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?
To say that a digital source "sounds like analog" has always struck me as coming up short. The notion that one format sounds like another is not really sensible or even ideal. While I love listening to LPs, there are some physical attributes of vinyl that, ideally, you don't want to reproduce. You know what I'm talking about because, every chance they get, LP haters remind us about pops, ticks, skips, surface noise, inner-groove distortion, etc. So when we say that a digital source sounds like analog, what we're really saying is that it doesn't sound like digital.
When it comes to video, most audiophiles are insufferable snobs. These normally reasonable people, who are among the first to admit that great sound in a motion picture theater makes a great film much more enjoyable, nonetheless. scoff at the very idea of augmenting their own sound with images, or of trying to create the kind of audio-visual experience in their home that they routinely enjoy at the cinema. Doing that involves video, which they equate with TV, which they equate with LCD (footnote 1) dross. This is unfortunate, because visuals can enhance good sound, and good sound can do wonders for non-TV video programs like Hollywood motion pictures.
Successful new prerecorded audio media emerge, on average, every two decades—one human generation. The LP made its debut in 1948, 21 years after the introduction of electrical recording ended the adolescence of the record industry and the acoustic 78rpm disc. This was almost coincidental with Jack Mullin's retrieval of analog tape technology from the wreckage of post-WWII Germany and its subsequent commercialization by Bing Crosby's Ampex company (footnote 1). The compact cassette made its appearance in 1963, followed almost 20 years later by the CD, in 1982. And now, as I mentioned in the October issue's "As We See It," we have Sony and Philips' Super Audio CD and the DVD Forum's DVD-Audio to contend with (not forgetting MP3 and the Internet).
Editor's Note: Those of us who cut our engineering teeth on tubes still remember the advent of the solid-state amplifier with mixed feelings. Yes, they were lighter and cheaper per watt than the thermionic hulks we loved so much, but they broke all the time (thanks to the germanium transistor) and sounded like—well, let J. Gordon Holt tell us what they sounded like in an "As We See It" article from Vol.1 No.10, first published in May 1965. We also develop the theme with a JGH review of an early transistorized amp, as well as a selection of readers' letters from the early days of Stereophile. Enjoy.—John Atkinson
What is the angular separation of your loudspeakers as viewed from your favorite chair? Whatever your answer, it's wrong. Of course I don't mean that it's a factually incorrect answer, just that any single value of subtended angle cannot be ideal for all recordings.