As I wrote in this space last month, test-equipment manufacturer Audio Precision has loaned Stereophile a sample of their top-of-the-line SYS2722 system, which has both significantly greater resolution and greater bandwidth than the Audio Precision System One Dual Domain we have been using since 1989. The reviews you can read in this issue include the first measurements I have performed with this impressive piece of gear, though there are still a number of graphs I produced using our System One. In fact, with the equipment I tested using the SYS2722, I performed duplicate sets of measurements using both the System One and the Miller Audio Research QC Suite in order to get a handle on how close the three systems agreed. (They did on the tests where the SYS2722's improved resolution was not a factor.)
The accuracy of a hi-fi system's "soundstage" reproduction seems to be of paramount importance these days, just as a component must now have "transparency" to possess hi-fi righteousness. If the system in which that component is used doesn't give good soundstage, then the system's owner has definitely fallen by the wayside. But what defines a good soundstage? Stereo imaging must have something to do with it, I hear you all cry. (I would have said stereo imagery until Larry Archibald pointed out that imagery has far less to do with hi-fi than with good writing, something I'm sure we agree has no place in a hi-fi magazine.) OK, what defines good stereo imaging?
It was the strangest feeling: to be part of something yet without any understanding of how what I was doing fit into the whole. Back in the early 1980s, I had graduated from playing miscellaneous instruments in an early-music ensemble to devoting myself to the recorder (the end-blown fipple flute, not the audio archiving machine). My teacher, Nancy Winkelmann, had introduced me to various ensembles, and one Saturday afternoon, an ad hoc group of us was working with a composer of so-called "aleatoric" music; literally, music by chance.
Last October, in Vol.11 No.10, Stereophile's Founder and Chief Tester J. Gordon Holt stated, in his acerbic editorial "The Acoustical Standard," that, in his opinion, only recordings for which there is an original acoustic reference—ie, typically those of classical music—should be used to evaluate hi-fi components. And that in the absence of a consensus over such a policy, high-end component manufacturers were losing their way over what does and does not represent good sound quality.
When I browse through early issues of this magazine, I envy J. Gordon Holt. When he foundedStereophile in 1962, there were aspects of society that stood as solid as the Rockies overlooking his current Colorado home. Back then a magazine was a thing forever; the main means of serious communication would always be the written word; records would always be LPs...recorded in stereo; the US had a large, prosperous consumer electronics industry; computers were huge mainframes made in the USA by IBM (of course), and required air-conditioned rooms and armies of white-coated attendants; everyone watched three broadcast television networks; once a film left the neighborhood cinema, it was gone forever—or at least until it appeared on the "Late, Late, Late Show." And most importantly, people took for granted that progress in sound reproduction meant improvements in quality.
The very first "Recommended Components" listing appeared in Vol.1 No.5; this is the 16th time I've put the listing together since I took over the task from J. Gordon Holt in the November 1986 'phile. No other Stereophile feature seems to be as popular, or as misunderstood. While it might inform, it never fails to offend, particularly when it involves the dropping, or—horrors!—the not listing at all, of components that the magazine's readers own.
As easy as it is to communicate electronically, some things are still better done in person. At too-infrequent intervals, I visit Stereophile's writers, listen to their systems, and basically get them to show'n'tell the components they're reviewing. In this way, if they describe what I'm hearing, I have the confidence to publish their review, even if its findings run counter to accepted wisdom.
As in any community bound tightly together by shared enthusiasms, the High End is regularly swept by tides of fashion. Some of the fads prove to be based on something of value, and outlast the initial burst: loudspeaker spikes and Tiptoes, for example, or the resurgence of tube designs, or making use of high-quality passive components. Other fads, particularly if not based on good engineering, fall by the wayside. (Does anyone still use a Tice Clock in their system? Or suspend their cables and interconnects on little acrylic bridges?)
Conventional wisdom has it that the perfect sculpture is present, but hidden within the raw material. And the same conventional wisdom similarly applies to magazine editing: all it needs is careful chipping away at the extraneous material in the raw text files we receive from our authors—sometimes the barest degree of reshaping, repointing, and restructuring—and you have a finished product that both maximally communicates the writer's message and makes the anonymous artisan-editor proud of a job well done.
I was once in a sushi bar in Osaka; sitting next to me was a live abalone, stoically awaiting its fate. It stuck its siphon out of its shell, the waiter tapped the tip with a spoon, the siphon withdrew. Again the siphon appeared, again the waiter tapped it with a spoon, again it withdrew.
In this month's "Letters," Donald Bisbee raises the subject of the government's proposed reduction in funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), I agree with Mr. Bisbee that commercial radio broadcasting in the US is an intellectual desert. Music is narrowcast, with listeners' tastes bound into predigested categories. There is no depth or analysis to radio news programs, other than discussions by populist commentators who, no matter what you may think of their politics, usurp the ability of their audiences to think for themselves. As a regular listener to NPR and watcher of PBS, I feel that public broadcasting is an essential factor in American public discourse (footnote 1), but not for the reasons some might think.
In common with the mood of our times, there seems to be an increasing amount of bad temper in the High End. There are more people around who, in Jonathan Scull's timeless phrase, have a "level of audiophile rage very close to the surface." Witness, for example, the "cancel my subscription" letter from Professor Daniel H. Wiegand in this issue: he obviously feels a line has been crossed.
"All great editors are men able to see how stories, episodes, and personalities flow and merge one into the other to reproduce the pattern of a world that only their own inner eye perceives.—Henry Robinson Luce, Founder, Time and Life magazines