As another Consumer Electronics Show rolls around, we are seeing some interesting and not-entirely encouraging things taking place in the audio field. The people for whom high fidelity was originally intendedso-called serious music listeners have abandoned audio almost completely, leaving the pursuit of perfect music reproduction to a group of hobbyists who have more interest in hardware than in music. This, plus the recession, has almost killed middle-fi, which is now flailing out in all directions looking for a new market. Here's how it all came to pass:
A world-renowned musician had scheduled an appearance as guest soloist with the string quartet in residence at a certain university. When he arrived he noticed a pair of microphones arrayed over the small stage and, following the wires, located a college student backstage next to a tape recorder and a pair of headphones.
Not too many years ago, high-fidelity movement was being hailed from all quarters (and many halves) as a revolution. In the sense that it took the country storm, and made billions of dollars for many entrepreneurs during heyday, it was indeed a revolution. But now the public has grown tired of high fidelity and is turning other electronic diversionsvideo, video games, and computering. And what, as of this summer of 1982, do we have to show for the high-fidelity revolution?
I was visiting a high-end audio manufacturer several years back, and as the chief engineer and I talked about speaker design, the company's president popped her head around the door and told him that she was sending MacroVision their annual five-figure check.
I always enjoy CES. Like the Big Apple, or the City of Angels, the Consumer Elecronics Show is stimulatingly frenetic and enjoyably fatiguingthings that would soon put me in the funny farm if I lived with them year 'round, but can easily cope with twice a year. In fact, attending CES is rather like visiting the city of my birth, a place whose culture is one with my own because I grew up there, and where half the pleasure lies in seeing once again those audio peoplethe Allisons, Marantzes, Frieds, Beveridges, Haflers, and Tuckerswhose durability as friends always reminds me of how rapidly time passes and how little of it we may have left.
A persistent complaint from some of our readers concerns our seeming preoccupation with exotic components. (Presumably what they mean are scarce, unusual, or hard-to-find components, because "exotic" really means "from a foreign country," and there is sure as hell nothing hard-to-find about a Panasonic receiver.) "Why," you ask, "do you devote so much space to reports on components we can't buy from our local audio discounter? Why can't we have more reports about products from the old, established, reliable companies like KLH, Harman/Kardon, Electro-Voice and Sansui, whose stuff we can listen to at a local dealer before we commit our hard-earned dollars to a purchase?" One subscriber even cancelled his subscription because of this, claiming that the unavailability of the products we review makes our reports "irrelevant." Well, he had a point, but not a very good one.
I may have had 4000 LPs and a perfectly wonderful Linn LP12 turntable, but I could go for weeks on end without listening to a single LP. But I still thought of myself as one of the vinyl faithful, even as I rationalized my digital-centric listening tendencies. I loved analog in theoryI just couldn't bring myself to listen to it all that much.
Now that Sony has bought CBS's records division, and the infamous Copycode bill seems to be dying in Congress, the way may be clearing at last for the US introduction of the new Digital Audio Tape system. This has sparked renewed speculation in the industry about the impact DAT will have on existing formats, particularly the fledgling CD. Some are convinced DAT will kill CD, because of its ability to record as well as play digital recordings. Others believe DAT won't even gain a foothold in the market, for the same reason quadraphonic sound laid an egg back in the '70s: The public can't handle more than one "standard" format. I feel that both views are wrong, and thatas is usually the case with extreme viewsthe truth lies in between. I believe DAT will catch on in the marketplace, but never in a big way, and certainly not the way CD has. Here's why.
During my recent interview with the Sheffield Lab people in connection with their Moscow recording sessions (Vol.10 No.3), both Lincoln Mayorga and Doug Sax had some unkind things to say about the cost of recording an orchestra in the US. Their complaints are justified. It costs more to record in the US than anywhere else in the world, and these astronomical costs are detrimental both to symphonic music in the US and to the audiophile's pursuit of sonic perfection.
Everyone knows music is a good thing. More than merely good, it appears to meet some kind of human need, because every race in every land has a musical tradition going back to before recorded or recounted history. Some of their music may not seem like music to our unsophisticated ears, but as soon as someone discovered that two sticks of different sizes produced different pitches when struck on a venerated ancestor's skull, he advanced beyond mere rhythm to what must be considered music. (Two sticks would, presumably, play binary music: the first precursor of digital sound.) In fact, were there no music at all today, humankind would probably find it necessary to invent it on the spot, along with a mythology relating how it was created on the eighth day, after ingrown toenails.
Back in the last century, I mused in this space about the essential difference between recorded sound and the real thing. I had been walking to dinner with friends when I heard the unmistakable sound of live music coming from a window. But here was the kicker: rather than the instruments being of the audiophile-approved acoustic variety, they were two amplified electric guitars. Their sounds were being reproduced by loudspeakers, yet it was unambiguously obvious that it was not a recording being played through those loudspeakers, but real instruments.
Until recently, I have considered LaserVision video discs as a rather dubious medium for serious music reproduction. The only review I had read about it by a critical listener (Harry Pearson in The Absolute Sound) was I singularly unenthusiastic, and since I had not heard one myself, I was inclined to take his word for it.
I'm fortunate to own some very nice hi-fi gear: Different turntables, tonearms, and pickups for different records. Two pairs of really superb full-range loudspeakers. A choice of mildly exotic amplifiersmy favorite combination of which (a stereo preamplifier and a pair of monoblock power amps) sells for a little over $21,000. The average American consumer would think that's insane.
Although inclined to mood swings bordering on the manic-depressive, I am generally a very patient, tolerant person, willing to accept and overlook the foibles of those less perfect than myself. But even my incredible equanimity has its limits, beyond which the milk of my human kindness curdles, becoming as lumpy as last month's yogurt.