In last month's "As We See It," I examined how I decide upon ratings in Stereophile's biannual "Recommended Components" listing. This leads me to talk about who writes our equipment reports. Stereophile currently has a team of 16 active reviewers. The core are professional: J. Gordon Holt, Robert Harley, Thomas J. Norton, Corey Greenberg, and Martin Colloms. The others—Sam Tellig, Jack English, Robert Deutsch, Don Scott, Jonathan Scull, Larry Greenhill, Dick Olsher, Guy Lemcoe, Lewis Lipnick, and Steven Stone—may be enthusiastic amateurs, but they are amateurs only in the sense that they don't earn their livings from writing. I'm the team's catcher, both calling the game and keeping the stray balls from getting away. Why, then, is it this cast of characters (footnote 1) who gets to cast judgments in stone in my magazine?
"Everyone I know used to sit in front of the stereo and listen to music...Now no one I know, except for us lunatics, listens to music the way one would watch a movie on TV."—from The Audiophile Network
Dateline: late August 1989. The scene: my palatial office in the Stereophile Tower. Present were the magazine's official technowizard Robert Harley, Circulation Kahuna Michael Harvey, and myself. The subject under discussion was the program for the Stereophile Test CD, launched in this issue, and Bob had been dazzling Michael and myself with a description of the sophisticated signal-processing power offered by the Digidesign Sound Tools music editing system with which he had outfitted his Macintosh IIX computer. (He had to fit it with a 600-megabyte hard-disk drive!) "It'll even do edits as crossfades as well as butt joins," enthused Bob. "Let me tell you about the crossfade I once did when editing a drum solo for a CD master that lasted ten seconds..."
"A newspaper can flout an advertiser...but if it alienates the buying public, it loses the one indispensable asset of its existence."—Walter Lippman, 1922, reprinted in Public Opinion, New York: Free Press, 1965.
When J. Gordon Holt founded Stereophile in 1962, it was very much the outsider. Compared with the mass-market magazine of which he had been Technical Editor, High Fidelity, Gordon's Stereophile was the very model of an "underground" publication, with a publication schedule as irregular as its production values were inconsistent. Its writing was from the heart, however.
As someone who started out as a classically trained musician but who then stepped sideways into rock, I'm fascinated by the one music I've never played: jazz. It seems to me that the essential difference between a performance of a classical work and a jazz performance is that in the former, the musicians use their technique to breathe life into dead notes on a page, while in good jazz, the performer not only applies a similar level of technical expertise, but also has simultaneously to have all of music theory at the fingertips in order to decide what the next note should be. It is a rare musician---Keith Jarrett, for example---who can excel in both arenas.
From London, England, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a pretty big jump, both geographically and culturally. From Hi-Fi News & Record Review to Stereophile, however, is a mere hop; the similarities overwhelm the differences. Unlike the US, mainstream magazines in the UK have managed to keep in touch with the fact that hi-fi components sound different; to edit and to write for an ostensibly "underground" American magazine presented no major philosophical problems. (I say "to edit," but as mentioned in "The Big Announcement," Vol.9 No.3, my editing is done in harness with Stereophile's founder and guiding light, J. Gordon Holt.)
When some unknown copywriter coined that immortal phrase to promote the worldwide launch of Compact Disc in late 1982, little did he or she foresee how quickly it would become a term of ridicule. Yes, early CDs and players offered low background noise, a flat spectral balance, and freedom from wow and flutter. But all too often, the music encoded in the "perfect-sounding" pits seemed to have taken a vacation, leading the renowned recording engineer John Eargle to offer, in the medium's defense, that if you were to hear just one CD that sounded good, digital technology would be proved to be okay.
As of February, 1982, the ownership of this publication passed to other hands. In total despair about its precarious finances, JGH accepted with alacrity an offer by Larry Archibald (an occasional contributor in recent years) to purchase the magazine. This has now come to pass, and it is because of the resulting infusion of money that you are holding this issue in your hot little hands now instead of three months from now (and that is probably being a little optimistic about the way things were).
The future is rarely what anyone expects it to be. I still remember reading, as a child, predictions in Popular Science that everyone would have a personal helicopter by 1980. It never happened, though it sure seemed like a reasonable projection of events. Events, however, have their own agenda.
During a recent visit to Canada's National Research Council, I noticed stuck to the wall of the prototype IEC listening room a page of results from one of Floyd Toole's seminal papers on the blind testing of loudspeakers. The scoring system was the one that Floyd developed, and that we adopted for Stereophile's continuing series of blind tests. "0" represents the worst sound that could possibly exist, "10" the perfection of live sound—a telephone, for example, rates a "2." The speakers in Floyd's test pretty much covered the range of possible performance, yet their normalized scoring spread, from the worst to the best, was just 1.9 points.
In this space last January, I enthused about the sound of linear 20-bit digital recordings which, I felt, preserve the quality of a live microphone feed. "I have heard the future of audio—and it's digital!" I proclaimed, which led at least a couple of readers to assume I had gone deaf. Putting to one side the question of my hearing acuity, 20-bit technology has been rapidly adopted in the professional world as the standard for mastering. The remaining debate concerns how to best preserve what those 20 bits offer once they've been squeezed down to the 16 that CD can store. Sony's Super Bit Mapping algorithm and Harmonia Mundi Acustica's redithering device have been joined by new black boxes from Apogee Electronics, Lexicon, and Meridian; it appears likely that, in next to no time at all, all CD releases will be offering close to 20-bit resolution—at least in the upper midrange, where the ear is most sensitive.
Stereophile Consulting technical editor Robert Harley and I were walking down Brooklyn's Flatbush Avenue trying to remember where we'd parked our rental car. We were in town for the Fall 1993 Audio Engineering Society Convention, and had just had dinner with record reviewer Beth Jacques.