In a dark, smoky office, a desk lamp beams a cone of light onto papers, books, pipes, and notepads. A theoretical physicist hunches over his desk, half-illuminated, visualizing the world inside his equations.
Larry Archibald on CD: This article on Compact Discs and CD players is by Doug Sax, president of Sheffield Records and a longtime opponent of digital recording. J. Gordon Holt offers a response elsewhere in this issue, in which he advises readers to buy a Compact Disc player as soon as they can afford it. Gordon in general hails the Compact Disc as the greatest thing to hit audio since the stereophonic LP.
Five or six years ago I wrote a breezy, introductory-type piece on mid-fi "knob-surfing," winding up with a reprise on the old line that the number of the knobs, lights, and tattoos on the faceplate is often inversely proportional to the quality behind them.
Suppose you've put aside some cash for a new preamp. You survey the field and zero in on the Musical Ecstasy 1000 and the Sonic Nirvana Special. Both got good reviews in all the magazines, they look great, and each will set you back about the same number of mortgage payments. So you visit your dealer and camp out for a weekend or two. You listen, you think, you walk around the store, you listen some more, you recalculate your tax return. You listen some more. Finally, you have a winner. "I want that one," you tell your dealer; "the Sonic Nirvana."
During the late 1950s, when high fidelity exploded into a multimillion-dollar industry, product advertisements bragged about bringing the orchestra into your living room. Apparently, no one realized what an absurd concept it was, but there are still many people today who believe that's what audio is all about. It isn't. There is no way a real orchestra could fit into the average living room, and if it could, we would not want to be around when it played. Sound levels of 115dB are just too loud for most sane people, and that's what a full orchestral fortissimo can produce in a small room.
Dateline: late August 1989. The scene: my palatial office in the Stereophile Tower. Present were the magazine's official technowizard Robert Harley, Circulation Kahuna Michael Harvey, and myself. The subject under discussion was the program for the Stereophile Test CD, launched in this issue, and Bob had been dazzling Michael and myself with a description of the sophisticated signal-processing power offered by the Digidesign Sound Tools music editing system with which he had outfitted his Macintosh IIX computer. (He had to fit it with a 600-megabyte hard-disk drive!) "It'll even do edits as crossfades as well as butt joins," enthused Bob. "Let me tell you about the crossfade I once did when editing a drum solo for a CD master that lasted ten seconds..."
Pollock, Rothko, Amperex, and Sylvania? Last spring I went to a contemporary art show out on Chicago's Navy Pier. I wanted to get away from things with wires and knobs—you know, rub elbows with Chicago's better-dressed, sip some wine, maybe practice talking about artistic creations that I usually don't understand ("It's so brutally honest...yet, somehow, still deceptive"). But there's no rest for the weary, confused audiophile. Along with artists, paintings, and sculptures from all over the world, thousands of vacuum tubes had descended on the Pier.
Remember the old mathematical riddle about moving a football from a hundred yards out to the goal line? Known as Xeno's Paradox, it goes like this: if each time the ball is moved it travels half the distance to the goal, how many moves will it take to get there? The answer: an infinite number, because no matter how many times you cut the distance to the goal by half, you'll always be some infinitesimal distance away from it.
Back in 1968, nothing sounded better to me than "Penny Lane"—one of my all-time favorite songs—blasting out over my Dad's home-built Eico gear (when no one else was around, of course). For some reason, the various sounds packed into that song grabbed my attention as much as that old integrated amp whose steel case got as hot as the tubes inside—ouch! When the Beatles broke up, I played Magical Mystery Tour over and over for days before I felt I'd paid them sufficient homage. Like everyone else, I heard a lot of the Beatles through the '70s and '80s. (And now, of course, it may as well be the '60s again: if you can stomach another "Magic Carpet Ride" every hour (or so it seems), just tune in your local "classic rock" station and you'll hear lots of "Penny Lane," too.)
Some folks claim to have actually seen the legendary Bigfoot, the enormous, manlike beast said to roam the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest. Others have stood in his footprints or plucked foul-smelling patches of hair from trees he has recently passed. A few have gotten close enough to take vague snapshots or shaky video clips of the beleaguered creature. One or two attest to frightful chance encounters with him. His size alone has given rise to rumors that he is dangerous, but no firm evidence has ever been produced to substantiate this.
In debates about audio, philosophy, literature, fine art, or whatever, people often adhere to either absolutism or relativism. Absolutism supposes, for example, that either analog or digital is superior and that whichever is better holds for all parties concerned. Michael Fremer, for instance, is not just advertising his opinion about the superiority of analog; he believes that everyone would acknowledge it if they paid attention to the evidence. Relativism, on the other hand, teaches that no such absolute and univocal consensus can be reached. In the end, we all have our own subjective preferences, and that, quite simply, is that. If we disagree about whether tube amps are better than solid-state, or single-ended is better than push-pull, c'est la vie.