"Reviewed in the box!" is what Stereophile's founder, the late J. Gordon Holt, used to call it. You might think you're reading a review, but the realization slowly dawns that there's nothing in the text that could not have been gleaned from the manufacturer's brochure, nothing to indicate that the writer had even opened the box the product came in. When I read a review in another publication or online, I judge it by doing what I recommend Stereophile's readers do when they read this magazine: I look for the nugget I didn't already know, the facet I wasn't expecting, the concluding jewel I couldn't have predicted without ever having tried the component myself. Sadly, all too often too many of what are promoted as "reviews" on the Web are merely descriptions.
Scene the First. You are sitting in a concert hall, dead center, row M; the cellist walks on to the stage, sits down and starts to play the prelude to the first of Bach's solo cello suites, that intricate unfolding of a rhapsodic melodic line within the tight framework of an implied chordal structure. Melody, harmony, rhythm—none exist at any one point of time in this most exquisite of Bach's solo instrumental writing, yet the skill of the composer, coupled with the artistry of the musician, allow you to perceive the abstract as reality.
1950: "The ultimate in disc recording is to make the reproduced sound as near as possible to the original..." (The founder of Audio magazine, C.G. McProud, in "Recording Characteristics," Audio Engineering, January 1950, reprinted in The 2nd Audio Anthology, p.67, Radio Magazines, 1954.)
As someone who started out as a classically trained musician but who then stepped sideways into rock, I'm fascinated by the one music I've never played: jazz. It seems to me that the essential difference between a performance of a classical work and a jazz performance is that in the former, the musicians use their technique to breathe life into dead notes on a page, while in good jazz, the performer not only applies a similar level of technical expertise, but also has simultaneously to have all of music theory at the fingertips in order to decide what the next note should be. It is a rare musician---Keith Jarrett, for example---who can excel in both arenas.
Enid Lumley accosted me in the corridors of Santa Monica's BayView Plaza Hotel in March: "That doesn't sound like a real piano!" I was taken aback. The sound to which the redoubtable Ms. Lumley was referring emanated from a 7' Steinway we had hired for James Boyk to play at the Stereophile show. Jim was conducting a series of tutorials on how the sound of a real piano is constituted, so Enid's criticism, on the face of things, seemed absurd. As my face obviously showed this conclusion, she hastily explained that, of course it was a real piano, but the fact that it overloaded the 40-seat room in which it was being played caused it to sound different from the sound of a real piano played in a concert hall. To lead visitors to the show to expect piano records to sound similar to what Jim was producing was dishonest.
When I attended the Audio Engineering Society convention in October 1987 (my first time in over eight years; full report in this issue), I was impressed by the incredible technology now available to composers of music. I was also dismayed, however, by the extent to which so-called purist audio, as well as "acoustical" music, have been consigned to oblivion by the pro audio community. It was clear, both from the exhibits and the many conversations on which I eavesdropped, that audio professionals are no longer concerned about fidelity, in the sense of trying to reproduce sounds accurately. A "real" sound has become to them merely raw material of no value except as something to be processed, manipulated, folded, bent, and spindled to produce any sonic effect except the original one. About a third of the products displayed at the 83rd AES convention were tools for doing that.
Epiphanies only come when you stop looking for them, and mine came in a room full of preschoolers watching cartoons at a Pizza Hut. I was taking my little nieces Alix (4) and Casey (1) out for dinner, and the last thing on my mind was audio; we wanted to PARTY! So my girlfriend Dara and I bundled them up in their car-seats and we high-tailed it over to the Hut, with visions of continuous-loop Tom'n'Jerry and cheap buffet pizza dancing in our heads.
In the 1970s, a small black-and-white ad sometimes ran in the pages of Playboy magazine. The ad pictured an attractive young woman with lots of disheveled hair and a crooked grin. There was little else to the ad other than the headline, which the reader would assume was being spoken by the model: "It takes more than Martinis to build an image, Mister!"
When I taught a recording engineering program at a California college, one of my first responsibilities to new students was to clarify for them what recording engineering was really about. Many of them entered the program with the impression that recording was nonstop glamor, with a significant part of the job devoted to partying with their favorite rock bands. It was my job to tell them the bad news: Recording was more about lying on your back underneath a recording console on a dirty studio floor with hot solder dripping on your face.
Although I was trying to earn a living playing in rock bands in the early 1970s, I occasionally used to drag my Fender bass over to a school canteen in the next town for an after-hours session with what used to be called a "rehearsal band." (I have no idea what the derivation of that name is, except that, with the exception of a couple of veterans of the Ted Heath Orchestra, we were certainly in need of all the rehearsal we could get.) I would set up my Marshall stack the other side of the drummer from the pianist and sit behind a set of trumpet players, a brace of trombonists, and a scrum of players of the common saxophone flavors—a couple of altos, three or four tenors, and a baritone wielded by a gentleman with the magnificent moniker of Albert Bags. We played Glenn Miller and Woody Herman charts, and, on one memorable night, a Stan Kenton arrangement. Our technical chops didn't match our musical ambitions, but the feeling that welled up inside us when we all reached the final measure at the same time couldn't be beat.
A man who had just looked through his very first Stereophile---April's "Recommended Components" issue picked up at a newsstand---recently called to ask my advice on a certain inexpensive CD player made by a large mid-fi company. I told him I hadn't auditioned the player and thus couldn't comment on its worth. The man then proceeded to read me the player's specifications, finally informing me that the player "had the new 1-bit thing"---all in the belief that I could make a recommendation based on what he'd just told me. He apparently had been conditioned to believe that not only was "the 1-bit thing" superior, but that choosing a CD player was merely a matter of evaluating technical specs.
On Friday morning, March 25, 2005, my friend Maura Rieland, Stereophile's show coordinator through the second half of the 1990s, e-mailed me to say that she had just learned of the passing of Ken Nelson.
When I attended Britain's Heathrow Penta hi-fi show in September 1987, I had hoped to come back with big news about some breakthrough cartridge or preamp or loudspeaker system. I didn't. No, the talk of the Penta show was something called the "Belt Phenomenon," which may possibly be a breakthrough of some kind, but then again, it may not.
Does high-end audio have a future? High-end audio most definitely does have a future. So do the Latin mass, chess, leather-bound books, and wooden boats. But the future will not be like the past, and I think we must face the fact that high-end audio's future, both for hardware and software, will be as a minority enthusiasm. We should plan and act accordingly.