Interview: Andrija Curkovic Of Hi-Fi Media
On this occasion we exchanged a few words about the Internet and printed press with Andrija Curkovic, editor-in-chief of Hi-Fi Media and not coincidentally. The magazine run by Andrija moved to a digital platform two years ago, after 25 years of being published in print. As you will read below, the reasons were similar. However, just like the Positive Feedback magazine, which had also been published in print for a long time, he succeeded, in exchanging the material world for a virtual one.
Andrija Curkovic, editor-in-chief of the online Hi-Fi Media magazine, tells Wojciech Pacula about the transformation as well as his first musical and sonic fascinations, audio in former Yugoslavia and present-day Croatia.
WojciechPacula Tell us about yourself, please.
Andrija Curkovic I was born in 1964 in Zagreb, Republic of Croatia, which at that time was part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under the communist political system.
I got interested in music at the end of elementary school under the influence of my sister who was five years older and at that time listened to albums by the Doors, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, King Crimson, or the Beatles, while I leaned more towards harder rock Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, etc.
Although these vinyl issues were well delayed from the date of official release in the countries of Western Europe, they were relatively accessible to us, unlike in other countries of the Eastern Bloc or the USSR (Yugoton offered most rock albums released in the West Editor's note).
In those teenage days I had a desire to learn to play the electric guitar. I managed to get a cheap copy of the Stratocaster, but I didn't have the opportunity to get a real guitar amplifier. So, due to "technical reasons" and inconsistent practice of notes on the acoustic guitar, I soon gave up on the idea of becoming a rock star.
I made up for my lack of musicianship by going to rock concerts frequently and listening to radio stations outside of Yugoslavia, such as Radio Luxemburg, which was popular at the time. I was lucky to develop musically in the "golden age" of the British music scene at the end of the 1970s and during the 1980s, when many musical trends and musicians were born that had huge influence on the development of today's modern music scene.
Most of these artists were also available on vinyl that we could buy in local record stores, and if some lucky person managed to get individual original titles from Great Britain, then the whole party would move to his house that weekend for a whole day of listening.
WP: What was your first audio system?
AĆ: My first hi-fi system was the Tosca 20 GP 5660 (shown in the photo), a turntable with an amplifier (2 x 10W), separate speakers and a mechanism for automatically returning the tonearm after a record has been played it also comes from this period of discovering new music, and it was produced by the domestic company RIZ-ELAK (Radio Industry Zagreb).
My first hi-fi system: Tosca 20 GP 5660 by RIZ-ELAK.
Although at that time in Yugoslavia it was possible to buy devices of some of the renowned manufacturers of audio devices, such as Sansui, Kenwood, Marantz, Rotel, KEF, AR, JVC, Sharp, etc., they were not available to all residents of the former country because you had to have a certificate on the origin of foreign currency to buy them. The devices were paid for in a foreign currency (mainly in German marks), while import costs and customs duties would be paid in domestic currency.
Due to these restrictions, hi-fi equipment could mostly be bought by party officials for themselves or for their circle of acquaintances. The situation eased somewhat in the 1980s, when the one-party system of the time made it possible to buy foreign goods, and to some extent liberalized private imports, also for residents of Yugoslavia who temporarily worked in the countries of Western Europe. As my father worked in West Germany throughout his career and earned a pension there, I had a proof of origin of foreign exchange funds.
However, I was not too interested in hi-fi at that early stage because I was satisfied with the aforementioned turntable and I recorded music from radio stations onto cassettes using a Philips radio-cassette player. As a teenager, I was more interested in going to concerts than the idea of sitting at home and listening to records by myself.
However, towards the end of high school, during summer holidays, a good friend of mine received a Technics hi-fi system consisting of an integrated amplifier, a cassette player, a tuner and a Visaton two-way bookshelf speaker in a kit form as a gift from his dad, also a temporary worker in Germany. If I remember correctly, the integrated amplifier cost 450-500 German marks at the time.
We had our first listening session with Visaton speakers connected and just sitting on a desk, without a box. I didn't like that. Well, my Philips radio cassette player played better, and it cost a fraction of the price of this Technics system. My friend assured me that it will play much better when he builds a speaker box and puts Visaton drivers in it. He heard them assembled in a shop in Munich. Okay, let's try that too. I offered to help him make it. After a few days of sawing and gluing, we assembled a box into which we inserted the speaker units. Everything was ready for the first listening. Bang!
