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.
As another Consumer Electronics Show rolls around, we are seeing some interesting and not-entirely encouraging things taking place in the audio field. The people for whom high fidelity was originally intendedso-called serious music listeners have abandoned audio almost completely, leaving the pursuit of perfect music reproduction to a group of hobbyists who have more interest in hardware than in music. This, plus the recession, has almost killed middle-fi, which is now flailing out in all directions looking for a new market. Here's how it all came to pass:
In the four years since our last readership survey, Stereophile's circulation has grown by one third, from 45,000 to over 60,000 (footnote 1). We thought it time, therefore, to commission new numbers, from specialists Mediamark Research Inc. (footnote 2). Table 1 shows the demographic breakdown of the magazine's readers. While the launch of CD did bring more women into the audiophile fold almost 10 years ago, the proportion of Stereophile's female readers has not changed since 1988, at just over 1% (footnote 3). At one of the panel sessions at the 1992 High End Hi-Fi Show in Los Angeles, a man in the audience asked why high-end audio was so testosterone-bound when women were just as interested in music as men? The answers given by some of the many women at the show ranged from the fact that women only earn 47 cents on the dollar compared with men to conjecture that women are turned off by the hobby's tweak aspect. Certainly dealer Andrew Singer felt last October (footnote 4) that the high-end industry is hobbling itself by ignoring half the US's population.
This morning, John Atkinson passed along to me an e-mail he received from one of our most attentive correspondents—a reviewer, in fact, for an erstwhile competitor. We know that this particular writer ranks among our closest readers because an issue seldom comes out but that he writes an analysis of it, including, and down to, what he considers our excessive political correctness in choice of pronouns.
Dateline: late August 1989. The scene: my palatial office in the Stereophile Tower. Present were the magazine's official technowizard Robert Harley, Circulation Kahuna Michael Harvey, and myself. The subject under discussion was the program for the Stereophile Test CD, launched in this issue, and Bob had been dazzling Michael and myself with a description of the sophisticated signal-processing power offered by the Digidesign Sound Tools music editing system with which he had outfitted his Macintosh IIX computer. (He had to fit it with a 600-megabyte hard-disk drive!) "It'll even do edits as crossfades as well as butt joins," enthused Bob. "Let me tell you about the crossfade I once did when editing a drum solo for a CD master that lasted ten seconds..."
A very popular myth among the audio unwashedand one still perpetuated by the pop hi-fi writersis that nothing is to be gained by paying more than $1000 for a stereo system (footnote 1). Members of the general public, including masses of people who enjoy live, unamplified music, have the impression that more money simply buys one wider and wider frequency range, and defend their $500 "compact" systems with the lame excuse that their ears aren't all that good, and who needs to hear what bats hear anyway? This is no doubt a soothing emollient for one's disinclination to invest more money in audio gear, but it is a supreme self-deception.
Compuserve's CEAUDIO forum has been buzzing in recent weeks about audio cables. The subject even spilled over into an April meeting of the New York chapter of the Audio Engineering Society (see Wes Phillips's report in this month's "Industry Update"). Nearly two decades after Polk, Fulton, and Monster Cable raised our collective consciousness about the differences cable choice can make in an audio system, the debate still rages between audiophiles and some members of the engineering community. "High-priced tone controls" is how some engineers dismiss the subject of cables, while admitting that they can sound different. Other engineers adopt the "Hard Objectivist" line that if there are differences to be heard between cables, differences in the lumped electrical parameters of resistance (R), inductance (L), and capacitance (C) are all that are required to explain such differences.