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.
It's the grain elevators that break the monotony of driving across the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandle. As you pass one, another one appears on the horizon. Thus you know you're making progress, despite the fact that the landscape remains unchanged.
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's said that your first experience on entering a space sets the tone for all that follows. At LP pressing plant Record Technology, Inc. (RTI), that experience is my encounter with veteran pressman Richard Lopez, who responds to my request for direction. As he leaves his vintage record press to lead me to owner Don MacInnis, Lopez reads aloud the sticker on a box of recently pressed LPs. "WORLD'S FINEST PHONOGRAPH RECORDS," he declares with pride. As I reflect on how few workers today feel so connected to the products they make, I sense that something special lies ahead.
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.
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.
Every summer, I invite a representative sample of Stereophile's equipment reviewers to the magazine's Santa Fe HQ. For the third successive year, I decided to tape some of the free-for-all discussion that takes place and offer readers the opportunity of peeking over the participants' shoulders by publishing a tidied-up version of the transcript.
By 2035, the way we produce and consume media will be entirely different from how we experience it now. Today there is still a "fourth wall" between us and the media we consume: within three decades, that line between reality and its recreation will all but disappear. Our media experiences will become fully immersivefrom spherical audio and video that tracks with our body's movements, to gestural computing, to physical-feedback devices, and more. Using tomorrow's technology, our children and grandchildren may find it difficult to distinguish the real thing from reproduced.
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.
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.
High-quality digital audio systems require that all digital interfaces in the signal path exhibit signal transparency. The widely adopted AES/EBU and S/PDIF interfaces have been criticized for a lack of signal transparency; here we (footnote 1) address possible problems with such interfaces and present methods for improving the interface standard.
John Atkinson sets the stage Nothing seems to polarize people as much as the vexed question concerning the importance of audible differences between amplifiers. If you think there are subjective differences, you're an audiophile; if you don't, you're not. And as any glance at an appropriate issue of Consumer Reports—the publication for non-audiophiles—will confirm, the established wisdom is that once the price of an amplifier or receiver crosses a certain threshold, any further improvement in sound quality becomes irrelevant, in that it puts the price up for no apparent gain. In other words, when it comes to amplification, there is such a thing as being "too" good. Yet, as a reader of this magazine, I would expect that not only have you been exposed to real subjective quality differences between amplifiers that Consumer Reports would regard as sounding identical, you have made purchasing decisions made on the basis of hearing such differences.
This business biography of hi-fi pioneer Gilbert Briggs and his company, Wharfedale, is an exhaustively researched labor of love on the part of his grand-nephew David Briggs. In a sense, the book is a prequel to Ken Kessler's KEF: 50 Years of Innovation in Sound (2011). That's because KEF's founder, Raymond Cooke, worked for Gilbert Briggs at Wharfedale from the early 1950s through mid-1961. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.