In his student room of about 9 square meters, the speakers nailed us to the wall. We turned the potentiometer up to half (12 o'clock) and the Technics system delivered a loud, powerful and mighty wall of music that we had never experienced before. Wow! Never mind my Philips radio cassette player or my Tosca record player with its own speakers. That day I bit into the "hi-fi apple" and set off on a search for good sound that is still ongoing. The interesting thing is that this friend of mine is still the owner of the same Technics line and does not feel like changing it for something new and more modern.
The experience gained in making the Visaton speakers made me interested in making DIY speakers for myself. At that time, there was a very popular magazine in Yugoslavia in which various designs for self-construction and repairs of everything needed for a household were published, and among them were sometimes designs of hi-fi speakers based on Dynaudio speaker units that could then be ordered from a factory in Denmark.
After I made my first pair of speakers, I got several requests to make them for others too, so I started mini-production in my attic. After a while I saved enough money to buy my first "serious" hi-fi stereo line it was Technics, of course. In the mid-1980s, I started studying mechanical engineering in Zagreb, so I no longer had time for DIY, and I became interested in ready-made commercial solutions.
Hi-Fi Media's Website
During a gathering with my hi-fi friends, someone mentioned the British speaker manufacturer Rogers and praised it highly. He did not hear them personally, but his brother, who was on a short visit to his cousin in Germany, told him so. His cousin didn't have those speakers, but the brother heard them for the first time by chance in a small hi-fi store which he entered pretending to be a customer, as it was raining outside.
Besides the sound he liked, the shop staff told him that Rogers had a "British sound." But what's British sound? In Germany? We didn't understand it at all. We later learned that it was the Rogers Studio 1 model because we received a letter from his cousin with a copy of a test from an audio magazine where the speaker was well rated. I fell in love with the description and decided that one day I would buy them for myself.
I got the opportunity to buy them after a couple of years when my father was retiring at the end of the 1980s. That's when the privilege of certifying the origin of foreign currency came into play with the added advantage that workers/returnees to Yugoslavia paid less customs duty when importing goods.
I told myself: "Now or never!" I sold my old Technics line, spent two summer months on a construction site doing rough manual labor, and even sold my skis and ski gear, so I could buy Rogers speakers and a new electronics. Fortunately, a new version had arrived Studio 1a. The rest of the new system consisted of: a Yamaha C60/M60 preamp/power amp, Denon DP-45F DD turntable and Nakamichi RX-505 tape recorder.
This whole story about Rogers speakers was of great importance to me because I accidentally, in some "silly" way, chose speakers that, in my perception of sound, determined the key settings of quality reproduction. Many years have passed since then and my listening experiences have expanded and changed further, but I can say that my point of reference is what used to be called "British sound."
WP: And then Yugoslavia fell apart...
AĆ: Yes, I could call this part: "Audio gear distribution and war."
In 1989, the economic situation in Yugoslavia was very bad. At the end of the year inflation reached an incredible 2,679% per year, so the then new federal government tried to make changes that would improve it. The International Monetary Fund accepted the recovery plan and already in the first half of 1990 the first elements of recovery were visible. One of the new measures was the possibility of privatizing companies whose shares could be purchased by their directors and employees at large discounts.
For a country still under the communist rule, this was a big change. Liberalization of economy also made private investment possible. So, at the beginning of 1990, numerous private small trading companies began to be established. Seeing the possibility to start working professionally with my hi-fi hobby, I founded a company for the distribution of audio products in June 1990. The first brand I distributed was, of course, Rogers.
In addition to me, a few months earlier, two other private companies focused on the distribution of audio products started operating Media Audio (Mr. TonciDumicic Split) and Kuzma Audio (Mr. Franc Kuzma Kranj). The three of us were the first "private hi-fi company owners" in former Yugoslavia.
Although political relations and intra-national tensions in Yugoslavia rapidly began to become complicated, sales of Rogers speakers went well until the end of June 1991, when the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) intervened militarily in Slovenia, and soon in August openly sided with Serbia in its attack on Vukovar and Croatia. Thus the war for Croatian independence began, ending at the end of 1995.
