You know about them: audio products or tweaks that fall outside the standard definition of audio component. They're not source components like CD players, not amplifiers or preamplifiers, not loudspeakers, not power-line conditioners or cablesand, if aimed at modifying room acoustics, they're not the standard devices that absorb or disperse sound. Let's call them Unorthodox Audio Products (UAPs). They promise a kind of audio panacea: something that fixes whatever's wrong with the sound of your system.
Having just spent the last four days at the 2004 Audio Engineering Society conference in San Francisco, I was struck by the sunny enthusiasm shared by many industry professionals for 5.1-channel surround-sound music.
In this month's "Letters," Donald Bisbee raises the subject of the government's proposed reduction in funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), I agree with Mr. Bisbee that commercial radio broadcasting in the US is an intellectual desert. Music is narrowcast, with listeners' tastes bound into predigested categories. There is no depth or analysis to radio news programs, other than discussions by populist commentators who, no matter what you may think of their politics, usurp the ability of their audiences to think for themselves. As a regular listener to NPR and watcher of PBS, I feel that public broadcasting is an essential factor in American public discourse (footnote 1), but not for the reasons some might think.
When some unknown copywriter coined that immortal phrase to promote the worldwide launch of Compact Disc in late 1982, little did he or she foresee how quickly it would become a term of ridicule. Yes, early CDs and players offered low background noise, a flat spectral balance, and freedom from wow and flutter. But all too often, the music encoded in the "perfect-sounding" pits seemed to have taken a vacation, leading the renowned recording engineer John Eargle to offer, in the medium's defense, that if you were to hear just one CD that sounded good, digital technology would be proved to be okay.
When I first started buying records at the end of the 1950s, I had this vision of the typical recording engineer: A sound wizard wearing a white lab coat rather than a cloak festooned with Zodiacal symbols. He (it was always a "he," of course) would spare no effort, no expense to create a disc (LPs and 45s were all we had) that offered the highest possible sound quality. At that time I also believed that Elvis going into the Army meant the end of rock'n'roll, that my teachers knew everything, that politicians were honest, that socialism was the best form of government, and that talent and hard work were all you needed to be a success. Those ideas crashed and burned as I grew up, of course, but other than the long-discarded white coats, each new record I bought strengthened rather than weakened my image of the recording engineer.
"My god. This was better than any hi-fi I had ever experienced—I actually had Sergei Rachmaninoff in the room, playing Mendelssohn just for me. I am not ashamed to say that I wept." I wrote those words in the January 2001 Stereophile, about hearing a piano-roll transcription of Rachmaninoff performing Mendelssohn's Spinning Song (Op.67 No.34) on a Bösendorfer Imperial 290SE reproducing piano. I was in the middle of recording Robert Silverman's cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas at the Maestro Foundation in Santa Monica, where there just happened to be a floppy disk with Wayne Stahnke's transcription of the Rachmaninoff for the Bösendorfer mechanism, which Stahnke invented.
"All great editors are men able to see how stories, episodes, and personalities flow and merge one into the other to reproduce the pattern of a world that only their own inner eye perceives.—Henry Robinson Luce, Founder, Time and Life magazines
The very first "Recommended Components" listing appeared in Vol.1 No.5; this is the 16th time I've put the listing together since I took over the task from J. Gordon Holt in the November 1986 'phile. No other Stereophile feature seems to be as popular, or as misunderstood. While it might inform, it never fails to offend, particularly when it involves the dropping, or—horrors!—the not listing at all, of components that the magazine's readers own.
It's a beautiful drive, considering you're on a freeway. You take I-25 north out of Albuquerque, Sandia Peak to your right and the Jemez Caldera and Mount Taylor dimly visible in the distance to your left. As you broach La Bajada hill south of Santa Fe, the Sangre de Cristo range—the "Blood of Christ Mountains" described by Paul Simon in "Hearts & Bones"—appears before your windshield. You take the Old Pecos Trail exit to the City Different, but before you reach town you bear to the left, then take another left opposite St. Vincent Hospital. There, in a cul-de-sac, you peer up at the street sign: "Stereophile Way," it says (footnote 1). "Not just a street, but a philosophy," I kidded Larry Archibald when the city told him that he could name the road where the magazine's headquarters would one day be situated.
During my recent interview with the Sheffield Lab people in connection with their Moscow recording sessions (Vol.10 No.3), both Lincoln Mayorga and Doug Sax had some unkind things to say about the cost of recording an orchestra in the US. Their complaints are justified. It costs more to record in the US than anywhere else in the world, and these astronomical costs are detrimental both to symphonic music in the US and to the audiophile's pursuit of sonic perfection.
I may have had 4000 LPs and a perfectly wonderful Linn LP12 turntable, but I could go for weeks on end without listening to a single LP. But I still thought of myself as one of the vinyl faithful, even as I rationalized my digital-centric listening tendencies. I loved analog in theoryI just couldn't bring myself to listen to it all that much.
"Blondy watched this proud, drum-tight personality fidget past him on the street and began projecting; he couldn't help it: an unfinished degree in journalism, concerned married sisters in New Jersey or Connecticut (but probably New Jersey), weights but no cardio, aggrieved blind dates, Cigar Aficionado and Stereophile, takeout menus, acres of porn."
from "Lucky Alan," by Jonathan Lethem; The New Yorker, March 19, 2007
When did being interested in hi-fi lose its cool? When did it become antisocial? One minute hi-fi was hanging with Hef center-stage in a groovy bachelor pad, and the next thing you know it's a prop used to describe someone who "walked in a fiery aura of loneliness," as Lethem described it. I ask because I'm genuinely concerned. Some of my best friends are audiophiles. But it seems that if you want to be anything related to music, the last thing you want to be is an audiophile.