It's been 30 years since I began work on my very first equipment report, of the Goldbug Brier moving-coil phono cartridge, for Hi-Fi News & Record Review. That review appeared in the British magazine's May 1983 issue; I have lost track of how many equipment reviews I've written since then, but my review of the Vandersteen Treo loudspeaker in this issue is at least my 500th.
High-end audio is not a rational construct. It is a sensory experience that leads to emotional engagement. In slightly different words: High-end audio is not about a concept, but about the experience of having our emotions engaged. The difference between reading about a high-end audio system and hearing great recordings played on one is almost as big as the difference between reading a love poem and falling in love.
"When you read...that an electronic recording has 'excellent' sound it does not mean you can use that record as a system evaluation tool," wrote J. Gordon Holt in October's "As We See It." Yet, if you are a regular reader of Stereophile, you will be aware that the magazine's equipment reviewers do make use of a considerable number and variety of recordings, including many which would appear to be totally electronic, to reach value judgments about hi-fi components.
"Tax proposed to fund Public TV, radio," read the newspaper headline. The Working Group for Public Broadcasting, described as a "private study group," was proposing to free public broadcasting "from improper political and commercial influences" by replacing its $228 million in congressional appropriations and $70 million or so in corporate funding with $600 million to be raised from a new sales tax on electronic equipment. The article went on to say that the proposal was being sent to the congressional panels concerned with communications (ie, the commerce committees), where it could become the basis for a new Public Broadcasting Act.
Stuck out here in the desert depths of the Southwest, we look forward to visits from out-of-towners. So when David Wilson, one-time audio reviewer but now full-time high-end manufacturer, called to say he was going to be in Santa Fe, there was a flurry of activity. David had agreed to an interview, so I started going through back issues of The Absolute Sound and Stereophile for background. Vol.6 No.2 of Stereophile from 1983, with its front-cover photograph of David and Sheryl Lee Wilson with their WAMM speaker system, seemed a good place to start—except that nothing inside the magazine corresponded to the cover picture. It was the next issue that had featured Larry Archibald's write-up on the WAMM, and once I opened its pages, I got trapped into reading the entire issue.
One of the things endured by engineers and journalists involved in the design and discussion of high-end components is the seemingly endless attacks from those who, for whatever reason, feel that there is something unhealthy, even vaguely immoral, in the whole idea of wanting to listen to music with as high a quality as possible. The Listening Studio's Clark Johnsen reminded me recently of a letter from Daniel Shanefield that I published in the January 1984 issue of Hi-Fi News & Record Review that illustrates the whole genre: "It is utterly useless to write an amplifier review based on listening tests. If there were anything other than mere frequency response variation, it might be interesting...most hi-fi magazines will...forswear attempts to review amplifiers for their 'inherent sounds.' There are still plenty of interesting things to talk about in reviewing amplifiers, such as features, power, cost effectiveness, beauty, etc." (Of course, Daniel Shanefield is not quite as authoritative a published amplifier reviewer as, say, J. Gordon Holt or Harry Pearson of The Abso!ute Sound.)
I recently came across a 1998 report, "Explaining the Computer Productivity Paradox," by Kevin Stiroh and Robert H. McGuckin III, that discussed the apparent fact that the widespread use of computers has not resulted in any significant increase in worker productivity. This is indeed a paradox, as my experience in the magazine business has left me with the opposite impression. We all do more, with less, than at any earlier time.
Our Delta L-1011 emerged from the cloud split-seconds before its wheels touched the waterlogged ground. "How much lower does the cloud cover have to be before they divert us to another city?" I asked Tom Norton. "About an inch," came the phlegmatic reply. (Ex-F4 pilot TJN categorizes any landing you can walk away from as "good.") But at least we had reached Atlanta, after a saga of air-traffic control problems, weather delays, and missed connections. (Does anyone remember taking a flight that wasn't full, wasn't late, and wasn't sweaty and stressful? Wasn't deregulation supposed to improve service by increasing the choices available to travelers?)
It was the subhead that caught my eye: "Today's super-rich just don't seem interested in $300,000 stereos." Clunky writing, sure. But at least it gave some idea of what the next 2000 words were about, and spared the pain of having to read further.
Before 1982, when the Compact Disc arrived, I didn't love LPs. Analog was already very old tech, and while every trick in the book had been applied to turntables and LPs, they still wowed & fluttered at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. Vinyl's deficiencies were legion: warped LPs were more common than truly flat ones; surface noise, clicks, and pops sang along with the tune; LPs rarely had perfectly centered spindle holes; inner-groove distortions popped up at inopportune moments; and each time an LP is played, its sound quality degrades, if only ever so slightly. The LP format? Imperfect sound forever.
The audio community's "Great Debate" has reached an amazing level of absurdity. On one side are the Objectivists, whose rationalist argument insists that all human auditory experience is the result of electro-physical phenomena which can be measured and mapped using established scientific methods. On the other side are the Subjectivists, romantics who believe in the synergistic interplay of music, room, equipment, and listener, and whose attempts to describe their experiences tend toward the florid and metaphorical.
"An amusement park for the mind." That was how, some years ago, one engineer described the Audio Engineering Society's biannual conventions, which alternate between European and American venues. The 111th convention, subtitled "Advancing the Art of Sound," was held at the cavernous Jacob Javits Center on Manhattan's west side in early December. (It had originally been scheduled to take place last September, but was postponed for the obvious reason.)
One day in the early 1960s, Arnold Gingrich, Esquire magazine's founder and editor-in-chief, phoned his stockbroker with an unusual request: Gingrich needed a cashier's check for $12,000 right away. Would the broker please sell some of Gingrich's stocks?
By the time you read this, I will have been fortunate enough to have attended a banquet put on by Harry Pearson in celebration of The Abso!ute Sound's 20th anniversary. Stereophile and TAS may have had their disagreements from time to time, but I take this opportunity to congratulate Harry and his staff on 20 years of excellent high-end publishing. I believe it's not excessively immodest to report that high-end manufacturers frequently remind me of their gratitude for the healthy and vibrant high-end publishing community which exists in the United States—and does not in most other countries. Many publications make up this community, but Stereophile and TAS are certainly the most widely read.