I've been wondering whether we who write about audio will ever agree on a sensible way to express the scale of the differences we hear. If magazines like Stereophile and The Abso!ute Sound lack credibility among the broader audience of music lovers and hi-fi shoppers—and we do—one important reason may be our habit of greatly exaggerating the importance of differences that in fact are very small. A subtle improvement, one that most people wouldn't notice except in a carefully arranged comparison, is often described by audiophile reviewers in language that makes it seem like the contrast between a whisper and a thunderclap.
As a card-carrying member of the Audio Engineering Society and an avid audiophile, I was particularly disturbed by the ideas expressed at the 1990 AES Conference entitled "The Sound of Audio." (A report on the papers presented appears in this month's "Industry Update" column.) The tone of the three-day session in May was set during the Conference Chairman's opening remarks. He said that an AES conference on the sound of audio was "unusual" and "out of the mainstream." Further, he expressed a common underlying attitude among the AES that "audiophile claims" (of musical differences between components) have been "nagging us" and are "an annoyance."
"Test We Must," cried High Fidelity's erstwhile editor, Michael Riggs, in a January 1989 leader article condemning the growth of subjective testing. (See the sidebar for Peter Mitchell's obituary of HF magazine, now effectively merged with Stereo Review.) With the exception of loudspeakers, where it is still necessary to listen, he wrote, "laboratory testing (properly done) can tell us pretty much everything we need to know about the performance of a typical piece of electronics...We know what the important characteristics are, how to measure them, and how to interpret the results."
I have been reading a lot of late. Whether it is due to the reduced appeal of recorded music owing to the ever-decreasing shelves of LPs in our local specialty record store (the owner explains that he still wants to sell LPs; it's the record companies that make it increasingly harder for him to do so with punitive returns policies and deaf ears to back orders), or the fact that it's Spring, I don't know. But the fact remains that I have recently found myself devouring a shelf-full of titles sometimes only vaguely related—horrors!—to high fidelity. Stuart Chase's The Tyranny of Words, for example, first published in 1938 and a finer examination of what came to be called semantics you wouldn't want to find, should be essential reading for anyone involved in writing articles that are still intended to communicate some meaning.
It is inarguable that the quality of magnetically recorded sound has improved immeasurably in the last 101 years. 101 years? Yes, according to a fascinating account in the May 1988 issue of the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, it was in 1888 that the Cincinnatti-based engineer Oberlin Smith experimented with recording information on steel wire by drawing it across the corner of an electromagnet around which a coil had been wound. Smith only carried out experiments without producing a practical recording system, and it wasn't until 1898 that the Dane, Valdemar Poulsen, was granted a German patent for a "Method for the reception of news, signals, and the like."
"Time to write another equipment report," thought the Great Reviewer, aware that the IRS would soon require another small donation to keep the country running on track. Deftly donning his Tom Wolfe vanilla suit, he sat at the antique desk acquired on one of his many all-expenses-paid research trips to Europe, patted the bust of H.L. Mencken that invariably stood by the word processor, ensured that his level of gonzo awareness was up to par, arranged his prejudices and biases in descending order of importance, checked that the requisite check was in the mail, coined a sufficient number of Maileresque factoids appropriate to the occasion, and dashed off 3000 words of pungently witty, passionately argued, convincingly objective, and deeply felt prose.
"When you read...that an electronic recording has 'excellent' sound it does not mean you can use that record as a system evaluation tool," wrote J. Gordon Holt in October's "As We See It." Yet, if you are a regular reader of Stereophile, you will be aware that the magazine's equipment reviewers do make use of a considerable number and variety of recordings, including many which would appear to be totally electronic, to reach value judgments about hi-fi components.
From time to time in this column, I have alluded to what appears to be a loss of direction in high-end audio. It's not that the state of the audio art has stopped advancing; the technology is improving in many ways, as is obvious every time we listen to a new preamplifier or cartridge or loudspeaker that has better this, that, or the other thing than anything which has come before. The problem is that these improvements don't really seem to be getting us anywhere. And I believe the reason for this is that the audio community no longer agrees about where audio is supposed to be going in the first place.
When I attended Britain's Heathrow Penta hi-fi show in September 1987, I had hoped to come back with big news about some breakthrough cartridge or preamp or loudspeaker system. I didn't. No, the talk of the Penta show was something called the "Belt Phenomenon," which may possibly be a breakthrough of some kind, but then again, it may not.
1987 will mark Stereophile's 25th year of continuous (if initially sometimes sporadic) publication. And while we haven't yet decided what we're going to do in celebration, the first issue of 1987 does seem to be as good a time as any to contrast the state of the audio art when we began publication with what is routinely possible today.
According to a recent newsletter sent to its regular contributors, our "competition"—The Absolute Sound—sees "controversy and confrontation" as the core of its editorial policy. By contrast, Stereophile sees as its modus schtickus an unflagging devotion to, and pursuit of, truth, reason, all of the eternal verities (including some you never heard of), and the intelligent exchange of informed ideas. In honor of all of the above-mentioned precepts (as well as some I didn't mention), this issue of Stereophile is largely devoted to the confrontation between knowledgeable writers for whom the widely proclaimed perfection of the Compact Disc remains a controversial issue.
The title of this month's column is the legend Sheffield Labs emblazoned on a T-shirt a couple of years ago, to promote their jaundiced view of digital audio. Since then, even Sheffield's reactionary perfectionists softpedalled their anti-digital crusade, perhaps because of the number of CDs they've been selling! Their personnel no longer wear those T-shirts at CES, which is unfortunate. Although most people in the audio field no longer see digital audio as madness, digital denouncing is still very much with us.
Almost 30 years ago, Columbia records issued a unique disc called The Art of Jonathan and Darlene Edwards. Darlene sang and Jonathan played piano, and the jacket notes rhapsodized about the depth of feeling they brought to their duos, despite some imperfections of technique.