It was the weirdest orchestral balance I'd ever heard. The gentle woodwind chords that begin Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream were as loud as the climactic "Wedding March" that ends the piece. The radio broadcast was obviously being compressed to hell. Yet, sitting at the wheel of the rented Vauxhall Vectra I was driving down to Cornwall for an old friend's surprise 50th birthday party, I was actually glad for the compression. Had Classic FM broadcast the Mendelssohn with its true dynamic range intact, the quiet passages would have been irretrievably buried in the road noise and the loud passages would have had me lunging for the volume control, to the possible danger of those sharing England's congested A303 trunk road with me.
Caveat: This article is written by a non-audiophile. I own and listen to several thousand recordings through about $2500 worth of a rather motley assortment of audio components. Though very well informed musically, and a disciplined listener, Audiophilia remains for me a storied land. Various desultory discussions with Larry Archibald and John Atkinson, some going back almost two years, about the possibly refreshing, certainly outré (for these pages) outlook of a certified Audio Ignoramus, have finally borne astringent fruit in this diversion of an article.
It's the voice that grabs you first, balanced preternaturally high in the mix. As the singer effortlessly projects the vocal line, imperceptibly grabbing breath without disturbing the long, meandering melody, you can't help but realize what a superb instrument she had. As the song's harmonies modulate their way to the dominant, the bass guitar stubbornly sticks to the tonic so that what would otherwise be a conventional chord progression is transformed into a yearning series of suspensions echoing the lyric's despair. As guitarist Tony Peluso hammers down on his power solo, his instrument so fuzzed and compressed that the very plectrum strokes are thrown forward as disconnected transients, it becomes evident that there are layers upon layers to the backing vocals, each carefully placed upon the others by a master orchestrator, each appropriately filling in the gaps in the harmonies without turning the mix to glutinous syrup.
I was watching Mr. Holland's Opus on the tube the other day and was surprised to find myself teary-eyed, even though the film lost me by subjecting me to Michael Kamen's atrocious "symphony" in the finale. Why had I become all choked up? Because I had a Mr. Holland of my own.
I don't know how many of you buy disposable diapers, but while Harry (now 6) and Emily (now 5) were still toddlers, diapers played a large role in my life. I can still remember my panic when I first saw the miles of drugstore shelves devoted to Pampers and Huggies—not just large, medium, and small, but such a variety that it could almost have been possible that each child had a diaper tailored for him or her. I'm sure that even the weirdly shaped backside of Tommy Pickles could have been securely wrapped.
Larry Archibald on CD: This article on Compact Discs and CD players is by Doug Sax, president of Sheffield Records and a longtime opponent of digital recording. J. Gordon Holt offers a response elsewhere in this issue, in which he advises readers to buy a Compact Disc player as soon as they can afford it. Gordon in general hails the Compact Disc as the greatest thing to hit audio since the stereophonic LP.
Every summer, I invite a representative sample of Stereophile's equipment reviewers to the magazine's Santa Fe HQ. For the third successive year, I decided to tape some of the free-for-all discussion that takes place and offer readers the opportunity of peeking over the participants' shoulders by publishing a tidied-up version of the transcript.
Twice a year, Stereophile brings some of its writers out to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to discuss the compilation of the magazine's "Recommended Components" listing, the most recent of which appeared in the October issue. Following a comment from Will Hammond, John Atkinson's collaborator on the recent amplifier blind listening tests, that the magazine's readers would love to eavesdrop on the conversations that take place on these occasions, it seemed a good idea to tape (footnote 1) some of the discussions and publish the transcript as this month's "As We See It" (footnote 2). Accordingly, Lewis Lipnick, Gary A. Galo, Robert Harley, Thomas J. Norton, Guy Lemcoe, Richard Lehnert, Dick Olsher, Peter Mitchell, Robert Deutsch, J. Gordon Holt, Larry Greenhill, John Atkinson, and Arnis Balgalvis all gathered in LA's palatial listening room one August Saturday. JA set the ball rolling by asking the assembled writers where they thought Stereophile had been, where it was, and where they thought it should be going, particularly in view of Robert Harley joining the magazine as Technical Editor.
This morning, John Atkinson passed along to me an e-mail he received from one of our most attentive correspondents—a reviewer, in fact, for an erstwhile competitor. We know that this particular writer ranks among our closest readers because an issue seldom comes out but that he writes an analysis of it, including, and down to, what he considers our excessive political correctness in choice of pronouns.
What is the angular separation of your loudspeakers as viewed from your favorite chair? Whatever your answer, it's wrong. Of course I don't mean that it's a factually incorrect answer, just that any single value of subtended angle cannot be ideal for all recordings.
John Atkinson sets the stage Nothing seems to polarize people as much as the vexed question concerning the importance of audible differences between amplifiers. If you think there are subjective differences, you're an audiophile; if you don't, you're not. And as any glance at an appropriate issue of Consumer Reports—the publication for non-audiophiles—will confirm, the established wisdom is that once the price of an amplifier or receiver crosses a certain threshold, any further improvement in sound quality becomes irrelevant, in that it puts the price up for no apparent gain. In other words, when it comes to amplification, there is such a thing as being "too" good. Yet, as a reader of this magazine, I would expect that not only have you been exposed to real subjective quality differences between amplifiers that Consumer Reports would regard as sounding identical, you have made purchasing decisions made on the basis of hearing such differences.
Compuserve's CEAUDIO forum has been buzzing in recent weeks about audio cables. The subject even spilled over into an April meeting of the New York chapter of the Audio Engineering Society (see Wes Phillips's report in this month's "Industry Update"). Nearly two decades after Polk, Fulton, and Monster Cable raised our collective consciousness about the differences cable choice can make in an audio system, the debate still rages between audiophiles and some members of the engineering community. "High-priced tone controls" is how some engineers dismiss the subject of cables, while admitting that they can sound different. Other engineers adopt the "Hard Objectivist" line that if there are differences to be heard between cables, differences in the lumped electrical parameters of resistance (R), inductance (L), and capacitance (C) are all that are required to explain such differences.
During the late 1950s, when high fidelity exploded into a multimillion-dollar industry, product advertisements bragged about bringing the orchestra into your living room. Apparently, no one realized what an absurd concept it was, but there are still many people today who believe that's what audio is all about. It isn't. There is no way a real orchestra could fit into the average living room, and if it could, we would not want to be around when it played. Sound levels of 115dB are just too loud for most sane people, and that's what a full orchestral fortissimo can produce in a small room.