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.
Two recent listening experiences of mine echoed the overblown praise Jon Landau lavished upon Bruce Springsteen after he heard The Wild, the Innocent & the E-Street Shuffle. But all hype aside, Landau was right: Springsteen was the future of rock'n'roll—or at least what passed for the future of traditional rock in those pre-MTV, pre-techno, pre-house, pre-gangsta, pre-rap, pre-hip-hop, pre-grunge, pre-Mariah Carey, pre-Garth Brooks, pre-sampling, pre-digital days. And I believe that, Landau-like, I too will be right. I have heard the future of audio, and it is digital—digital technology has finally surpassed the sound quality of analog.
By the time you read this, I will have been fortunate enough to have attended a banquet put on by Harry Pearson in celebration of The Abso!ute Sound's 20th anniversary. Stereophile and TAS may have had their disagreements from time to time, but I take this opportunity to congratulate Harry and his staff on 20 years of excellent high-end publishing. I believe it's not excessively immodest to report that high-end manufacturers frequently remind me of their gratitude for the healthy and vibrant high-end publishing community which exists in the United States—and does not in most other countries. Many publications make up this community, but Stereophile and TAS are certainly the most widely read.
At a CES press breakfast in Las Vegas last January, a member of the "all amplifiers (and digital sources!) sound the same" school of audio journalism made an interesting assertion. He argued that if our society were studied by extraterrestrials, they would find an unhealthy obsession with the re-creation of experience at the expense of experience itself. This speculation was a vehicle to support his position that buying good hi-fi is a waste of money; for the same financial outlay, one can attend hundreds, even thousands of live performances. Moreover, this anti-high-end writer suggested that ETs would consider our quest for better music reproduction a bizarre folly when the real thing is so readily available (footnote 1).
Editor's Introduction: Thirty years ago this month, in September 1962, J. Gordon Holt, lately Technical Editor of High Fidelity magazine, was working on the contents of the first issue of his brainchild The Stereophile, a magazine that would judge components on how they actually sounded. We thought it appropriate, therefore, to use the occasion of the 1992 Summer Consumer Electronics Show, held in late May in Chicago, to invite some 200 members of the international high-end industry to a dinner to celebrate the occasion. Larry Archibald dug deep into the magazine's coffers; Ralph Johnson took time off from organizing the 1993 High End Hi-Fi Show to burn up the long-distance telephone lines faxing invitations; the conversation was excellent, the food superb, and the wine even better. Which is probably why the venerable JGH took the opportunity to remind the assembled luminaries what this whole business is supposed to be about. Here follows the text of his speech. I hope you find it as stimulating reproduced in these pages as did those who heard it live.—John Atkinson
In the April 1992 Stereophile, reader Hilary Paprocki expressed his belief that recording engineers are unconcerned about sound quality. Indeed, he went so far as to allege that engineers intentionally use inferior miking techniques so that they can bill clients for additional time spent trying to fix the sound. The example he used was the engineer who places a microphone directly in front of a guitar amplifier, a technique Mr. Paprocki felt captured only "4%" of the sound. Mr. Paprocki also likened recording engineers to "featherbedders."