Tom Nousaine, 1945 - 2014

Remembering One of the Most Controversial Audio Writers of All Time

Tom Nousaine

A reader called today to chat about my CEA-2010 Subwoofer Output Measurement Manual(yep, readers actually call me on Sundays to talk about things like subwoofer measurement) and gave me the sad news that Tom Nousaine, an audio writer and engineer well-known for his writings in such publications as Audio, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The $ensible $ound and The Audio Critic, passed away a few days ago at the rather young age of 69.

I admired many things about Tom. In my opinion, he was one of the pathetically tiny number of audio writers with the drive and passion to take on big, ambitious projects, such as blind testing of speakers and subwoofers, and building his own "ultimate" subwoofer with eight 15-inch drivers. He was one of the few willing to espouse highly unpopular opinions, such as his belief that audio electronics make little difference in the sound of a system, and that cables make none at all. Among journalists, he was one of the most experienced and innovative practitioners of speaker measurements. He owned a small fortune in measurement gear, all paid for out of his own pocket, not provided by the magazines he worked for. (So he told me, at least.)

Most important, he was the first journalist, in my opinion, to do meaningful and competent measurements of subwoofers, because he was, absolutely, the first to realize that the output of a subwoofer is at least as important, and probably more so, than its frequency response. He was also the first audio journalist, to my knowledge, to recognize the importance of using multiple subwoofers to smooth out the effects of room acoustics.

All that said, it was pretty clear that Tom considered me -- and many other audio writers -- to be an enemy. Tom took over speaker measurements at Stereo Review when the legendary Julian Hirsch retired, and continued in that role when Stereo Review morphed into Sound & Vision. I succeeded Tom as S&V's speaker measurement guy when he left the magazine because he felt there were too many articles -- a few written by me -- that espoused a more audiophilesque, less scientific point of view than he preferred.

Home theater enthusiasts embraced Nousaine for his groundbreaking work on subwoofers, and his talent for explaining his methods and results in clear, friendly English.

But audiophiles -- i.e., enthusiasts of traditional, two-channel stereo systems -- vilified him, and not without reason. If you read through many of his old articles, it's easy to get the impression he had it in for them. It often seemed to me that whenever a prevailing idea about audio emerged in audiophile publications such as The Absolute Sound and Stereophile, Tom would concoct a blind listening test with the intent of disproving it. Audiophiles think speaker stands make a difference? Tom "proved them wrong." Audiophiles didn't like the original THX speakers? Tom "proved them wrong." I of course didn't read all his work, but I definitely never read a test he conducted that found audiophiles were right about anything.

I remember that after a writer in Stereophile called him a "weasel," The Audio Critic -- with his permission, I'm sure, and I expect with his encouragement as well -- made that his official nickname, in an obvious (and probably successful) attempt to annoy his nemeses.

Zealous as Tom was in his efforts to debunk audiophile beliefs, his contributions to the audio industry were more important than those of all but a few audio writers I can name. There aren't many audio writers these days with the guts to go against popularly held beliefs, or the drive to try to discover something new about audio rather than simply parroting shibboleths. Contentious as my relationship with Tom was, I'm sad he's gone and I wish there was someone to take his place.

The image above is one I got from his website. It's from the "ultimate subwoofer" article I mentioned above -- an awesome, graphic novel-style piece that originally ran in the then-new Sound & Vision in the late 1990s. Although the cartoon image of the "audio mad scientist" bears only a loose resemblance to Tom, it captures his spirit, drive and ambition far better than any photo could.

BTW, Tom's family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations in memory of Tom be made to the VFW National Home for Children.