Successful new prerecorded audio media emerge, on average, every two decades—one human generation. The LP made its debut in 1948, 21 years after the introduction of electrical recording ended the adolescence of the record industry and the acoustic 78rpm disc. This was almost coincidental with Jack Mullin's retrieval of analog tape technology from the wreckage of post-WWII Germany and its subsequent commercialization by Bing Crosby's Ampex company (footnote 1). The compact cassette made its appearance in 1963, followed almost 20 years later by the CD, in 1982. And now, as I mentioned in the October issue's "As We See It," we have Sony and Philips' Super Audio CD and the DVD Forum's DVD-Audio to contend with (not forgetting MP3 and the Internet).
The audiophile in the plaid shirt and gray Dockers had his hand up. Moderator Jonathan Scull handed him the roving microphone, and the Stereophile writers on the podium at HI-FI '99's Sunday afternoon "Ask the Editors" session shifted in their chairs. "This one's for John Atkinson," came the windup. The other writers relaxed; I started to sweat. Then the pitch: "How come Stereophile issues are so small these days?"
It was the road signs alongside I-44 that first caught my attention, each with its twin supports neatly snapped halfway up. Then I saw the outlet center east of Oklahoma City, smashed flat as if struck by the mother of all baseball bats swung by a careless god.
The night after we got home from the 1999 Consumer Electronics Show in January—see the report in this issue—my dear companion and I attended a performance of Madama Butterfly at San Francisco's beautifully refurbished War Memorial Opera House. It was a Tuesday evening, traditionally a big event for the Opera's benefactors. From our box seats, we had an excellent view of a production musically sumptuous and visually austere—and of a sea of gray and balding heads.
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.