Conventional wisdom has it that you should listen to an audio component, preferably in your own system, before you decide to buy it. But who, these days, has the opportunity to do this consistently? Even an audition in the store isn't guaranteed; I have to drive two hours to get to the nearest dealer with decent customer service and a good inventory of interesting gear. And though he generally stocks a fairly wide range of components, like any dealer, he carries only a small sample of all the hi-fi gear that's currently, in principle, available.
It was a powder blue Pinto. Brand new, it drove like a bowl of Jello with wheels. No matter how firmly I gripped the steering wheel, I had no confidence that it had any kind of relationship with the wheels on the road. And pickup? There was none. But because its designers had sacrificed all quality to build it cheaply, the Ford Pinto was equally cheap to rent when I did so back in 1980.
Stereophile is devoted to getting the best sound from a home audio system. But as I have written before, audiophiles don't have access to an absolute sound, only to what has been captured in the pits or grooves of their discs, which is itself the result of a creative process. The playing back and the making of recordings are therefore two sides of the same coin. This is why I get actively involved in recording projects and why I publish articles about those projects, the most recent of which appears on p.50. "Project K622" describes the making of a new recording of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto (work number 622 in the Köchel catalog of Mozart's compositions, hence the article's title), which is being released both on hybrid SACD and on 180gm vinyl. (You can buy both from our secure "Recordings" page.)
"One of the worst-kept secrets in audio engineering is that what we hear does not always correlate with what we measure." So wrote the late Richard Heyser 30 years ago, as quoted in Time Delay Spectrometry, a 1987 anthology of his writings (footnote 1). What do we hear? Music heard live consists of a sound pressure that changes according to the logical demands of two things that have no physical reality: the way in which music is structured in time and pitch, and how that structure is ordered by the composer/musician. Heyser, one of the most perceptive audio engineers I've had the privilege to meet, repeatedly emphasized in his essays and papers that the reproduction of music is a multidimensional event.
I recently came across a 1998 report, "Explaining the Computer Productivity Paradox," by Kevin Stiroh and Robert H. McGuckin III, that discussed the apparent fact that the widespread use of computers has not resulted in any significant increase in worker productivity. This is indeed a paradox, as my experience in the magazine business has left me with the opposite impression. We all do more, with less, than at any earlier time.
When I first started buying records at the end of the 1950s, I had this vision of the typical recording engineer: A sound wizard wearing a white lab coat rather than a cloak festooned with Zodiacal symbols. He (it was always a "he," of course) would spare no effort, no expense to create a disc (LPs and 45s were all we had) that offered the highest possible sound quality. At that time I also believed that Elvis going into the Army meant the end of rock'n'roll, that my teachers knew everything, that politicians were honest, that socialism was the best form of government, and that talent and hard work were all you needed to be a success. Those ideas crashed and burned as I grew up, of course, but other than the long-discarded white coats, each new record I bought strengthened rather than weakened my image of the recording engineer.
I recently bought a turntable, the first I've owned in about 15 years. I had sold my vinyl collection—a mix of classic rock, early 1980s pop, and the odd jazz or classical LP—when I was in grad school, for economic reasons: I needed the money for rent, or food, or beer, or something. Nor do I know what happened to my old plastic turntable; more than likely, I left it curbside for anyone strolling by who was able to appreciate its value.
Nicholas Negroponte, Professor of Media Technology at MIT's Media Lab, is somewhat of a hero of mine, not the least because in his 1995 book Being Digital (Alfred A. Knopf), he mentioned specialty magazines as being a paradigm (of a sort) for the information-rich future. The role of a magazine such as Stereophile is to act as an intelligent (we hope) filter applied to the breadth and depth of human activity. Those who define themselves by their interest in the publication's specialty can therefore go to just one source to find everything of relevance.
One reason I have never felt the need to invest in a high-end home-theater system is that it is all too easy for me to go 'round to Tom Norton's house. As well as contributing the amplifier measurements and the all-too-rare component review for Stereophile, Tom is technical editor of our companion book, Stereophile Guide to Home Theater (footnote 1). As you might expect, he has access to video equipment that the rest of us can only dream about.
It was the subhead that caught my eye: "Today's super-rich just don't seem interested in $300,000 stereos." Clunky writing, sure. But at least it gave some idea of what the next 2000 words were about, and spared the pain of having to read further.
Our Delta L-1011 emerged from the cloud split-seconds before its wheels touched the waterlogged ground. "How much lower does the cloud cover have to be before they divert us to another city?" I asked Tom Norton. "About an inch," came the phlegmatic reply. (Ex-F4 pilot TJN categorizes any landing you can walk away from as "good.") But at least we had reached Atlanta, after a saga of air-traffic control problems, weather delays, and missed connections. (Does anyone remember taking a flight that wasn't full, wasn't late, and wasn't sweaty and stressful? Wasn't deregulation supposed to improve service by increasing the choices available to travelers?)