I left you last month 104 miles from Santa Fe, New Mexico, heading east on I-40 accompanied by a dog and two cats, with 1946 miles to go to reach Stereophile's new editorial home, New York City. To cut a long story short, I did arrive in New York (covered in dog and cat hair). After a nerve-wracking delay, so did our furniture. We will be living out of boxes for a while chez Atkinson, but that's a mere inconvenience compared with the Great Adventure of setting up a new listening room.
As I write these words, it is exactly 15 years to the day since I left the English magazine Hi-Fi News (then Hi-Fi News & Record Review) to take the editorial helm of Stereophile. What has driven my editing of both magazines (and, Carol Baugh, p.10, I certainly do "edit" them) has been the view that the traditional model of a magazine—that it dispense and the readers receive wisdom—is fundamentally wrong. Instead, I strongly believe that a magazine's editors, writers, and readers are involved in an ongoing dialog about their shared enthusiasms. Stereophile's involvement in Shows stems from this belief, and it is in this light that its "Letters" column should be regarded as the heart of each issue.
In 1960 the high-fidelity field was in a period of stasis. The hi-fi boom was starting to crest out, and there were three magazines for audiophiles: High Fidelity, Stereo Review and Audio. The first two were (and still are) little more than vehicles for their advertising, more dedicated to promoting their advertisers' wares than in advancing the state of the art. Audio was more into equipment testing than either of the mass-hi-fi magazines, but it too was contributing to the stagnation by listening to its test results rather than to the components.
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.