There is something about the performance of music that is in the nature of a spectator sport. By this I do not mean big-arena stagecraft and lights and fireworks and dance routines. I mean the actual making of the music.
To see Eric Johnson's fingers flying over his Fender Stratocaster as he hits "Cliffs of Dover" out of the park one more time is to enjoy something that is every bit as much an athletic performance and a spectator sport as baseball is. There is a thrill to watching people do difficult things exceptionally well, things that most of us can only take random sidelong swipes at.
The cover is cracked. It is time to rip it off, look directly at the inner workings, and begin to fix things for ourselves.Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work
Otto von Bismarck (18151898), the Prime Minister of Prussia who brought about the unification of Germany, was not a nice man. But he was no dummy, either. One of his most prophetic remarks was in response to a journalist's question about what Bismarck thought to be the single most decisive factor in modern history: "The fact that the North Americans speak English."
A very popular myth among the audio unwashedand one still perpetuated by the pop hi-fi writersis that nothing is to be gained by paying more than $1000 for a stereo system (footnote 1). Members of the general public, including masses of people who enjoy live, unamplified music, have the impression that more money simply buys one wider and wider frequency range, and defend their $500 "compact" systems with the lame excuse that their ears aren't all that good, and who needs to hear what bats hear anyway? This is no doubt a soothing emollient for one's disinclination to invest more money in audio gear, but it is a supreme self-deception.
"Reviewed in the box!" is what Stereophile's founder, the late J. Gordon Holt, used to call it. You might think you're reading a review, but the realization slowly dawns that there's nothing in the text that could not have been gleaned from the manufacturer's brochure, nothing to indicate that the writer had even opened the box the product came in. When I read a review in another publication or online, I judge it by doing what I recommend Stereophile's readers do when they read this magazine: I look for the nugget I didn't already know, the facet I wasn't expecting, the concluding jewel I couldn't have predicted without ever having tried the component myself. Sadly, all too often too many of what are promoted as "reviews" on the Web are merely descriptions.
People of my generation have learned that change is certain. You can't know what the change will be, but you can bank on the fact that there will be serious change over the next ten years. Look at the historically most important change in ten years: microcomputers.
In an e-mail exchange with Stephen Mejias about why the mere mention of cassette decks on www.stereophile.com can so easily inflame our readers (and John Atkinson), I began to develop the idea that the brains of audiophiles and music lovers are governed by three complementary needs, or desires, that define who we are. I joked to SM that these desires, which apparently shift over time, constitute the Holy Trinity of Audiophiledom. They are, respectively, the love, desire, and need for:
The American computer industry was a little shaken up to learn recently that the Japanese micro manufacturers had gotten together and standardized their component interconnections so that any Japanese computer will (supposedly) plug into any Japanese printer, modem, or competing computer, and work right off the bat. Anybody who has tried to fire up an Apple computer with a Diablo (Xerox) printer will appreciate what the Japanese move means in terms of compatibility. It means "For no-hassle interconnections, buy Japanese."
Now that audio technology seems to be on the verge of being able to do anything asked of it, it seems only fitting to wonder about what we should be asking it to do. We probably all agree that high fidelity should yield a felicitous reproduction of music, but felicitous to what? Should a system give an accurate replica of what is on the disc, or of the original musical sounds?
There was a time, very recently in terms of human history, when high fidelity promised to free the music lover from the constraints of the concert hall and the local repertoire, allowing him to choose at his whim any orchestra in the world playing any work he desired under the baton of any conductor he preferred. "All the pleasure of concert-hall listening, in the comfort of your home," was the way one display advertisement painted this musical utopia which, only 20 years ago, seemed right around the corner.
As another Consumer Electronics Show rolls around, we are seeing some interesting and not-entirely encouraging things taking place in the audio field. The people for whom high fidelity was originally intendedso-called serious music listeners have abandoned audio almost completely, leaving the pursuit of perfect music reproduction to a group of hobbyists who have more interest in hardware than in music. This, plus the recession, has almost killed middle-fi, which is now flailing out in all directions looking for a new market. Here's how it all came to pass: