Stereophile is devoted to getting the best sound from a home audio system. But as I have written before, audiophiles don't have access to an absolute sound, only to what has been captured in the pits or grooves of their discs, which is itself the result of a creative process. The playing back and the making of recordings are therefore two sides of the same coin. This is why I get actively involved in recording projects and why I publish articles about those projects, the most recent of which appears on p.50. "Project K622" describes the making of a new recording of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto (work number 622 in the Köchel catalog of Mozart's compositions, hence the article's title), which is being released both on hybrid SACD and on 180gm vinyl. (You can buy both from our secure "Recordings" page.)
I began writing these words on December 1, 2010, 13 years to the day that the magazine's website, www.stereophile.com, emerged from the digital darkness. That first, 1997 edition of our website was to a large extent the brainchild of one man, webmonkey Jon Iverson, who ever since has overseen its design and growth.
I'm writing these words on the flight home from the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, held January 7–10 in Las Vegas. I wasn't sure what to expect at this year's CES. Though the official stats show that the US economy has grown for the fourth straight year, audio retailers I spoke with before the Show feel that that economic growth has not resulted in any increase in consumers' disposable incomes. In fact, with the drying up of credit, retailers are concerned that 2008 may well be a step back from 2007 in overall sales, and that high-end audio—a niche category within a niche category—will be adversely affected by the relative impoverishment of the middle class.
The demo seemed simple enough. A distributor proposed a session for the Bay Area Audiophile Society (BAAS) that would pit his relatively low-cost speaker cable against an ultra-expensive competing model named for a Norse god. We would listen to the music first with the high-priced spread, then with his cable, then discuss the differences. As far as the distributor was concerned, everyone would hear that the Nordic Emperor had no clothes.
"Test We Must," cried High Fidelity's erstwhile editor, Michael Riggs, in a January 1989 leader article condemning the growth of subjective testing. (See the sidebar for Peter Mitchell's obituary of HF magazine, now effectively merged with Stereo Review.) With the exception of loudspeakers, where it is still necessary to listen, he wrote, "laboratory testing (properly done) can tell us pretty much everything we need to know about the performance of a typical piece of electronics...We know what the important characteristics are, how to measure them, and how to interpret the results."
I was visiting a high-end audio manufacturer several years back, and as the chief engineer and I talked about speaker design, the company's president popped her head around the door and told him that she was sending MacroVision their annual five-figure check.
For a subjective equipment reviewer, whose writings are based as much on impressions as on observations, it is very important to approach a product without personal bias. Of course, all of us lay claim to this ideal, and some of us even manage to maintain the appearance of impartiality most of the time. But just under the reviewer's veneer of urbane professionalism and deliberative restraint lies a darker force—a leering hobgoblin of anarchy and mischief which scoops usually forbidden adjectives from a well of calumny and offers them for the writer's consideration as the perfect word to describe what he is trying to express. It's an ever-present temptation to accept the suggestion, because every critic harbors a secret urge to be another Dorothy Parker, trashing mankind's most earnest endeavors with devastating bon mots that will endure long after the writer has ceased to. Most of the time, the reviewer is able to resist the temptation to broadside a product, but some products, and the people they represent, make this very difficult. In fact, sometimes it is impossible.
Finding myself in the Northwest on business, I reckoned I'd grab some Seattle dim sum with my nephew before heading my rental car south on I-5 to visit old friends in Oregon. "You live here," I said to Sean. "What are the good radio stations?"
"What? What??? No Smiths?" asks reader Steven J. Wilder in this issue's "Letters" (p.9), regarding my interjection in the "Honorable Mentions" sidebar of last November's "40 Essential Albums." Hey, I think The Smiths suck—okay, Mr. Wilder? Morrissey's self-absorbed adolescent whining had no place on a list that included music from such grownups as Morrison, Mitchell, and Mingus. I'm not alone in this sentiment. Jon Iverson, www.stereophile.com's webmaster, almost stapled together the pages of Mojo magazine's April 2001 retrospective of Morrissey's and Marr's music so he could skip over it without running the risk of the veins on his forehead exploding.
Stop me if you've heard this: On January 10, at Avery Fisher Hall in New York's Lincoln Center, a performance of Mahler's Symphony 9, led by conductor Alan Gilbert, was stopped in its tracks by the ringing of an iPhone.
It wasn't just any part of the Mahler Ninth: It happened during the exceedingly quiet closing measures of the final movement.
It wasn't just any symphony orchestra: It was the New York Philharmonic, which Gustav Mahler directed during the last two years of his life.
These days, too many audio stores are like hushed mausoleums. Audio gear is displayed like dead art, and the sales staff, unless you're known as a regular customer, either greets you with a predatory gleam or, certain that you've wandered in by mistake, ignores you.