Thirty-five years ago this month, the first issue of a new audio magazine—cover price 50 cents—cautiously made its way out of a Philadelphia suburb. Its black'n'white cover featured a chessboard adorned with tubes and XLR plugs. Its 20 advertising-free pages included a feature on how to write an ad for an audio product, which had been penned by one Lucius Wordburger, a footnote helpfully pointing out that this was the nom de plume for one J. Gordon Holt, "who wishes to remain anonymous."
A fellow member of the Bay Area Audiophile Society recently forwarded to me a link to Wikipedia's entry for audiophile. It's a horror. Even before the page defines the word, it begins with a large question mark, circled in green, and the warning, "This article or section may contain original research or unverified claims. Please help Wikipedia by adding references."
Stadium rock is my idea of the inner circle of Hell. I hate crowds. I have zero interest in the rich and famous. And I've never been much of a Rolling Stones fan. Give me a choice, and I'll take Weslia Whitfield at the Plush Room 10 times out of 10: a cushy seat, some witty companions, a little Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. Heavenly.
"What the heck is that icon trying to tell me?" I had switched on Denon's new DVD-3000 player—a cute "Welcome to DVD World" message scrolled across its display—and put a disc in its drawer. The icon, which looked at best like a Japanese character and at worst like a child's drawing of a house (complete with windows), was lit up in light blue on the display. But the game was given away by the magic words "96kHz 24 bit" illuminated in red below the mysterious icon. For this was no DVD movie, but a test pressing of Chesky's new Super Audio Disc, The Super Audio Collection & Professional Test Disc, which makes use of the DVD-Video specification's provision for including a two-channel, linear-PCM signal encoded with a 96kHz sampling rate and a word depth of up to 24 bits. (Contrary to what you may have read in the popular press, using DVD-Video to carry high-definition sound quality does not introduce a new and incompatible standard.)
The March 1999 issue of Stereophile is my last as the magazine's Equipment Reports Editor. I have accepted a job elsewhere in the industry, and, as a public relations consultant, will be actively promoting this wonderful hobby of ours in a different capacity.
As I write this in the first quarter of 2007, CD sales are off over 22% compared to this time last year. The music industry as we know it, based on sales of some kind of physical medium, is over. While CDs and even LPs will remain available—they're so easy and cheap to make—they've become irrelevant to the mass market and to the future of audiophile recordings. The major labels have also become irrelevant (not to mention highly irritating).
The October 1982 issue of Stereo Review published what must be hailed (or derided) as the first reasoned assessment of high-end audio ever presented in a mass-circulation hi-fi publication. We disagreed with a few of the author's points, but our main gripe about the piece prompted a letter to Stereo Review. This is what we wrote:
Stuck out here in the desert depths of the Southwest, we look forward to visits from out-of-towners. So when David Wilson, one-time audio reviewer but now full-time high-end manufacturer, called to say he was going to be in Santa Fe, there was a flurry of activity. David had agreed to an interview, so I started going through back issues of The Absolute Sound and Stereophile for background. Vol.6 No.2 of Stereophile from 1983, with its front-cover photograph of David and Sheryl Lee Wilson with their WAMM speaker system, seemed a good place to start—except that nothing inside the magazine corresponded to the cover picture. It was the next issue that had featured Larry Archibald's write-up on the WAMM, and once I opened its pages, I got trapped into reading the entire issue.
Much of the descriptive terminology used in subjective reporting describes things we hear in live music, and expect—or, rather, hope—to hear from reproduced music, too. I'm referring to terms like width, depth, perspective, spectral balance, and tonal accuracy. If you read our reports, you know these terms as well as I do, and since they are (for most people) self-explanatory, I will devote no more time to them.
Ever since Vol.6 No.3 was published in August of 1983, Stereophile has been the leading subjective review magazine in terms of circulation. At that juncture our circulation was 12,000 and has now increased to 15,000. And it's all your fault!
In his impassioned "As We See It" in May (Vol.20 No.5, p.3), Robert Harley pleaded that the Compact Disc is actually quite a bit better than it sounds, and requested that audiophiles focus instead on the significant improvements wrought in digital sound since its inception. Bob's point—that picking on CD's shortcomings has become a ritual bloodsport within the High End—is well taken: witness my own catty swipe at it in the first sentence. The fact is that the glaring imperfections of the first generation of digital products are now mostly distant memories. Most of us do derive hours of musical pleasure from our CD players and CD collections.
Just about everyone knows that a new high-quality digital audio disc, called DVD, is being developed by the world's electronics giants. What few realize, however, is how politics and corporate politics influenced the format's technical specifications. The result may be unnecessary sonic degradation for millions of music listeners.