The covers of three issues the first one (September 1996); the fiftieth one, after which the magazine changed its title from Hi-Fi to Hi-Fi Media; and the 25th anniversary one.
The first two years of the war were very difficult, and the audio business was at a standstill. The other two years had more frequent periods of truce when we tried to live "normally", so my hi-fi business was also somewhat active. The liberation of Croatia and the end of the war brought positive energy and restored hope for a better future. That was the beginning of my new phase, the launch of a hi-fi magazine.
WP: So that's how the story of your Hi-Fi Media magazine started?
AĆ: Yes, although it was first called Hi-Fi. The idea to establish a magazine appeared straight away after I organized the Zagreb Hi-Fi Show in October 1994.
Although 1/3 of the Croatian territory was still under occupation and we were at war, we tried to live normal lives during armistice periods, which gave me an incentive to organize the audio show. It was held in the most luxurious hotel Esplanade in Zagreb and became a great success. It was not big in terms of the number of exhibitors, but the number of visitors was extremely high. The logical question after such a great success was: "Has the time come to start a local hi-fi magazine?"
Supported by a few distributors and as a complete amateur in the publishing industry, I set off into the unknown, but with a clear goal of what I wanted to create a magazine for hi-fi enthusiasts with a quality feature about music. I thought that the project would come to life quickly because everything seemed quite simple to me, but it was not like that. It took me two years to find collaborators, learn the rules of publishing and secure financial resources, because printing a magazine costs quite a lot.
At the end of 1995, the consequences of the war were still very visible, which was most felt on the financial market, and banks were not too interested in financing such a project. Information on the launch of the magazine had already spread within the audiophile community and there was no turning back for me after that. I decided to finance the project with my own funds.
OK, I had the idea of the magazine, its layout and some start-up capital, and now the only thing missing were quality authors who would understand hi-fi and be able to transfer their knowledge onto paper. I thought that would be easy to solve as well, but I was wrong. A few older journalists, who occasionally wrote a little about hi-fi in reviews for daily newspapers, made excessive and, at that moment, unrealistic demands, so I was forced to refuse them and find a different solution.
My colleague Danko Suvar, our current technical editor, had already been living in New York for a couple of years, where he studied electrical engineering. As a musician (drummer) and audio lover, he immediately agreed to cooperate. By the way, the two of us met for the first time in 1991 when he came to my shop to listen to Rogers LS4a bookshelf speakers an experience that turned him into a hardcore audiophile.
At the same time, Douglas Floyd Douglas, a top journalist and PR specialist, winner of several journalism awards in Great Britain for articles on professional and studio electronics, worked for Rogers as marketing director and occasionally wrote for the British audio magazine Hi-Fi World. In addition to the business relationship, the two of us also became very good friends privately, which resulted in his proposal to publish his column from London in the magazine, where he would write about interesting events or products.
Through him we also had access to all articles that appeared in Hi-Fi World and the possibility to publish in our magazine if we expressed such a desire. My colleague uvar was also given his own column, so we covered the two most important cities (London and New York) with our correspondents. With their columns, the magazine seemed quite serious and professional.
However, we still lacked a certain number of authors. Douglas suggested that he would talk to the editor of the British magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review, Steve Harris, and propose that we publish one test from their current issue in each issue of our magazine (it was similar with the Polish Audio magazine, then called Od Radio do Audio, which published product test translations at the beginning Editor's note).
I liked that idea. Cooperation would make it easier for us to produce each issue, we would increase the importance of the entire project, and our readers would have access to tests of devices that were not distributed in Croatia. It was agreed that I would meet Steve and work out all the details about our collaboration. So, we met in New York in 1996, in the luxurious Waldorf-Astoria hotel, where an AV show organized by the influential American High End magazine Stereophile was held at the end of May.
I came to the show in NY with my colleague uvar and a prepared promo flyer about the new audio magazine in Croatia. To my surprise, the conversation with Steve Harris was joined by John Atkinson, editor-in-chief of the Stereophile magazine, who found the information that a hi-fi magazine was being launched in a country that had just emerged from a brutal war very fascinating and interesting. Having received support from both editors of the then most respected hi-fi magazines in the world, I returned to Croatia to complete my domestic search for permanent collaborators, so that the first edition of my magazine could see the light of day.
