Blame the Puritans! say I. The high end has always had an ostinato accompaniment of grumbles from those who appear to feel that it is immoral to want to listen to music with as high a quality as possible. In a recent letter, for example, Fanfare and Stereo Review contributor and author Howard Ferstler states that "the audio world has more products of bogus quality and shills promoting them than any other industry, bar none," and trots out the old saw that audiophiles "end up spending an excessive amount of money on equipment or tweaking techniques of surprisingly dubious quality."
"Suicide junctions," I calls 'em. The ones with which I'm most familiar are on I-278, just north of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in Brooklyn, New York, and along North Mopac in Austin, Texas, but they must exist all over the US. Traffic about to enter the freeway must first cross the line of faster-traveling offcoming cars, the intersection's on- and off-ramps crossing in a shallow X.
Toward the end of the 1992 Summer CES in Chicago, J. Gordon Holt ambled into Audio Influx's demonstration room. He was curious about which PDQ Bach CD we were playing, as a fitting end to the show. We chatted about PDQ Bach live concerts and the grand-spoof entrances made by Professor Peter Schickele. Suddenly he said, "You know, these speakers sound real," going on to mention that he hadn't heard many real-sounding systems. I told JGH that most of what I heard at shows and in dealer showrooms nowadays was surrealistic sound.
Listening to multichannel music with the new SACD and DVD-Audio players has produced equal parts contentment and consternation. The contentment is easy to understand: Here are media that can reproduce music with better-than-CD resolution and, for the first time, re-create a believable illusion of the entire acoustic space in which the performance was recorded. The consternation is related to those same two issues: 1) maintaining the resolution and tonal balance relished with high-quality stereo, and 2) making the psychological transition from two-channel to multichannel listening. Both of these are barriers to audiophile acceptance of multichannel music.
One reason I have never felt the need to invest in a high-end home-theater system is that it is all too easy for me to go 'round to Tom Norton's house. As well as contributing the amplifier measurements and the all-too-rare component review for Stereophile, Tom is technical editor of our companion book, Stereophile Guide to Home Theater (footnote 1). As you might expect, he has access to video equipment that the rest of us can only dream about.
During the late 1950s, when high fidelity exploded into a multimillion-dollar industry, product advertisements bragged about bringing the orchestra into your living room. Apparently, no one realized what an absurd concept it was, but there are still many people today who believe that's what audio is all about. It isn't. There is no way a real orchestra could fit into the average living room, and if it could, we would not want to be around when it played. Sound levels of 115dB are just too loud for most sane people, and that's what a full orchestral fortissimo can produce in a small room.
Much has been made of the influence that Linn, Naim, and Rega have had on our ideas about music-system hierarchies: Before they and a handful of other British audio manufacturers kicked off the debate in the 1970s, the conventional wisdom worldwide was that the loudspeaker was more important than the record player, amplifier, or any other link in the domestic audio chain, and thus deserved to be the object of significantly greater care and attention, not to mention investment of cash. But the Brit-fi approach was different, and ostensibly better reasoned: Because musical information that's distorted or dropped entirely by a record player, a CD player, or any other source can't be made right by any other component in the system, it is the source that must be considered the most important component of all, and to which the majority of funds should be allocated.
In this issue you can find a full report from the 2000 International Consumer Electronics Show, held last January in Las Vegas. By contrast to the 1999 CES, the Y2K Consumer Electronics Show was considerably more upbeat, both according to my own observations and to those experts who specialize in judging the size of Las Vegas conventions: the city's taxi drivers. Yes, there were some rooms where lonely exhibitors were more than usually pleased to welcome a visitor from the press, but to judge from the home-theater exhibits at the Las Vegas Hilton's Convention Center and the specialty audio exhibits at the Alexis Park Resort Hotel, as well as the companies exhibiting at the splinter T.H.E. Show at the St. Tropez, the joint was jumping.
I always enjoy CES. Like the Big Apple, or the City of Angels, the Consumer Elecronics Show is stimulatingly frenetic and enjoyably fatiguingthings that would soon put me in the funny farm if I lived with them year 'round, but can easily cope with twice a year. In fact, attending CES is rather like visiting the city of my birth, a place whose culture is one with my own because I grew up there, and where half the pleasure lies in seeing once again those audio peoplethe Allisons, Marantzes, Frieds, Beveridges, Haflers, and Tuckerswhose durability as friends always reminds me of how rapidly time passes and how little of it we may have left.
Every time I stepped from the slow elevator onto the casino floor at Harrah's, where Stereophile's editors spent their sleepless nights, my hatred for Las Vegas was revitalized. It felt like some kind of bad joke: Oh god, I'm still here. I would turn right and see the same flashing lights, the same low ceilings, the same peoplestill sitting, still smoking, still hoping, still staring blank-faced into spinning screens of cherries, spades, and jokersand I would wonder why.
I've never lived in New York City, but I've visited often, especially the Upper West Side, where my wife's grandparents lived for many years. There's a little jazz bar there, on Broadway near 106th Street, aka Duke Ellington Boulevard.
From time to time in this column, I have alluded to what appears to be a loss of direction in high-end audio. It's not that the state of the audio art has stopped advancing; the technology is improving in many ways, as is obvious every time we listen to a new preamplifier or cartridge or loudspeaker that has better this, that, or the other thing than anything which has come before. The problem is that these improvements don't really seem to be getting us anywhere. And I believe the reason for this is that the audio community no longer agrees about where audio is supposed to be going in the first place.