Some time ago I wrote about the need for high-end audio companies to constantly reinvent themselves: You may be receiving accolades for your latest and greatest product, but you'd also better be well along the path to developing its replacement. High-end audio is a field of constant change; no product remains supreme for long.
It's easy for us audiophiles to feel neglected. Consider that this year witnesses the debuts of not one, but two new audio formats that should answer the prayers of just about every frustrated audiophile out there: SACD and DVD-Audio. Both approaches represent the state of the art of recording and reproducing music, and finally fulfill for serious listeners the promise that CD teased us with more than 15 years ago.
Now that audio technology seems to be on the verge of being able to do anything asked of it, it seems only fitting to wonder about what we should be asking it to do. We probably all agree that high fidelity should yield a felicitous reproduction of music, but felicitous to what? Should a system give an accurate replica of what is on the disc, or of the original musical sounds?
"One of the worst-kept secrets in audio engineering is that what we hear does not always correlate with what we measure." So wrote the late Richard Heyser 30 years ago, as quoted in Time Delay Spectrometry, a 1987 anthology of his writings (footnote 1). What do we hear? Music heard live consists of a sound pressure that changes according to the logical demands of two things that have no physical reality: the way in which music is structured in time and pitch, and how that structure is ordered by the composer/musician. Heyser, one of the most perceptive audio engineers I've had the privilege to meet, repeatedly emphasized in his essays and papers that the reproduction of music is a multidimensional event.
As I wrote in this space last month, test-equipment manufacturer Audio Precision has loaned Stereophile a sample of their top-of-the-line SYS2722 system, which has both significantly greater resolution and greater bandwidth than the Audio Precision System One Dual Domain we have been using since 1989. The reviews you can read in this issue include the first measurements I have performed with this impressive piece of gear, though there are still a number of graphs I produced using our System One. In fact, with the equipment I tested using the SYS2722, I performed duplicate sets of measurements using both the System One and the Miller Audio Research QC Suite in order to get a handle on how close the three systems agreed. (They did on the tests where the SYS2722's improved resolution was not a factor.)
"You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like—static."—Bob Dylan, interviewed by Jonathan Lethem. Rolling Stone, September 7, 2006
Caveat: This article is written by a non-audiophile. I own and listen to several thousand recordings through about $2500 worth of a rather motley assortment of audio components. Though very well informed musically, and a disciplined listener, Audiophilia remains for me a storied land. Various desultory discussions with Larry Archibald and John Atkinson, some going back almost two years, about the possibly refreshing, certainly outré (for these pages) outlook of a certified Audio Ignoramus, have finally borne astringent fruit in this diversion of an article.
If home-gallows prices keep coming down, people won't go to public executions anymore. The home brothel has reduced the amount of cash American men spend each year on banging strangers. And thanks to the home sweatshop, the CEOs of all the major clothing manufacturers have been forced to take pay cuts. (I mean, come on: It was either that or something totally unimaginable, like shipping American jobs overseas, or cutting healthcare benefits for the rank and file.)
It was the weirdest orchestral balance I'd ever heard. The gentle woodwind chords that begin Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream were as loud as the climactic "Wedding March" that ends the piece. The radio broadcast was obviously being compressed to hell. Yet, sitting at the wheel of the rented Vauxhall Vectra I was driving down to Cornwall for an old friend's surprise 50th birthday party, I was actually glad for the compression. Had Classic FM broadcast the Mendelssohn with its true dynamic range intact, the quiet passages would have been irretrievably buried in the road noise and the loud passages would have had me lunging for the volume control, to the possible danger of those sharing England's congested A303 trunk road with me.