A few nights ago, John Atkinson and I played host to a speaker designer and a turntable manufacturer. We were all chewing over the 1998 Consumer Electronics Show, talking about different systems we'd heard there and speculating as to which designs would be around for the long haul. The speaker designer said he'd heard no truly bad sound at the Show. Nods all around the table—none of us had. The turntable manufacturer asked if any of us could recall hearing any spectacularly bad products recently. We all shook our heads.
Call it the comeback kid. Only a year ago, electronics retailer Best Buy Company was on the brink of disaster. Reeling from rapid expansion---34 new stores in two years---and suffering from an industry-wide sales slump, the retailer was said to be close to defaulting on some large-scale loans. Customers were being offered no-interest long-term credit as an inducement to buy anything on the sales floor.
I first met Jacques Mahul (the JM in JMlab/Focal) when my wife Kathleen and I traveled to Paris to cover HiFi (Hee-Fee) '96. The sound produced by the JMlab Grand Utopias—on a collection of many-chassis'd YBA electronics—got my enthusiastic vote for best of show (footnote 1). JMlab's large demo room was always packed to the rafters with avid listeners. (As a group, melomanes, as audiophiles are called in France, exactly mirror their stateside brethren in appearance and general demeanor. Yes, they're a raucous and demanding bunch!)
Jacques Mahul is an interesting, thoughtful man. He's entirely Parisian: international, urbane, and sophisticated. During "HeeFee" '96 in Paris, Kathleen and I sat down with him and spoke about his early years as an audiophile. To accompany my review of the JMlab Utopia, We tried to find out what drives him—to make the drivers he makes today! I asked him when had it all started:
The performance of deep bass is one of the most perplexing questions we face. Timeless as the search for eternal youth or the meaning of life, the quest for truly satisfying deep bass has engaged generations of philosophers and inventors. Until recently, the subject was primarily one of conjecture, opinion, and hypothesis. Even so, almost no hard science had been devoted to this enduring issue.
Editor's Note: I received an e-mail from Leonid asking for advice on audio cables a few weeks back, and we quickly began discussing the local audio scene in his hometown in Russia. I asked him to describe it for me; what follows is his report.---JI
Telecommunications giant American Telephone and Telegraph announced March 16 that it too, now, has technology for digital music delivery. AT&T's system, called a2b music, is based on MPEG Advanced Audio Coding.
The DVD Forum's Working Group 4 (WG-4) is expected to deliver the "0.9" version of its official DVD-Audio specification this month, with "1.0" to follow shortly. While information is scarce, it appears that WG-4 is talking about four different kinds of disc, each of which will be playable on one or two of three different kinds of players. And that doesn't include Sony's and Philips' "Super Audio CD" proposal (see Peter van Willenswaard's report on SACD a couple of weeks back on the website), or the Classic Records-led "DAD" format, which uses the provision of the DVD-Video specification for 24-bit/96kHz audio data. (DADs will play on DVD-Video players that have appropriate D/A sections---also see the past item on the web site.)
More than 50 independent music labels ("indies") have signed on with Liquid Audio, the leading provider of music downloads over the Internet. The announcement was made March 19 at South by Southwest (SXSW), an annual music and media conference in Austin, Texas.
Stereophile is, in one sense, like a family—us younguns have to make do sometimes because the house is straining at the seams. When I first arrived in Santa Fe, for instance, I was told not to come to the office for a few days—the good news, John Atkinson informed me, was that I had a desk; the bad news was that nobody had a clue where to put it. The dilemma was solved in Solomon-like fashion by shoehorning my desk into the "listening room," which was already serving double-duty as audition space and speaker-measurement lab. If manufacturers visited, we'd sweep up all the acoustic damping from the floor and stash it in JA's office; and if JA needed to take measurements, I would be asked to work at home. It was a manifestly fair solution: inconvenient for everyone involved.