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.
You would have thought the hardware companies who trumpeted at the January 2006 Consumer Electronics Show that their video DVD players would be in US retailers' showrooms by September 1996 would have learned an important lesson from the bungled DAT launch almost 10 years ago: Without first getting complete agreement of the software industry on substantive issues, it's foolish to announce a firm launch date for a new medium. September came and went without DVD discs or players being available in US stores. In fact, all that happened was that the bottom fell out of sales of 12" laserdiscs and laserdisc players.
I began writing this essay on New Year's Day 2007. The passing of the old year reminded me that I am now in the 21st year of editing Stereophile, my 25th of being the editor-in-chief of a mainstream audio magazine, and my 31st of working full-time as an audio journalist. (Prior to joining Stereophile in 1986, I had worked for 10 years at British magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review, the final four as its editor.) Back in the innocent 1970s, reviewers and editors generally picked and chose what products to review based on their own interest and what they felt appropriate for their readers to know about. Back then, there was only a tiny fraction of the audio brands now available to the audiophile, and even with fewer review pages than we now have, it was possible each year to cover a representative sample of the products being offered our readers. But such was the explosion in high-end audio throughout the 1980s that, by 1989, I felt it necessary to impose some restrictions on what products we choose for full review coverage in Stereophile.
Finding myself in the Northwest on business, I reckoned I'd grab some Seattle dim sum with my nephew before heading my rental car south on I-5 to visit old friends in Oregon. "You live here," I said to Sean. "What are the good radio stations?"
It's called the "Cocktail Party Effect." You may be immersed in the middle of a crowd of audiophiles all talking at once, but when someone says something that catches your attention, such as your name, you can focus on the sound of that person's voice and exclude the babble. The noise suppression can be 9–15dB; ie, the sound being concentrated on seems to be three to four times louder than the ambient noise, according to Wikipedia. The exact mechanism of the Cocktail Party Effect is not known, but it is conjectured that it has something to do with the binaural nature of human hearing: the fact that we have two ears allows us to apply spatial discrimination to what would otherwise be a jumble of sound.
One of the things endured by engineers and journalists involved in the design and discussion of high-end components is the seemingly endless attacks from those who, for whatever reason, feel that there is something unhealthy, even vaguely immoral, in the whole idea of wanting to listen to music with as high a quality as possible. The Listening Studio's Clark Johnsen reminded me recently of a letter from Daniel Shanefield that I published in the January 1984 issue of Hi-Fi News & Record Review that illustrates the whole genre: "It is utterly useless to write an amplifier review based on listening tests. If there were anything other than mere frequency response variation, it might be interesting...most hi-fi magazines will...forswear attempts to review amplifiers for their 'inherent sounds.' There are still plenty of interesting things to talk about in reviewing amplifiers, such as features, power, cost effectiveness, beauty, etc." (Of course, Daniel Shanefield is not quite as authoritative a published amplifier reviewer as, say, J. Gordon Holt or Harry Pearson of The Abso!ute Sound.)
As I write this, I am recuperating from four days of frenzy at the 1986 Winter CES in Las Vegas, Nevada. I am also pondering why I was so unexcited by most of what I saw and heard of the high-end exhibits; high-end audio may have reached a developmental plateau of sorts.
"You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like—static."—Bob Dylan, interviewed by Jonathan Lethem. Rolling Stone, September 7, 2006