It's time to celebrate another memorable year in high-end audio. Each December since 1992, Stereophile has named a few special components its Products of the Year. These are components that not only define the present audio landscape, but that we hope will someday be seen as classicsthings you'll want to pass on to future generations of audiophiles and music lovers.
RAThe Book: The Recording Architecture Book of Studio Design
By Roger D'Arcy and Hugh Flynn (illustrator), with photographs by Neil Waving. Foreword by Adrian Kerridge. Black Box Limited (London), 2011. $215. Hardcover, 15" by 10.5" by 1.25", 350 pp. ISBN 978-1-907759-16-1. Available from www.ra-thebook.com (ships from within the US).
In July 2004, I reviewed Jim Cogan and William Clark's Temples of Sound: Inside the Great Recording Studios, a collection of the business histories of 15 US recording studios. Each chapter covered a particular studio, focusing on its role in the careers of the recording artists most associated with that studio; eg, United Western Recorders and the Beach Boys.
This business biography of hi-fi pioneer Gilbert Briggs and his company, Wharfedale, is an exhaustively researched labor of love on the part of his grand-nephew David Briggs. In a sense, the book is a prequel to Ken Kessler's KEF: 50 Years of Innovation in Sound (2011). That's because KEF's founder, Raymond Cooke, worked for Gilbert Briggs at Wharfedale from the early 1950s through mid-1961. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.
Measuring 7.1" by 1.6" by 9.1" and with an attractive paper-over-board cover, [Talking Heads founder] David Byrne's boldly titled new book resembles the textbooks often found in public-school classrooms. If not for the author's brief lapses into street talkhe uses the word shit just a bit too freely for the youngest readersone gets the impression that Byrne wouldn't mind having his book taught in elementary school. He quotes from Oliver Sacks's brilliant Musicophilia: "For the vast majority of students, music can be every bit as important educationally as reading or writing."
Slowly, painfully, high-end audio seems to be dying. We all know it but we're apparently unable to resuscitate the patient. US dealers are closing at alarming ratesit must be the economy. Women continue to avoid the High Endit must be the technobabble combined with male equipment fetishism. Younger people aren't hopping aboardit must be all those other things competing for their money. (Then again, it might be the High End's abhorrence of rock'n'roll.)
In the summer of 2011, Stereophile's long-time editor in chief, John Atkinson, was invited by the Technical Council of the Audio Engineering Society to give the Richard C. Heyser Memorial Lecture at the 131st Audio Engineering Society Convention in New York, October 21, 2011.
The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun by Robert Greenfield 431 pages. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Hardcover, $30.
Robert Greenfield's engaging biography shows that Ahmet Ertegun was destined to dominate. The son of a Turkish ambassador, Ertegun (19232006) left his native country at age two, and lived for a decade in Switzerland, France, and England, where he had a nanny who had previously cared for the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. His first American home was an architectural gem of a mansion on Washington's Embassy Row. House guests included Cary Grant and his second wife, the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton.
Each December since 1992, Stereophile has named a few special components its "Products of the Year." These are products that not only define the present audio landscape, but that we hope will someday be seen as classicsproducts you'll want to pass on to future generations of audiophiles and music lovers.
In December 1941, just after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S.'s declaration of war, the state of Indiana unwittingly endorsed a very different conflict by approving the incorporation of a talent agency headed by Denver Ferguson, an Indianapolis-based African-American entrepreneur. The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll documents the second of these campaigns, launched by the musical forces Ferguson dispatched to venues throughout the American South where blacks could entertain black audiences. In successive waves, talented musicians hit those stages running. Their performances were often incendiary, and a large chunk of this book chronicles the artistic warfare they waged between the advent of rhythm and blues and the emergence of what became known as rock'n'roll.
A true story: I got tagged for doing a howling 90mph on the way back to New York on the Jersey Turnpike late one night and got off with a warning.
I was pulled over by a beefy young Trooper, lights blinking furiously. Oops. [heh heh]. He saw Kathleen and I weren't nuts, checked the papers and my license, then checked out the Lexus very carefully with his flashlight. There was much oohing and ahhing.
Most audiophiles know Mobile Fidelity as the record company with the philosophy of resurrecting old, important, recorded performances and re-releasing them with (hopefully) the kind of sound they should have had in the first place. Few audiophiles are aware that Mobile Fidelity is also the name of a (different) recording company which collects sound effects in four channels for motion picture and television post-production.
Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice
By Tad Hershorn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 470pp. Hardcover, $34.95.
One night in 1942, Billie Holiday was singing at a Los Angeles nightclub. Between sets, she crossed the street to have a drink with Norman Granz. She was in tears because some black friends who had come to hear her had been turned away.
KEF: 50 Years of Innovation in Sound
By Ken Kessler and Dr. Andrew Watson. GP Acoustics International Limited, 2011. $89.99. Hardcover, 12" by 12" by 0.9", 216 pp. ISBN 978-988-15427-4-8. Available from selected KEF dealers and Amazon.com.
Ken Kessler's latest "coffee-tabler" (my favorite publishing-industry insider neologism) celebrates the 50th anniversary of the founding of KEF Electronics by documenting the history of the venerable loudspeaker manufacturer. While the book doesn't quite start with a bang, it does start with an evocative vignette. The year was 1979, the place the ballroom of Buckingham Palace. Her Majesty the Queen, about to present KEF's founder, Raymond Cooke, with the medal representing his having been made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE), inquired, perhaps formulaically, "This is for loudspeakers?"
What makes one particular hi-fi component stand apart from all others in its class? In this issue's "The Entry Level," I state that an outstanding hi-fi component will fuel the listener's desire to explore new music. If a component does not achieve that fundamental goal, it has failed altogether and should be passionately heaved from the nearest listening-room window to hit the unforgiving asphalt with a definitive, satisfying boom (or traded on one of the online auction sites). But that rule is most pertinent when the discovery of new music is the listener's only goal. Most of us want our hi-fi components to also be attractive, well-built, versatile, and user-friendly; we want them to represent good value for our hard-earned money; and we would appreciate it if they stuck around for a while, rather than have to be too soon replaced by something new and "better."
Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, by Terry Teachout (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009): 475pp. Hardcover, $30; paperback, $16.95.
If you plan to read just one book about Louis Armstrong, whose virtuosic cornet solos pushed jazz past rudimentary ensemble playing and launched his phenomenal career as an instrumentalist and singer, make it Pops. Teachout built it on brickwork laid by authors who preceded him, so you'll benefit from their research, as well as from narrative on 650 previously private reels of tape that Armstrong recorded and archived. Moreover, Teachout is a musician and music critic who offers opinions on his subject's discography.
Few people seem to realize that Armstrong (19011971) called himself LOU-iss. "All White Folks call me Louie," he once noted, and in some instances that may have been patronizing. In others, it was surely an instinctive response to the man's infectious warmth and informality.