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.
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.
Measuring 7.1" by 1.6" by 9.1" and with an attractive paper-over-board cover, [Talking Heads founder] David Byrne's boldly titled new book resembles the textbooks often found in public-school classrooms. If not for the author's brief lapses into street talkhe uses the word shit just a bit too freely for the youngest readersone gets the impression that Byrne wouldn't mind having his book taught in elementary school. He quotes from Oliver Sacks's brilliant Musicophilia: "For the vast majority of students, music can be every bit as important educationally as reading or writing."
KEF: 50 Years of Innovation in Sound
By Ken Kessler and Dr. Andrew Watson. GP Acoustics International Limited, 2011. $89.99. Hardcover, 12" by 12" by 0.9", 216 pp. ISBN 978-988-15427-4-8. Available from selected KEF dealers and Amazon.com.
Ken Kessler's latest "coffee-tabler" (my favorite publishing-industry insider neologism) celebrates the 50th anniversary of the founding of KEF Electronics by documenting the history of the venerable loudspeaker manufacturer. While the book doesn't quite start with a bang, it does start with an evocative vignette. The year was 1979, the place the ballroom of Buckingham Palace. Her Majesty the Queen, about to present KEF's founder, Raymond Cooke, with the medal representing his having been made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE), inquired, perhaps formulaically, "This is for loudspeakers?"
McIntosh: "...for the love of music..." by Ken Kessler. McIntosh Laboratory, Inc., 2006. $150.00. Hardcover, 12" by 12" by 1.25", 315 pp. ISBN 0-9787236-0-0. Available from McIntosh dealers and McIntosh Laboratory, Inc., 2 Chambers Street, Binghamton, NY 13903. Tel: (800) 538-6576.
Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice
By Tad Hershorn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 470pp. Hardcover, $34.95.
One night in 1942, Billie Holiday was singing at a Los Angeles nightclub. Between sets, she crossed the street to have a drink with Norman Granz. She was in tears because some black friends who had come to hear her had been turned away.
Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, by Terry Teachout (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009): 475pp. Hardcover, $30; paperback, $16.95.
If you plan to read just one book about Louis Armstrong, whose virtuosic cornet solos pushed jazz past rudimentary ensemble playing and launched his phenomenal career as an instrumentalist and singer, make it Pops. Teachout built it on brickwork laid by authors who preceded him, so you'll benefit from their research, as well as from narrative on 650 previously private reels of tape that Armstrong recorded and archived. Moreover, Teachout is a musician and music critic who offers opinions on his subject's discography.
Few people seem to realize that Armstrong (19011971) called himself LOU-iss. "All White Folks call me Louie," he once noted, and in some instances that may have been patronizing. In others, it was surely an instinctive response to the man's infectious warmth and informality.
Sound Bites: 50 Years of Hi-Fi News By Ken Kessler and Steve Harris. London, IPC Media, 2005; paperback, 224 pages, 8.25" by 5.75", indexed. $29.95. Available in the US from Music Direct, www.musicdirect.com, (800) 449-8333.