Tom Swift is a talented young loudspeaker designer. Tom believes that he has never been able to prove exactly how talented he is, because the company he works for refuses to build the cost-no-object loudspeaker he's been doodling designs for (on company time).
Getting a name check from the mainstream press can be a good thing. But as Wes Phillips wrote in his blog on February 5, "to paraphrase Mason Williams on winning an Emmy Award, 'It's like being kissed by a girl with bad breath—you appreciate the honor, but...'"
Editor's Note: Those of us who cut our engineering teeth on tubes still remember the advent of the solid-state amplifier with mixed feelings. Yes, they were lighter and cheaper per watt than the thermionic hulks we loved so much, but they broke all the time (thanks to the germanium transistor) and sounded like—well, let J. Gordon Holt tell us what they sounded like in an "As We See It" article from Vol.1 No.10, first published in May 1965. We also develop the theme with a JGH review of an early transistorized amp, as well as a selection of readers' letters from the early days of Stereophile. Enjoy.—John Atkinson
I am writing this copy on a venerable Radio Shack TRS-100 portable computer while flying via TWA from St. Louis to Albuquerque, the very fact of doing so having reminded me of what I wanted to write about in this month's column: hardware reliability. J. Gordon Holt touched on this subject in last June's "As We See It," but I felt it worth readdressing in light of recent events.
The debates may be old, but they're not tired. They rage on with a virulence that suggests there's plenty of life in these old dogs yet. Online forums and Letters to the Editor are filled with them: objectivist vs subjectivist, engineer vs audiophile, double-bind vs doubly blind. The divisions may be artificial or downright specious—false dichotomies perfectly set up for cheap shots—but that doesn't dissuade people from drawing sides, driving stakes into the ground, and firing off volley after volley of accusation and retaliation.
For a subjective equipment reviewer, whose writings are based as much on impressions as on observations, it is very important to approach a product without personal bias. Of course, all of us lay claim to this ideal, and some of us even manage to maintain the appearance of impartiality most of the time. But just under the reviewer's veneer of urbane professionalism and deliberative restraint lies a darker force—a leering hobgoblin of anarchy and mischief which scoops usually forbidden adjectives from a well of calumny and offers them for the writer's consideration as the perfect word to describe what he is trying to express. It's an ever-present temptation to accept the suggestion, because every critic harbors a secret urge to be another Dorothy Parker, trashing mankind's most earnest endeavors with devastating bon mots that will endure long after the writer has ceased to. Most of the time, the reviewer is able to resist the temptation to broadside a product, but some products, and the people they represent, make this very difficult. In fact, sometimes it is impossible.
Most readers of Stereophile are in it to read about great products—things that make the hobby and art of home sound reproduction exciting. In this respect, reviewers aren't too different—we love sound reproduction and music in general, and products that help bring this to life are the cat's meow. Reviewers that can't respond with this kind of excitement don't have a place writing for this magazine.
As you may have noticed, Stereophile's approach to equipment testing is quite different from that of "mainstream" audio publications. Instead of throwing a bunch of measurements at you, and telling you how we think components ought to sound because of those measurements, we test them as you would: by listening. But we have an extra problem: we have to convey to someone else—you—a feeling for what we hear from that component. It ain't always easy.
Michael Fremer's review of the AudioPhysic Caldera III loudspeaker in this issue (p.81) reminded me of a subject I have written about many times in the past: what happens when a manufacturer submits a faulty sample for review. I formalized Stereophile's policy on this matter in late 1988, following both an unfortunate series of reviews in which the samples either arrived broken or broke during the auditioning, and my learning about how much went on behind closed doors at other audio magazines, where reviewers and editors too often appeared to collude with manufacturers.1 I wrote back then that:
"The large peak at 16kHz reported by Stereophile...was nowhere in evidence...The most probable explanation of this discrepancy is that the [Waveform supertweeter's] very light ribbon depends on the air load for damping, and that load is much smaller in the thin air up there at 7000' in Santa Fe than at altitudes where less lightheaded and scientifically more accountable reviewers dwell." Thus spake Peter Aczel (footnote 1), erstwhile loudspeaker designer and Editor/Publisher of the reincarnated The Audio Critic, a publication that advertises itself as having "unusual credibility among the top professionals in audio."
Although you're reading this in October, I had to write it in the middle of summer's dog days—what Washington journalists used to call "the silly season," not so much because there's anything inherently funny about August, but because, in pre-AC DC, all the legislators went home then to escape the heat and humidity, leaving the press corps with little to write about other than "man bites dog" stories.
Epiphanies only come when you stop looking for them, and mine came in a room full of preschoolers watching cartoons at a Pizza Hut. I was taking my little nieces Alix (4) and Casey (1) out for dinner, and the last thing on my mind was audio; we wanted to PARTY! So my girlfriend Dara and I bundled them up in their car-seats and we high-tailed it over to the Hut, with visions of continuous-loop Tom'n'Jerry and cheap buffet pizza dancing in our heads.