I'm sitting here in front of the trusty Toshiba 286 laptop on December 31, 1992, stuck with apparently incurable writer's block; in a couple of hours, we will be taking off en famille for the latest of Larry Archibald's legendary New Year's Eve parties. I wish I had something to write about for this month's "As We See It" essay; I wish...I wish...you know, there are a number of things I really wish for right now, yet I don't believe there is a component out there that can give me what I want.
Paul Gowan's letter in the October 1989 Stereophile hinted that, whether or not audiophiles enjoy music, it should be true that the emotional experience we derive from music is what really matters. There, barefaced, lies the problem: who are "we"? A well-known Latin epigram affirms that in matters of taste there is no point in discussion. And a Greek epigram (coined in fact by Max Beerbohm in his Oxford novel Zuleika Dobson) suggests that "for people who like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like."
I had a wonderful chuckle while reading the reviews of the Finial Laser Turntable in the May 1990 issue of HFN/RR. Perhaps I should preface this by saying that, in the entire quarter-century since I became intensely involved in audio, I have always found the LP an unsatisfactory playback medium for music. As a regular concert-goer in Boston and an addict of WGBH-FM's simply miked, virtually unprocessed live broadcasts of BSO concerts direct from Symphony Hall, I never learned to ignore the many anti-musical distortions endemic to LPsthe ticks and pops, the inner-groove congestion and tracing distortion, the harsh mistracking of high-level climaxes and overcut grooves, the persistent static in dry winter air, the constant slight wow due to off-center spindle holes, the muddy bass due to resonances and feedback, the universal cutting engineer's practice of blending low bass into mono (which wipes out low-frequency hall ambience).
The whole field of subjective audio reviewinglistening to a piece of equipment to determine its characteristics and worthis predicated on the idea that human perception is not only far more sensitive than measurement devices, but far more important than the numbers generated by "objective" testing. Subjective evaluation of audio equipment, however, is often dismissed as meaningless by the scientific audio community. A frequent objection is the lack of thousands upon thousands of rigidly controlled clinical trials. Consequently, conclusions reached by subjective means are considered unreliable because of the anecdotal nature of listening impressions. The scientific audio community demands rigorous, controlled, blind testing with many trials before any conclusions can be drawn. Furthermore, any claimed abilities to discriminate sonically that are not provable under blind testing conditions are considered products of the listeners' imaginations. Audible differences are said to be real only if their existence can be proved by such "scientific" procedures (footnote 1).
If home-gallows prices keep coming down, people won't go to public executions anymore. The home brothel has reduced the amount of cash American men spend each year on banging strangers. And thanks to the home sweatshop, the CEOs of all the major clothing manufacturers have been forced to take pay cuts. (I mean, come on: It was either that or something totally unimaginable, like shipping American jobs overseas, or cutting healthcare benefits for the rank and file.)
As the person who "invented" subjective testing, I have followed with great interest the many articles in the mainstream audio press which purport to prove that none of us can really hear all the differences we claim to hear, particularly those between amplifiers. My reaction has usually been: "Why didn't they invite me to participate? I would have heard the differences under their double-blind listening conditions." I could make that assertion with supreme confidence because I had never been involved in any such test.
At the end of August, we watched as the number of registered users in our online forums quickly ticked past the 10,000 mark. Ten thousand registered users! While it might prove interesting to learn just how that number breaks down into men and women, old and young, subjectivists and objectivists, or any of several other demographic and philosophical divides, that would only obscure the point: In our online forums, there are over 10,000 members who are eager to share their enthusiasm for music and hi-fi. What a beautiful thing!
"Be like my friend Frank. He imagines that he's purchased certain productsright now he's imagining that he bought a pair of hard-to-get English speakers which he has read a review of but hasn't heard. This is ideal, since the speakers can sound better and better as Frank imagines more and more. When he tires of these speakers and gets excited about something else, he doesn't have to trade them in. He only needs to start imagining the next product." That was Sam Tellig's friend Frank, back in March of this year. No one could have said it better, but I have a followup.
Toward the end of the 1992 Summer CES in Chicago, J. Gordon Holt ambled into Audio Influx's demonstration room. He was curious about which PDQ Bach CD we were playing, as a fitting end to the show. We chatted about PDQ Bach live concerts and the grand-spoof entrances made by Professor Peter Schickele. Suddenly he said, "You know, these speakers sound real," going on to mention that he hadn't heard many real-sounding systems. I told JGH that most of what I heard at shows and in dealer showrooms nowadays was surrealistic sound.
I'm scared. I've just returned from a visit to the isle of my birth, Manhattan. As the spouse and I walked to Stereophile's offices to meet John Atkinson and Stephen Mejias for dinner, we passed some of the most valuable real estate in the country. It was hard to imagine that, if global warming continues at its current, ever-accelerating pace, the buildings we were marveling at will soon be below sea level.
DatelineChicago, May 30, 9:00pm. Exploding fireworks lit up the sky above the Chicago river as 200 leading high-end designers gathered in the Hotel Intercontinental for Stereophile's 30th Anniversary banquet. After a repast of four gourmet courses and five wines, the time came for after-dinner speeches to celebrate Stereophile's past and high-end audio's future. Publisher Larry Archibald described his adventurous transition from the high-end car business to risky publishing. Introducing J. Gordon Holt, he praised JGH's uniquely lucid writing and his unflinching insistence that equipment designed to reproduce music should be judged on its ability to do just thatthe unconventional view that launched high-end audio.
If you are to believe all the promotions for the Compact Disc, simply buying a player will transport you instantly to sonic nirvana. No background noise! No distortion! Flat frequency response from 20 Hz to 20kHz, pIus or minus zilch! The most perfect sound that modern hightech can provide! But if CD sound is so perfect, what are so many people screaming bloody murder about? It seems that half the golden ears who hear it are smitten with hate at first hearing. The other half finds it the best thing since tax shelters.
One day in the early 1960s, Arnold Gingrich, Esquire magazine's founder and editor-in-chief, phoned his stockbroker with an unusual request: Gingrich needed a cashier's check for $12,000 right away. Would the broker please sell some of Gingrich's stocks?
Blame the Puritans! say I. The high end has always had an ostinato accompaniment of grumbles from those who appear to feel that it is immoral to want to listen to music with as high a quality as possible. In a recent letter, for example, Fanfare and Stereo Review contributor and author Howard Ferstler states that "the audio world has more products of bogus quality and shills promoting them than any other industry, bar none," and trots out the old saw that audiophiles "end up spending an excessive amount of money on equipment or tweaking techniques of surprisingly dubious quality."
In the 1970s, a small black-and-white ad sometimes ran in the pages of Playboy magazine. The ad pictured an attractive young woman with lots of disheveled hair and a crooked grin. There was little else to the ad other than the headline, which the reader would assume was being spoken by the model: "It takes more than Martinis to build an image, Mister!"