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
It's a jungle out there. The shrinking shelves of your neighborhood newsstand drip with the blood and corpses of magazines that have gone under in the intense battle for browsers' eyeballs. And only if we can make our latest issue's cover sufficiently eye-catching to get enough newsstand browsers to pick up and buy a copy do we get to play another round of the game. (Conventional publishing wisdom holds that, at most, a magazine's cover has six seconds to get its message across.)
My eyes were inexorably drawn to a surprising headline this morning: "New Studies Say Universe Younger than Objects In It." A study by Indiana University's Michael Pierce has just been published establishing a new value for "Hubble's Constant" (the ratio of velocity to distance for distant, receding galaxies) which suggests that the universe may be as young as 7 billion years old; at the same time, researchers at Harvard are saying that the universe is somewhere between 9 and 14 billion years old. Quite a discrepancy! (A billion here, a billion there—pretty soon you're talking real age.)
It seemed a bit like the game of Telephone: Someone at the head of a long line of people whispers a sentence or two into the ear of the next in line, who in turn passes it along. By the time the last person in line repeats aloud what they think they've heard, the message is often barely recognizable to the first person.
High-end audio is not a rational construct. It is a sensory experience that leads to emotional engagement. In slightly different words: High-end audio is not about a concept, but about the experience of having our emotions engaged. The difference between reading about a high-end audio system and hearing great recordings played on one is almost as big as the difference between reading a love poem and falling in love.