When I attended the Audio Engineering Society convention in October 1987 (my first time in over eight years; full report in this issue), I was impressed by the incredible technology now available to composers of music. I was also dismayed, however, by the extent to which so-called purist audio, as well as "acoustical" music, have been consigned to oblivion by the pro audio community. It was clear, both from the exhibits and the many conversations on which I eavesdropped, that audio professionals are no longer concerned about fidelity, in the sense of trying to reproduce sounds accurately. A "real" sound has become to them merely raw material of no value except as something to be processed, manipulated, folded, bent, and spindled to produce any sonic effect except the original one. About a third of the products displayed at the 83rd AES convention were tools for doing that.
There's an old Russian folktale about a farmer who goes to a fair. He buys a bread roll from a vendor. He eats it, but he's still hungry. So he buys and eats another roll, and then another. Still hungry. Next, he buys a donut from a different vendor. At last, he's no longer hungry. The farmer then says to himself, "I wasted the money I spent on the rollsI should have just bought the donut first!"
A reader who asked to remain anonymous wrote to tell us the results of some tests he saw conducted on one of our top-rated loudspeaker systems. Frequency-response checks showed that the system had virtually no deep bass, a midbass peak, a midrange slump, and a high-end rise. Further checks had shown gross distortion at input levels of over about 6W, and a definitely limited (although adequate for Row-M listening) maximum output-level capability. Said reader then went on to ask how we could possibly consider such a speaker to be one of the best available.
I love two-channel stereo. A great stereo recording can produce such a full-bodied, three-dimensional soundstage that surround sound seems superfluous. Multichannel is just peachy for home theater, but good ol' stereo suits music just fine, thanks very much.
In the four years since our last readership survey, Stereophile's circulation has grown by one third, from 45,000 to over 60,000 (footnote 1). We thought it time, therefore, to commission new numbers, from specialists Mediamark Research Inc. (footnote 2). Table 1 shows the demographic breakdown of the magazine's readers. While the launch of CD did bring more women into the audiophile fold almost 10 years ago, the proportion of Stereophile's female readers has not changed since 1988, at just over 1% (footnote 3). At one of the panel sessions at the 1992 High End Hi-Fi Show in Los Angeles, a man in the audience asked why high-end audio was so testosterone-bound when women were just as interested in music as men? The answers given by some of the many women at the show ranged from the fact that women only earn 47 cents on the dollar compared with men to conjecture that women are turned off by the hobby's tweak aspect. Certainly dealer Andrew Singer felt last October (footnote 4) that the high-end industry is hobbling itself by ignoring half the US's population.
A letter in the April 1988 issue (Vol.11 No.4) from reader Harold Goldman, MD, decried the seemingly appalling failure rate of high-end products, citing a $10,000/pair power amplifier, an $11,000 turntable, and a $1500 CD player which had all been reported in recent issues as having failed during or shortly after testing by Stereophile. And Dr. Goldman's list was far from complete. We have also experienced during the past couple of years the failure, or inoperation upon delivery, of two $2500 solid-state power amplifiers, a $1700 subwoofer, a $5000 hybrid amplifier, two pairs of $1200 loudspeakers, several pairs of under-$1000 loudspeakers, and many CD players costing over $1000 each, mainly those based on Philips transports.
Some time ago I wrote about the need for high-end audio companies to constantly reinvent themselves: You may be receiving accolades for your latest and greatest product, but you'd also better be well along the path to developing its replacement. High-end audio is a field of constant change; no product remains supreme for long.
My topic today is not the hardware that we use to reproduce sound, but the delicate precision instruments we use to detect it: our ears. Our enjoyment of musical sound is important enough to justify spending thousands of dollars on recordings, electronics, loudspeakers, and concert tickets. What is it worth to preserve your hearing so that you can continue enjoying great sound 10 or 20 years from now? I've been conducting an experiment for the last 30 years, at a cost of less than a penny a day. It began when I was 17.
The drive home from Montreal and the Salon Son & Image show is smooth and uneventful. The snow kindly stops just as John Atkinson and I climb into his Land Cruiser, the woman at Customs lets us into the US with little fanfare, and, there isn't much to set the heart racing. Every fifty or so miles, the highway's long dividing guardrail is punctuated by some enormous brown birda once majestic body that owned the sky is now slung awkwardly and pitifully over cold steel. It's sad that something so beautiful and strong can die so quietly. But quiet abounds out here. The sky seems to move nearly as fast as we do, clouds cling to tall mountains, and winds tug at the Cruiser's tires.
Audiophiles constantly seek ways to improve the experience of hearing reproduced music. Preamps are upgraded, digital processors are compared, turntables are tweaked, loudspeaker cables are auditioned, dealers are visited, and, yes, magazines are readall in the quest to get just a little closer to the music.
For roughly the same amount of money, you can buy a new Toyota Camry or a used mid-sized Mercedes-Benz sedan. The new car has several things going in its favor: no one else has ever driven it, smoked in it, or ferried dogs and kids and fast-food leavings in it, and it comes with a fresh warranty and the latest safety equipment. But the used Mercedes has other things in its favor: having started with a much larger "build budget," it is, simply, more car for the money all aroundyou just have to pick a good one.
"Tax proposed to fund Public TV, radio," read the newspaper headline. The Working Group for Public Broadcasting, described as a "private study group," was proposing to free public broadcasting "from improper political and commercial influences" by replacing its $228 million in congressional appropriations and $70 million or so in corporate funding with $600 million to be raised from a new sales tax on electronic equipment. The article went on to say that the proposal was being sent to the congressional panels concerned with communications (ie, the commerce committees), where it could become the basis for a new Public Broadcasting Act.