In my column for Stereophile's March issue, I criticized a handful of records for combining very good sound with very bad music. A few readers expressed dismay, wondering what gave me the right to call music good or bad, especially since virtually all music is loved by someone (its mother?). But as far as I know, the magazine received a total of zero letters wondering what gave me the right to call sound good or bad. Hmmm.
Stereo Review, the world's most popular audio magazine during most of its time on Earth, was a common target of derision from the hobby's so-called high-end press, not least of all from me. We criticized its nerdy, boring prose, its uniformly positive reviews, and, most of all, its shameless pimping of the notions that measurements reveal all there is to know about a component, and that all competently engineered components sound equally fine.
Here's how God makes audiophiles: He starts with several million blank brain cells, then programs each one, individually, to function as either a love for one single aspect of music reproduction or a hatred for another. There are over a thousand such cellsfar too many to list herebut theologians and audio reviewers have worked together to compile this list of the Top 20, which, just like real life, contains a little more love than hate:
I'm old enough to remember when "Made in Japan" was an insult. As a child, I saw that phrase on only the cheapest or craziest toyssome stamped out of tin and cupped together by a tab with a fiendish edge, some molded from a distinctively smooth, brittle plastic. The latter included a wind-up bunny on wheels that my father brought home one day: my favorite toy, ever. (It came with a double-barreled dart gun that I seldom used, partly because I loved the bunny too much to shoot it, and partly because the suction-cup darts didn't stick to that kind of plastic in the first place.)
I was walking through the woods one day when I happened on a large, flat rock near the base of an old ash tree. Conditioned as I am from such rambles with my daughter, whose interest in wildlife echoes that of my own childhood, I bent down and lifted one end of the rock, hoping to catch a glimpse of some exotic creature or another: perhaps a delicate ring-necked snake, or a plasticky-looking red eft. The rock came loose without too much effort and teetered on its broadest edge, but before I could let it flip to one side, I recoiled in horror: There, amid the millipedes and ant larvae, was a cluster of teeny-tiny, nasty-looking old men, writhing in such a tangle that I couldn't even count them. They were bespectacled, to a one, and mostly baldI could tell quite easily, despite the berets worn by some of themand each pair of feet was shod in a teeny-tiny pair of off-brand Birkenstock copies, with thin, shiny black socks underneath.
The 78rpm train has been derailed for the time being. The KAB Souvenir VSP Mk.II phono preamplifier, which I intended to review in this space, has yet to arrive from its manufacturer, owing to a delay in the availability of certain parts. The Elberg MD12 Mk.III preamp has yet to arrive from its manufacturer, owing to a recent redesign. The Sentec EQ-10 preamp is here but has a broken switch I haven't got around to fixing. The McIntosh C-8 preamp, a lovely vintage piece that's available for peanuts on the used market, is still undergoing renovation by someone who isn't me.
During a century of development of the phonograph, dozens of different things have been considered crucial to its performance: lack of bearing noise, lack of motor noise, freedom from runout error in the platter, high moment of inertia in same, immunity to all manner of unwanted vibration, and so forth. But now I wonder if the most important factor of all hasn't been overlooked, or at least misunderestimated, throughout much of that time: Could it be that motor torque is more critical than any of us imagined?
A new integrated amplifier called the Lars Type 1, which made its debut at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, has given my notion of a dichotomy between mainstream audio and alternative audio a severe beating. In that sense, the Lars Type 1 has been a life-changing product, although the change took longer than expected for me to digest.
For an artform in which sound is everything, popular music has been blessed with strangely little poetry: There may be no other genre where high-mindedness falls with such a thud. Leonard Cohen remains the most striking exception, not just for the genuine seriousness of his music or the adulation of his audience, but for the ability of the former to survive the latter.
It's a guy thing, dating from those sandbox days when such declarations were not only socially acceptable but expected of us: Mickey Mantle could run the bases faster than Whitey Ford, the Chevrolet Corvette was cooler than the Ford Mustang, Jimmy Page played faster than Jeff Beck, Superman was stronger than Batman. (Women, those devious serpent-hearkeners of Old Testament fame, are for once blameless: They never argue that Charlotte Bronte wrote better tea-drinking scenes than Jane Austen, or that Hugh Grant looks better in a powdered wig than Daniel Day Lewis.)