At that time I was occasionally hanging out with a few younger audiophiles, enthusiasts of good sound and former customers of mine, so I offered them the opportunity to be reviewers for the new magazine that was being founded. Everyone accepted and soon the core of the editorial staff was established. Most of them still write for the magazine today.
From the very first issue, I wanted the magazine to cover all consumer electronics topics that might be of interest to its readers. In addition to hi-fi devices, we immediately devoted ourselves to testing video devices (CRT TVs and VHS recorders) and reviews of film releases (VHS cassettes), but this area of home consumer electronics attracted more attention among readers only after the emergence of DVD media, flat screen TVs and surround sound.
Given my great passion for music and film, the magazine has been thematically composed of three units: AV technology music film from the beginning. Unlike the audio domain of the magazine, music and film had a different weight, so I tried to hire the best journalists I could find in Croatia to write those articles. I think that I have succeeded quite a bit in this and that our readers have had the opportunity to read very high-quality texts about music and film in the last 25 years. That part of the magazine is extremely important to us because it expands our readership beyond the audiophile community and lets us maintain a high percentage of readers after the average consumer buys their new audio or home theater system.
The magazine was launched in the form of a monthly, and we kept that rhythm until about 7-8 years ago, when minor and eventually increasing deviations from the set monthly deadlines began. The reason for this is that with time we had become an increasingly complex magazine with many big topics in all the three categories of sections, and at the same time colleagues had less and less time for their daily duties at work and families.
I would like to mention that all authors who participate in the creation of www.HiFiMedia.hr cooperate as external collaborators. For me, each edition is a challenge because I need to connect at least ten authors in approximately the same time frame they will have time to review, write and submit their texts in time to complete the issue. Sometimes I used to say jokingly: "we only go public when we have something clever to write about."
Although this way of working can be quite stressful for me, I am glad that we are recognized by readers as an independent publisher whose reviews are as transparent as possible and immune to any marketing activities, or any "editorial policy." This commitment to the transparency and independence of the magazine is confirmed by our cooperation with the very influential American internet high-end magazine Enjoy the Music, which dates back to 2012, and membership in the Association of International Audiophile Publications (AIAP) where we are one of eleven founders.
AIAP is an organization that was founded this year and gathers renowned magazines that adhere to the rule that the publication of advertisements in magazines is in no way related to the outcome of reviews of products related to the advertisers (High Fidelity is also one of the member-founders of AIAP Editor's note; more here).
Our activities as an audio/video magazine over the past 25 years have not been limited to the hi-fi domain, but we have followed the development of other segments of consumer electronics in a timely manner, such as the arrival of DVD, SACD vs. DVD-A, the war between Blu-ray and HD DVD, or LCD and OLED TVs, HDTV, 4K, iPod and MP3 music, audio streaming, etc.
We have also attended all the most important shows in the world: CES, IFA, High-End Munich (before Frankfurt) and ISE as well as (before Covid) press conferences of leading consumer electronics manufacturers (Samsung, LG Electronics, Philips, Panasonic, etc.). Finally, twice (in 2009 and 2016), I was selected as a judge for the CES Innovation Awards.
WP: Why did you move your printed magazine to the Internet?
AĆ: The transition to a completely digital format of the magazine has been primarily conditioned by economic reasons. Namely, since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the costs of paper and printing have increased significantly, problems have arisen with the distribution of paper magazines, and a large number of domestic audio distributors have canceled marketing due to the crisis.
The contents of the latest magazine issue in a PDF format.
I don't want to shift all the blame to Covid, because the decline of marketing in the printed edition started as early as 2018, when domestic representative offices of television manufacturers (Samsung, Philips, LG, Panasonic, etc.) drastically reduced marketing, and some of them completely canceled their budget for marketing in print editions.
Leaving the printed edition after 25 years was a difficult and quite an emotional decision for us, but we had to do it because I could no longer finance the magazine myself in that form. During this period of transition to a fully digital interface, we continued to produce new editions of the magazine as if they were going to print, with all the permanent sections and thematic blocks for which we are known and accepted among our readers. Only now the magazine will be available in hi-res, PDF format.
