The Chicken and the Egg

It is inarguable that the quality of magnetically recorded sound has improved immeasurably in the last 101 years. 101 years? Yes, according to a fascinating account in the May 1988 issue of the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, it was in 1888 that the Cincinnatti-based engineer Oberlin Smith experimented with recording information on steel wire by drawing it across the corner of an electromagnet around which a coil had been wound. Smith only carried out experiments without producing a practical recording system, and it wasn't until 1898 that the Dane, Valdemar Poulsen, was granted a German patent for a "Method for the reception of news, signals, and the like."

For some reason, the magnetic recording of music didn't seem to be a high priority, probably because it was obvious that the technology didn't begin to rival Edison's and Berliner's mechanical grooves on technical grounds. (Those were the days: the cassette still doesn't begin to rival the LP when it comes to quality, yet it has now become the main medium for recorded music.) Only in 1936 did AEG and BASF (then a division of the IG Farbenindustrie chemical giant) record Sir Thomas Beecham and the LPO in concert in a program of Vaughan Williams, Delius, Mozart, and Rimsky-Korsakov on tape. (In conjunction with BASF, Chandos released a limited-edition "50th Anniversary of Tape Recording" cassette of this concert in 1984; it is well worth seeking out.)

By the time of WW II, recording on tape was commonplace in Germany, and Richard Lehnert reviews a 1944 Munich tape of Der Fliegende Holländer, transferred to mono CD by Rodolphe, in this month's record-review section. The recorded balance is remarkably true to Wagner's music, but, as Richard points out, the sound suffers from the ills you would expect from what was still an early technology. Midrange climaxes are distorted, highs are grating, and there is an abundance of dropouts. These days, you would think such technical deficiencies to be a thing of the past, of course.

Of course? Let me digress. My wife is a ballet nut and is determined to educate me in the dance. So far she has dragged me along to two performances by the Albuquerque-based South West Ballet company and one by the Paul Taylor Dance Company. I am gradually learning to differentiate the good from the bad, but as I started from a very low base of knowledge—none—at least some of the time I forget the subtleties of the dance and enjoy the music, courtesy of the New Mexico Symphony (a transfigured ensemble since the dynamic Neil Stulberg took over as Music Director). Imagine my horror, therefore, when we discovered as we took our seats for the most recent performance that the company was to dance to music from a cassette! This in the 1500-seater auditorium that serves as home to the Symphony!

The ballet was by Balanchine, the music by Tchaikovsky (the third piano concerto) via the house PA system—two huge (and presumably expensive) enclosures either side of the stage and another flying over the proscenium arch. We were treated to some of the most abysmal reproduced sound I had ever heard. It could have been used to demonstrate everything that could be wrong with a 1989 music reproduction system: the soundstage was nonexistent, everything coming from a single point in space (I think this is technically referred to as "mono"); the noise level competed with low-level instruments for your attention; clarinets sounded like oboes, oboes sounded like screaming cats; violins screeched to the point where you wished that Stradivarius had devoted himself to some other craft; some piano notes sounded as if accompanied by an out-of-tune xylophone, others as if the hammers were made of sponge rubber; there were no highs or lows; and at levels above mezzoforte, the sound degenerated into a roar of clipping distortion.

A more comprehensive example of noise, distortion, resonant coloration, and tonal imbalance would be hard to imagine. The 1944 recording, even in mono, is a paradigm of excellence by comparison.

The puzzle was that my wife and I seemed to be the only ones in the audience who even noticed this sonic travesty, let alone be bothered by it. Yes, I am regularly exposed to very high quality sound; witness my review of the new Accuphase CD player in this issue. But no, I don't think that my sensibilities have been fine-tuned by exposure to the highest of high-end components to such a point that perfectly respectable reproduced sound quality fails to satisfy. It also wasn't just that I was expecting the real thing, live music. Rather, I am sure that everyone else in that audience just heard what they recognized as "reproduced" music. These people, persistently exposed to the very poorest standard of quality—TV and radio sound (FM, not just AM)—heard a sound in the auditorium that was no different in kind from what they expected reproduced music to sound like. I am convinced that the public has been trained to anticipate so little quality from recorded sound that they are now not bothered by the fact that they often receive no quality whatsoever.

An unfortunate fact of modern life, you must be thinking, but what relevance does it have to Stereophile readers? Well, when you talk to professional audio engineers, it is hard not to be convinced that we have reached a plateau where the fundamental performance of nearly all aspects of the recording/reproduction chain is so good that any further improvement would be unnecessary. Improvement might even be undesirable in that it would increase costs without bestowing any perceived benefit. Occasionally, therefore, particularly when I read a letter like the one from Donald Bisbee that kicks off this month's "Letters" column, complaining about the unpleasant fact that those components our writers find to be the best-sounding are also the most expensive, I wonder if audiophiles have become unnecessarily fussy about sound quality.

But when I have an experience like that recent ballet performance, I become even more convinced that to strive for the best possible performance, no matter what the ultimate cost, is the only acceptable philosophy for any kind of audio engineer. When I hear an engineer promulgating the idea that audiophiles are suffering from some kind of mass self-delusion, an opinion that appears to be commonly held among the establishment audio-engineering community, I remind myself that it's those very same engineers who are responsible for the kind of sound that has lowered the American public's expectations of quality. Whenever you are told by an engineer or audio writer that something is probably good enough, or that no one will notice a system's problems, or it is not worth spending more money, or that audiophiles have unnecessarily high expectations, reach for a rope.

Except that hangin's too good for 'em.

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