Last October, in Vol.11 No.10, Stereophile's Founder and Chief Tester J. Gordon Holt stated, in his acerbic editorial "The Acoustical Standard," that, in his opinion, only recordings for which there is an original acoustic reference—ie, typically those of classical music—should be used to evaluate hi-fi components. And that in the absence of a consensus over such a policy, high-end component manufacturers were losing their way over what does and does not represent good sound quality.
I began writing this essay on New Year's Day 2007. The passing of the old year reminded me that I am now in the 21st year of editing Stereophile, my 25th of being the editor-in-chief of a mainstream audio magazine, and my 31st of working full-time as an audio journalist. (Prior to joining Stereophile in 1986, I had worked for 10 years at British magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review, the final four as its editor.) Back in the innocent 1970s, reviewers and editors generally picked and chose what products to review based on their own interest and what they felt appropriate for their readers to know about. Back then, there was only a tiny fraction of the audio brands now available to the audiophile, and even with fewer review pages than we now have, it was possible each year to cover a representative sample of the products being offered our readers. But such was the explosion in high-end audio throughout the 1980s that, by 1989, I felt it necessary to impose some restrictions on what products we choose for full review coverage in Stereophile.
Hanging above the expensive desk in my penthouse office atop Manhattan's prestigious Stereophile Tower is a photocopy of a New Yorker cartoon, in which a bewildered-looking guy complains, "There has been an alarming increase in the number of things I know nothing about."
The debates may be old, but they're not tired. They rage on with a virulence that suggests there's plenty of life in these old dogs yet. Online forums and Letters to the Editor are filled with them: objectivist vs subjectivist, engineer vs audiophile, double-bind vs doubly blind. The divisions may be artificial or downright specious—false dichotomies perfectly set up for cheap shots—but that doesn't dissuade people from drawing sides, driving stakes into the ground, and firing off volley after volley of accusation and retaliation.
There is one date I dread every year: my wife's birthday. After nearly 16 years of marriage, I have exhausted every last iota of my spousal resources in trying to think of a suitable present. Nothing too ordinary, nothing too out of the ordinary, nothing that will trigger those dreaded words, "You did keep the receipt, right?"
"Why didn't they choose a color set?" I had been reminiscing about the early days of TV and how my parents bought a black-and-white set so we could watch the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. My daughter Emily's question had me stumped. It is difficult to explain to someone born 10 years after the launch of CD—someone who, for example, has never seen, let alone used, a typewriter, and who enjoys a comparatively infinite set of choices among mature 21st-century technologies—that it was not always thus.
A world-renowned musician had scheduled an appearance as guest soloist with the string quartet in residence at a certain university. When he arrived he noticed a pair of microphones arrayed over the small stage and, following the wires, located a college student backstage next to a tape recorder and a pair of headphones.
In recent months, Stereophile's "Letters" column has been filled with complaints about the equipment we choose to review. "Too rich for my pocketbook" is the universal sentiment. This puzzles me, considering that Stereophile does review many "affordable" components. In part, I think this reaction is due to the high profile invariably associated with very expensive gear. Although we did put both speakers on our cover, one review of a Wilson Grand SLAMM or a JMlab Grand Utopia seems to outweigh 10 reviews of more realistically priced products. Our writers love to cover the cutting edge of audio—witness Martin Colloms's report from HI-FI '96 in this issue—because progress is more easily made when a designer is freed from budget constraints. But without the Grand SLAMM or Utopia, would Wilson have been able to produce the $9000/pair WITT, or JMlab the $900/pair Micron Carat, to name two high-value, high-performance designs recently reviewed in the magazine?
At a CES press breakfast in Las Vegas last January, a member of the "all amplifiers (and digital sources!) sound the same" school of audio journalism made an interesting assertion. He argued that if our society were studied by extraterrestrials, they would find an unhealthy obsession with the re-creation of experience at the expense of experience itself. This speculation was a vehicle to support his position that buying good hi-fi is a waste of money; for the same financial outlay, one can attend hundreds, even thousands of live performances. Moreover, this anti-high-end writer suggested that ETs would consider our quest for better music reproduction a bizarre folly when the real thing is so readily available (footnote 1).
Back in the last century, I mused in this space about the essential difference between recorded sound and the real thing. I had been walking to dinner with friends when I heard the unmistakable sound of live music coming from a window. But here was the kicker: rather than the instruments being of the audiophile-approved acoustic variety, they were two amplified electric guitars. Their sounds were being reproduced by loudspeakers, yet it was unambiguously obvious that it was not a recording being played through those loudspeakers, but real instruments.
It was an unusually fine day for a New York September. The W train crept from the subway tunnel into the sunlight of the Manhattan Bridge—"My God, the World Trade Center's on fire!" came the voice of the woman driving the train. I vividly remember what I did the rest of that day—the day the world terribly changed.
"Time to write another equipment report," thought the Great Reviewer, aware that the IRS would soon require another small donation to keep the country running on track. Deftly donning his Tom Wolfe vanilla suit, he sat at the antique desk acquired on one of his many all-expenses-paid research trips to Europe, patted the bust of H.L. Mencken that invariably stood by the word processor, ensured that his level of gonzo awareness was up to par, arranged his prejudices and biases in descending order of importance, checked that the requisite check was in the mail, coined a sufficient number of Maileresque factoids appropriate to the occasion, and dashed off 3000 words of pungently witty, passionately argued, convincingly objective, and deeply felt prose.
Not too many years ago, high-fidelity movement was being hailed from all quarters (and many halves) as a revolution. In the sense that it took the country storm, and made billions of dollars for many entrepreneurs during heyday, it was indeed a revolution. But now the public has grown tired of high fidelity and is turning other electronic diversionsvideo, video games, and computering. And what, as of this summer of 1982, do we have to show for the high-fidelity revolution?