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.
A tradition is anything we do, think, or believe for no better reason than that we have always done it, thought it, or believed it. Most traditions are followed in this mindless and automatic way, and, if questioned, are defended with the argument of, well, that it seems to work. It's time-tested, true-blue and, because so familiar, as comfy as an old slipper. So why rock the boat, throw a wrench in the works, or fix it if it ain't broke.
A number of recent letters have accused us of snobbishness and elitism because we devote so much space to reports about components that "common folk" can't afford. We are "snobbish" because we seem to look down on anything less perfect than a Wilson WAMM speaker system or an Audio Research SP-10 preamplifier. And we are "elitist" because we seem to show little interest in any components which fall short of state of the art. Far from being chastened by these letters, I am proud, to declare that they are right on target.
This issue contains a report on a truly ingenious little device called the ABX Comparator, which takes the fraud out of subjective testing. It does this by making its own selection of source A or source B for each listening trial, without telling you which was selected. Only after all the tests will it reveal what you were listening to each time. "Score" sheets are provided so you can list your guesses, compare them with the cold, uncompromising truth, and file the results for posterity. Or better still, for the first hard evidence that has ever been presented that a lot of people can hear differences that cannot as yet be measured.
101 years ago, the tinfoil cylinder started it all. Within 22 years, its heyday was done, and public support swung to favor the then-new wax-mastered disc. 1948 saw the switch to a slower speed and a finer groove, but the flat disc, traced by a stylus, has held sway for almost 80 years now. Even today, people with multi-speed turntables and a couple of arms (or plug-in cartridges) can reproduce from a single phono unit the earliest or the latest discs merely by the flip of two switches (for speed change and cartridge change). All that is about to come to an end.
In 1960 the high-fidelity field was in a period of stasis. The hi-fi boom was starting to crest out, and there were three magazines for audiophiles: High Fidelity, Stereo Review and Audio. The first two were (and still are) little more than vehicles for their advertising, more dedicated to promoting their advertisers' wares than in advancing the state of the art. Audio was more into equipment testing than either of the mass-hi-fi magazines, but it too was contributing to the stagnation by listening to its test results rather than to the components.
Hey, kids, here's the Big News. We've been deluding ourselves all along, worrying about piddling little bits of distortion that we can't hear at all. How's your preamp distortion? 1% at 1 volt out? You have a perfect preamp—a veritable straight wire with gain! That ear-shattering shrillness is all in your mind, because it has now been demonstrated that the human ear cannot perceive distortion levels of less than 6–12% on "normally complex music." If you think you can hear 0.1%, you are deluding yourself.
"As We See It" in the Stereophile issue dated Summer 1968 (actually published in 1970) noted the idealistic, glowing claims about how four-channel sound could put you right in the concert hail, but urged readers to wait before buying, to see whether quadrisound would indeed bring higher fidelity. We predicted it wouldn't—that whatever the potential of quadrisound (footnote 1), it would not be used to increase fidelity, but rather to play ring-around-the-rosy with music.
We're not really sure who coined the term—it is usually attributed to Alistair Cooke, former host of the "Omnibus" TV program—but "audible wallpaper" is an apt term for something that is of more than passing concern for the serious music listener.