working on a grand project to digitize tapes documenting John Sunier’s radio career and Audiophile Audition. It is my pleasure to listen to these recordings and write about them.
Outside the audiophile world, I am a SCUBA diver, voracious reader, archivist, movie buff, live music enthusiast and information technology problem-solver. I am a graduate of Missouri State University at Springfield with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Systems.