One of my mentors, John Crabbe—my predecessor as editor of the English magazine Hi-Fi News—used to insist that a magazine's soul is its "Letters" column. If a magazine was able to publish a lively collection of readers' letters, said John, it would enjoy a lengthy life. Conversely, if its letters column was dull or nonexistent, then no matter how much advertising it had or how many readers it could boast, it was just a matter of time before it had the lid shut on it. In the 28 years since John told me this, I have not found an exception. The kicker, of course, is that there's no easy way of ensuring that a magazine has lively letters to publish.
The whole field of subjective audio reviewinglistening to a piece of equipment to determine its characteristics and worthis predicated on the idea that human perception is not only far more sensitive than measurement devices, but far more important than the numbers generated by "objective" testing. Subjective evaluation of audio equipment, however, is often dismissed as meaningless by the scientific audio community. A frequent objection is the lack of thousands upon thousands of rigidly controlled clinical trials. Consequently, conclusions reached by subjective means are considered unreliable because of the anecdotal nature of listening impressions. The scientific audio community demands rigorous, controlled, blind testing with many trials before any conclusions can be drawn. Furthermore, any claimed abilities to discriminate sonically that are not provable under blind testing conditions are considered products of the listeners' imaginations. Audible differences are said to be real only if their existence can be proved by such "scientific" procedures (footnote 1).
The March 1999 issue of Stereophile is my last as the magazine's Equipment Reports Editor. I have accepted a job elsewhere in the industry, and, as a public relations consultant, will be actively promoting this wonderful hobby of ours in a different capacity.
Just what is the absolute sound, and how do you get there from here? What the heck are we looking for as we endure the mirth of others while purposefully setting up our high-end systems? Is it, indeed, the sanctified sound of acoustic instruments in real space? Can we ever really achieve that? Or is it the accurate realization of the signal on the master tape? Or—as was recently suggested at the New York Noise single-ended lovefest, covered in this issue's "Industry Update"—are some of us looking for the emotion and the artist's intent?
Back on April 13, Stereophile assistant editor Stephen Mejias posted the following thought on his "Elements of Our Enthusiasm" blog: "Is it possible to listen to music and listen to the hi-fi? Or are they two entirely different activities, incomparable and incompatible? Right now, for me, they seem to have nothing in common, whatsoever."
Few topics ignite more heated arguments among audiophiles than the price of audio equipment. How much do you have to spend to get really good sound? Are people who buy expensive gear wasting their money, or is it simply a matter of getting what you pay for? There are many such issues, most of which have been discussed at length in Stereophile and various online forums; here are a few I haven't seen addressed except in passing.
I love two-channel stereo. A great stereo recording can produce such a full-bodied, three-dimensional soundstage that surround sound seems superfluous. Multichannel is just peachy for home theater, but good ol' stereo suits music just fine, thanks very much.
An acquaintance in the world of CD distribution recently gave me an astonishing statistic: that the average classical title sells fewer than 2000 copies worldwide in its first year of release; which in turn means that many titles sell only about 500 copies! Given that the cost of producing a classical orchestral album can include up to $100,000 in union-mandated musician fees, such minimal sales guarantee financial disaster.
It's one of those good news/bad news stories: more people are listening to music than ever before, but the major record labels are in dire straits. Some of the reasons for the record industry's malaise are easy to spotteenagers and grandmas grooving to music-streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and MOG, or ripping each other's CDsbut the music industry's problems run deeper than lost sales. Digital audio mortally wounded recorded music's creative mojo in 1982, and the record industry never fully recovered.
Michael Fremer's review of the AudioPhysic Caldera III loudspeaker in this issue (p.81) reminded me of a subject I have written about many times in the past: what happens when a manufacturer submits a faulty sample for review. I formalized Stereophile's policy on this matter in late 1988, following both an unfortunate series of reviews in which the samples either arrived broken or broke during the auditioning, and my learning about how much went on behind closed doors at other audio magazines, where reviewers and editors too often appeared to collude with manufacturers.1 I wrote back then that:
Editor's Introduction: Thirty years ago this month, in September 1962, J. Gordon Holt, lately Technical Editor of High Fidelity magazine, was working on the contents of the first issue of his brainchild The Stereophile, a magazine that would judge components on how they actually sounded. We thought it appropriate, therefore, to use the occasion of the 1992 Summer Consumer Electronics Show, held in late May in Chicago, to invite some 200 members of the international high-end industry to a dinner to celebrate the occasion. Larry Archibald dug deep into the magazine's coffers; Ralph Johnson took time off from organizing the 1993 High End Hi-Fi Show to burn up the long-distance telephone lines faxing invitations; the conversation was excellent, the food superb, and the wine even better. Which is probably why the venerable JGH took the opportunity to remind the assembled luminaries what this whole business is supposed to be about. Here follows the text of his speech. I hope you find it as stimulating reproduced in these pages as did those who heard it live.—John Atkinson
1987 will mark Stereophile's 25th year of continuous (if initially sometimes sporadic) publication. And while we haven't yet decided what we're going to do in celebration, the first issue of 1987 does seem to be as good a time as any to contrast the state of the audio art when we began publication with what is routinely possible today.