A special feature of our way of distributing each issue of the magazine is that we make it available for free download. We were not convinced that the introduction of a minimum subscription would have an effect on our market. We believe that in this way we have retained all our previous readers and aroused the interest of some new ones for whom hi-fi is not a primary domain, but who are simply interested in our excellent articles covering music and film topics.
We had the imperative that the magazine had to survive in the market and now, after two years, it seems to me that we are on the right track to succeed in this because we see an increase in our readership as well as the interest of companies in marketing on our digital platforms.
WP: What are the pros and cons of publishing an audio magazine online?
AĆ: Personally, I will always prefer a printed magazine because I am a visual person and the graphic appearance of the article I read on paper is important to me, as opposed to the web view, which has a lot of limitations.
A print edition is always physically accessible to the reader through touch, it is a materialized and more intimate medium, while the web acts more like its semi-conscious, present and yet not fully materialized version. By turning off the screen, information becomes unavailable, there are no small rituals, there is no special atmosphere and no feeling of the material value of what is read. Maybe I am too subjective and nostalgic because of my project that was forced to go to another dimension of "existence."
The obvious advantage of a digital (web) magazine is its great possibility of market penetration among readers, as it bypasses the newspaper distribution channel which is often a bottleneck for small and specialized magazines on the way to readers. In terms of speed of publishing current news, the web is currently unsurpassed. Also, many of our younger readers do not see any problem with reading longer articles on a computer or mobile phone screen. So, starting this year, we are redirecting all our activities and adapting to the legalities of the web and social networks.
The main problem for publishers in the digital form is content monetization, because most readers are used to receiving online content for free. This problem did not exist with the printed edition.
WP: What do you think about the future of audio what is good in our world and what not necessarily so?
AĆ: I think the main problem with today's audio is that it has gone to an extreme. When I look at today's high-end products, I often ask myself who these devices were made for, what is the point of a device (amplifier, speaker, DAC, etc.) costing 30,000, 50,000 or more than 100,000? Are we ghettoizing the availability of high-end devices in such a way? How much of the price of such products stands for the actual development of new technologies, and how much is just an easier way of gaining large profits from buyers of luxury goods?
I don't want you to get me wrong, there will always be buyers for top products. However, focusing on such devices often isn't productive for the entire audio community. In recent years, the reactions of visitors after visiting the Zagreb Hi-Fi Show were discouraging because they could only see expensive systems that they would never be able to afford. In line with global trends, local distributors also exhibit mostly only the best devices from their lineup, i.e. what's bigger, stronger and more expensive.
OK, they are all top traders, they probably know what they are doing, but then they shouldn't be surprised when they no longer have the chance to see a new face in their own shop. I am afraid that the younger generations will not be attracted to us in such a way that one day they will buy a better (and more expensive) product.
The advantage of today's audio is easy distribution of music across multiple digital platforms, which has led to a listening revolution. In my opinion, the availability of music (regardless of its quality) is perhaps the seed for the future, so hi-fi as a hobby or someone's livelihood will not die out, because among the billions of young people who listen to music on the move, some will want their own home audio system even if it means a budget hi-fi one.
WP: What signal sources do you use files, digital discs or vinyl?
AĆ: I mostly listen CDs/SACDs because of ease of handling, the sound I like, habit; because they are physically in my room and because sometimes I like to read the booklet that comes with the disc.
I have not yet decided to listen to music stored in a digital form on the HDD or via some streaming platform. Maybe I'm just too lazy to make a new archive for myself. Except for me and my colleague uvar, everyone else in the editorial team mainly uses this form of reproduction. I have a small vinyl collection from a couple of analog listening periods in my hi-fi life, and now I'm thinking of maybe buying a turntable again. I really like the sound of the turntable, but I didn't often have the patience to stop listening and turn the record from side A to B. Maybe it's time for a turntable now that I'm slowly entering my mature years and I have more time for myself.
WP: Have you got any thoughts on comparing MQA and FLAC (or WAV) files?
AĆ: For now I don't have an opinion on MQA vs. FLAC (or WAV) files because I don't use digital files for playback. My colleagues have been intensively comparing these formats for some time and have come to the conclusion that they will primarily listen to music from FLAC files.
