Listening to multichannel music with the new SACD and DVD-Audio players has produced equal parts contentment and consternation. The contentment is easy to understand: Here are media that can reproduce music with better-than-CD resolution and, for the first time, re-create a believable illusion of the entire acoustic space in which the performance was recorded. The consternation is related to those same two issues: 1) maintaining the resolution and tonal balance relished with high-quality stereo, and 2) making the psychological transition from two-channel to multichannel listening. Both of these are barriers to audiophile acceptance of multichannel music.
As part of this issue's coverage of the recent Consumer Electronics Show (see Sidebar), I report on my dissatisfaction with almost all the surround-sound demonstrations I experienced in Las Vegas. As a music-lover, the last thing I want is to have trumpets and drums attacking me from behind, yet almost without exception, that is what record producers seem to feel is an essential part of the DVD-Audio and SACD experiences.
The affair started quietly enough, with the following exchange that appeared in Stereophile's January 2001 "Letters" section, following my decision to put the Digital Audio Labs CardDeluxe high-end PC soundcard on the cover of our September 2000 issue:
Charles Hansen said it best, in a recent e-mail: "People have been holding back from criticizing this technology because they weren't certain that some new discovery hadn't been made." Ayre Acoustics' main man was talking about "upsampling," whereby conventional "Red Book" CD data, sampled at 44.1kHz, are converted to a datastream with a higher sample rate. (Because of its association with DVD-Audio, 96kHz is often chosen as the new rate.)
Not too long ago, the word "convergence" had everyone in the High End ready to duck'n'cover. Asia was on the ropes, and a shakeout was thinning the ranks of high-end audio manufacturers. Some US companies were marketing and selling most of their output to the Pacific Rim. The writing was on the wall: High-end was dead, and we'd all just better get used to listening to music on our computers.
It's easy for us audiophiles to feel neglected. Consider that this year witnesses the debuts of not one, but two new audio formats that should answer the prayers of just about every frustrated audiophile out there: SACD and DVD-Audio. Both approaches represent the state of the art of recording and reproducing music, and finally fulfill for serious listeners the promise that CD teased us with more than 15 years ago.
I left you last month 104 miles from Santa Fe, New Mexico, heading east on I-40 accompanied by a dog and two cats, with 1946 miles to go to reach Stereophile's new editorial home, New York City. To cut a long story short, I did arrive in New York (covered in dog and cat hair). After a nerve-wracking delay, so did our furniture. We will be living out of boxes for a while chez Atkinson, but that's a mere inconvenience compared with the Great Adventure of setting up a new listening room.
The August issue of Stereophile, number 247, is the very last to be produced out of the "City Different" in the "Land of Enchantment" (Santa Fe, New Mexico). Known for its energetic mix of Native American and Latino cultures, its geographic mix of high desert and mountains, its 300 days of clear blue, cerulean skies, its opera and chamber music seasons, and not forgetting that most important culinary question—"red or green"—the oldest established city in the US is not the first place that comes to mind in the magazine business. But, after publishing 39 issues of Stereophile out of rainy Pennsylvania since he founded the magazine in 1962, J. Gordon Holt fell in love with the Southwest and moved out here in 1978.
As often as not, it ain't the heat—it's the stupidity. When confronted by the smattering of self-referential dilettantes, acrimonious Internut wannabes, and obsessive-compulsive types who suck the air out of our aural fun-house, I find myself overcome with the desire to program my phaser for CLIP.
In this issue you can find a full report from the 2000 International Consumer Electronics Show, held last January in Las Vegas. By contrast to the 1999 CES, the Y2K Consumer Electronics Show was considerably more upbeat, both according to my own observations and to those experts who specialize in judging the size of Las Vegas conventions: the city's taxi drivers. Yes, there were some rooms where lonely exhibitors were more than usually pleased to welcome a visitor from the press, but to judge from the home-theater exhibits at the Las Vegas Hilton's Convention Center and the specialty audio exhibits at the Alexis Park Resort Hotel, as well as the companies exhibiting at the splinter T.H.E. Show at the St. Tropez, the joint was jumping.
Does high-end audio have a future? High-end audio most definitely does have a future. So do the Latin mass, chess, leather-bound books, and wooden boats. But the future will not be like the past, and I think we must face the fact that high-end audio's future, both for hardware and software, will be as a minority enthusiasm. We should plan and act accordingly.
The January 2000 issue of Stereophile is actually the last to be published in 1999, so, at the risk of adding to your millennial fatigue (footnote 1), it is appropriate to devote much of this month's magazine to navel-gazing. Robert Baird, Chip Stern, David Patrick Stearns, and Larry Birnbaum examine the state of recorded music, while in the first of two articles, Markus Sauer questions the beliefs that underpin the audiophile world. And this "As We See It" offers an overview of what used to be called "high fidelity."
One of the delights of being published by a multinational conglomerate that grows through acquisition, as Emap Petersen does, is that Stereophile finds itself in interesting company. Like La Nouvelle Revue du Son in France, for example, edited by the legendary Jean Hiraga, who turned me on to the sonic importance of wires and passive components almost 25 years ago. And Mojo, an English music magazine tightly targeted on baby boomers like me, who bought their first stereo systems in the '60s to better appreciate the progressive rock we lived and loved by. (I wonder if turn-of-the-millennium college students gather 'round a new G4 Mac to get off on MP3s the way, 30 years ago, we gathered 'round our precious vinyl.)