Doyenne of the What Hi-Fi? Buying Guide for more than 30 years – and my beloved best friend (and best man)
Caroline Osborn, who died on March 24th, was for more than 30 years the driving force behind the What Hi-Fi? Buying Guide.
After working as a diamond sorter among other jobs (she once recalled her embarrassment at arriving home from work to find a stone had fallen from the sorting table into her handbag!), Caroline joined Haymarket in the 1970s.
She became the proud guardian of the company’s first-ever computer, running the database behind the What Hi-Fi? Buying Guide.
The database she built up was sufficiently encyclopaedic to be used as a reference for the entire industry, listing products current and past, tested and untested, and a huge depth of specifications.
In the days before instant information on the Internet, the Buying Guide database was also an invaluable resource within the magazine, Caroline helping us plan Supertests and group tests by producing lists of products tested and untested at specific price-points or meeting particular criteria, making it easy for us to ‘fill the gaps’ in the magazine’s reviews.
Driven by that early PC and a bank of fiercely-protected filing-cabinets, the ‘Computerised Buying Guide’ – as the cover of the magazine proudly proclaimed it – was updated monthly via a mail-out to every manufacturer and distributor, asking for notifications of product deletions, price amendments and new arrivals.
Anyone ignoring the request did so at their peril, as they’d be on the receiving end of one of Caroline’s charming but firm follow-up calls, reminding them she needed information from them.
As a result, to many in the industry Caroline became the voice of the magazine, not only running the database but producing the Buying Guide pages and organising and ordering products for review.
She greatly enjoyed visiting shows such as those in Bristol and London and putting faces to names, although her experience of hi-fi events went all the way back to the legendary Harrogate shows in the early days of Haymarket’s hi-fi magazines.
And she loved attending the What Hi-Fi? Awards and meeting the industry, so it was fitting that her 30th anniversary with the magazine was marked with the presentation of her own WHFSV Award, making her possibly the only individual – and certainly the only member of the magazine’s staff – to be presented with such an Award.
Toward the end of her time with the magazine she drew on the enthusiasm for good music played on fine equipment she shared with her husband Tony to develop a sideline reviewing and writing audio news for Gramophone magazine, both of them enjoying the process of exploring a wide range of new products.
She was my best friend for more than two decades, and when I was married a dozen years ago I was honoured to have Caroline agree to be my best man: though nervous as ever – she once told me that at school, as Caroline Williams, she’d been nicknamed ‘Williams the flap’ due to her ability to panic! – she delivered a hilarious speech, complete with a fine impersonation of one of Haymarket’s senior managers.
Retiring from WHFSV in 2007, she wrote ‘So what am I going to do now? (Have to answer that one, as everyone keeps asking!) Well, I’m going to take it easy, have more time to enjoy my hi-fi and home cinema systems – it’ll be nice to have the time to watch a movie all the way through! – and travel the world.’
Since then, she and Tony certainly lived up to that last ambition, ticking off Russia, Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, the Amazon, the Galapagos Islands and many more, as well as trips to visit relatives in Australia.
It was while she was planning arrangements and visas for their 2014 travels that Caroline suffered a brain haemorrhage, from which she never regained consciousness.
She is survived by her husband Tony, sisters Annabel and Sian, and her three nephews.