It's a Vinyl World, After All: Michael Fremer's Guide to Record Cleaning, Storage, Handling, Collecting, & Manufacturing in the 21st Century
MF Productions mxangle3 (DVD). 2008. Michael Fremer, prod.; Joe Shelesky, Andre Kruger, Jeff Wilerth, dirs.; Joe Shelesky, editor. $30; available from Stereophile's secure e-commerce page.
Back in the spring of 1990, Stereophile introduced its first Test CD, featuring a mixture of test signals and musical tracks recorded by the magazine's editors and writers. Even as we were working on that first disc, however, we had plans to produce a second disc which would expand on the usefulness of the first and feature a more varied selection of music. The result was our Test CD 2, released in May 1992.
Over the years as a reviewer, I have tracked the swings of opinion and popularity of various audio ideas and technologies. Amid a sea of advanced designs that achieve powerful technical performance and laudable specifications, I'm reminded of a major blind listening test of 18 power amplifiers that I set up for the long-since-defunct UK magazine Hi-Fi for Pleasure back in 1975. We had "advanced technology" then: the transistor amplifier had matured and was well accepted by audiophiles. Prices of the review samples ranged from $300 to $3000 (equivalent to $1000-$10,000 in today's dollars). The auditioning sessions were graced by the presence of many industry leaders, among them the late Spencer Hughes of Spendor, Julian Vereker of Naim, Philip Swift then of Audiolab, Alan Harris then of retailer Audio T., Bob Stuart of Meridian, and John Wright of IMF (now TDL in the UK).
Like many Stereophile readers, I have often sped home from a concert to fire up the audio system and then, to the sore vexation of my wife and guests, spent the rest of the evening plunged in the morbid contemplation of what, exactly, was missing.
Someday we may speak wistfully to our grandchildren about the "golden age" of digital audio when consumer formats (CD and DAT) contained a bitstream that was an exact bit-for-bit duplicate of the original studio master recording—not a digitally compressed, filtered, copy-resistant version whose sound is "close enough" to the original. Digitally compressed formats such as DCC and MiniDisc represent, in effect, a return to the pre-CD era when consumer-release formats were always understood to be imperfect copies of the studio original. Even the most ardent audiophile accepted the fact that LPs and mass-produced tapes did not, and could not, sound as good as the master tapes they were derived from.
Not that long ago, digital audio was considered perfect if all the bits could be stored and retrieved without data errors. If the data coming off the disc were the same as what went on the disc, how could there be a sound-quality difference with the same digital/analog converter? This "bits is bits" mentality scoffs at sonic differences between CD transports, digital interfaces, and CD tweaks. Because none of these products or devices affects the pattern of ones and zeros recovered from the disc, any differences must be purely in the listener's imagination. After all, they argued, a copy of a computer program runs just as well as the original.
It is always a matter of great interest when a difficult question, in this case the audibility of differences between amplifiers, is put to an empirical test. When the question is tested by such intelligent, knowledgeable, and unbiased investigators as John Atkinson and Will Hammond (see the July issue of Stereophile, Vol.12 No.7, p.5, the interest is even greater. Unfortunately, when the test turns out to have been flawed by errors in design and in use of statistics, as was the case here, the disappointment is also even greater.
Recently, I assessed four disparate room-correction systems based on digital signal processing (DSP): Copland DRC205, Lyngdorf Audio RoomPerfect, Velodyne SMS-1, and Meridian DRC. I concluded that Meridian's approach—which applies IIR (Infinite Impulse Response) "anti-resonance" filters to suppress room resonant modes, if only partially—was, in many respects, the best. What I particularly like about Meridian DRC is that, unlike the Copland and Lyngdorf processors, its approach to system tonal balance is largely hands-off. Yes, it lightens up the extreme bass a little, as you'd expect, but it doesn't recast the system balance in any way that might prove undesirable. If you like your system's tonal character as it is, Meridian DRC behaves just as you'd want a room-correction system to behave: it quells room resonance effects while leaving the system's essential sound well alone.
As Chester Rice, co-inventor of the moving-coil loudspeaker, once ruefully observed: "The ancients have stolen our inventions." So often, what is painted as new and innovative turns out to be something someone thought of long before. We have a habit of forgetting, and that applies not only to inventions, but to knowledge of other kinds as well.
In the real world, "knowledge is power" means that if I know more about something than you do, I am better able than you to control it or use it to my own advantage. This is no less true in high-end audio, where a gut-level understanding of how a component works can free its owner from the constraints and frequent inaccuracies of instruction manuals, folklore, advertisements, and the nugatory, nullifidian nonsense in the mainstream audio press assuring you that most of what you know damn well you are hearing is really only a figment of your imagination.
A thorough exploration in a magazine article of such a pervasive and complex topic as vibration control in audio systems is next to impossible; vibration and sound are so intimately bonded that it would be very easy to extend this discussion to just about any area of interest in audio. My intention here is simply to lay a foundation for understanding the basic mechanical forces affecting our quest for improved sonic fidelity, and in the process provide the tools for anyone to achieve good, practical vibration control in his or her system.
If you read much promotional literature for recently introduced high-quality equipment, you'll notice a common theme emerging: balanced connection. Balanced inputs and outputs are becoming a must for any audio equipment that has any claim to quality. The word itself has promotional value, suggesting moral superiority over the long-established "unbalanced" connection (for the purpose of this discussion, I will call this "normal"). What's my problem with this? Simply this: The High End could be paying dangerous, costly lip service to the received wisdom that balanced operation is the goal for an audio system.
Bass constitutes one of the least understood aspects of sound reproduction. Opinions vary greatly on matters of bass quality, quantity, and perceived frequency range or response. Moreover, the bass region is subject to the most unwanted variation in practical situations due to the great influence listening-room acoustics have on loudspeaker performance. Every room has its different bass characteristic, and changes in the position of speakers or listener also constitute major variables at low frequencies.
Headphones get pretty short shrift in much of the hi-fi press, which is puzzlingthe headphone market is burgeoning. I don't know what the equivalent US figures are, but in recent years the UK headphone market has increased by an annual 1520% in both units sold and overall revenue. It's easy to dismiss this as a natural byproduct of the Apple iPod phenomenon, but 20% of the market value is now accounted for by headphones costing over $120; a significant subset of consumers would seem to be looking for quality. When you also consider that many people's first exposure to higher-quality audio comes via headphones, there is ample reason for treating them more seriously.