WP: Is room acoustic treatment based on digital DSP processing a good choice?
AĆ: Room acoustics is, unfortunately, often overlooked by audiophiles, which is devastating when you consider how much their better hi-fi or high-end systems cost. From my many years of experience, I know that most audiophiles do not use acoustic treatment of listening rooms, or, if by any chance they do, then it is done rather superficially and unprofessionally.
My advice to buyers has always been that if they don't have solid acoustics in their own room, they should decide to buy a cheaper hi-fi system than they thought, because they will do less damage considering the investment/gain. Today's DSP solutions are extremely good and definitely essential in home theater systems where they do a fantastic job. If used sparingly, DSP can also be helpful in audio systems located in acoustically inadequate rooms. However, for the best music reproduction, I would still prefer good room geometry and passive acoustic treatment.
WP: How you see the situation of the audio world in the Covid era?
AĆ: Apart from problems that Covid caused in the distribution system of audio products and manufacturing materials, and the fact that it disrupted the business flows we had before the pandemic, it also did some good things. One of them is that during the time of isolation, interest in stereo reproduction increased and, on average, audio systems were bought more often than in the previous period. I hope that the time of restrictions and isolation due to Covid is behind us because I don't think that the world's population and economy could withstand another two years of torture.
WP: Tell us something about your ten favorite albums.
AĆ: I don't have such a list, except that there are two artists from my youth that I can always listen to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. I listen to a lot of classical music, especially when I'm not doing anything and just want to relax, and a bit of jazz (mostly jazz standards).
What I usually do every day when I'm at the office or while driving my car, is listening to FM radio. It may sound paradoxical nowadays, but the local student FM radio has an excellent selection of music from various genres, so in recent years it has become one of my sources of information on what interesting appeared on the world music scene, or as a reminder of some artists and songs that I have forgotten over time.
Although I often find great recommendations for a new artist or album from my music editorial colleagues, listening to radio stations with the Shazam app on my phone gives me the true pleasure of discovery.
As I finish writing my answers to these interview questions, on the radio I hear Fiona Apple's Rack of His from the album Fetch The Bolt Cutters, while a little earlier it was The Strokes' Ode To The Mets from the album The New Abnormal. Both releases were at the top of our ranking of the best albums in 2020. Then, in the next half an hour, I jot down the songs: Courtney Barnett's Before You Gotta Go, Dub War's Prisoner, Unkle's Safe In Mind, Dry Cleaning's Leafy and Wet Leg, and Chaise Longue who have just released their excellent debut album under the same title.
When comparing the quality of individual audio devices that I am interested in, I naturally rely on proven music titles that guarantee high quality of reproduction, although most "popular audiophile releases" slowly begin to irritate me, because I have heard them countless times at many audio demonstrations and hi-fi shows in the last 32 years. The only audiophile CD I haven't grown tired of yet is the test CD that I released and gave away to our readers with a copy of the magazine on Christmas 1997. The test CD included selected titles from the productions of Dorian Recordings, Pope Music and Sheffield Lab, with whom I was collaborating at the time.
This is a list of titles and albums where the tracks came from:
1. Pierre Attaingnant: Pavane & Branle Gay, Dorian Recordings, DOR-90225.
2. Anonimni: Greensleeves, Dorian Recordings, DOR-90126.
3. Walter Piston: Polka Finale, Dorian Recordings, DOR-90224.
4. Amadeo Roldan: Ritmicas 5, Dorian Recordings, DOR-90245.
5. Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin: Scene (part), Pope Music, PM-1002-2.
6. Valery Gavrilin: Grand Waltz, Pope Music, PM-1015-2.
7. Lori Liberman: One Thing, Pope Music, PM1001-2.
8. Michael Ruff: Lover's Mask, Sheffield Lab., CD 35.
9. Pat Coil: Sierra Highways, Sheffield Lab., CD 10031-2F.
10. Harry James & His Band: Caravan, Sheffield Lab., 10057-2G.
I already know these compositions so well that I make a final opinion about a product with them.
WP: Thank you very much and see you!
AĆ: Goodbye! I also thank you that I've been able to share my story with your readers.