Have you seen that advertisement running on the Arts & Entertainment channel? A girl and her brother are arguing in front of their TV: "Are not." "Are so." "Are not." Etc., etc. Finally, she punts: "Mom! He's calling me a neo-fatalist again!" From off-screen: "Do I have to come in there and demonstrate your free will?"
Metallica's Lars Ulrich and Creed's Scott Sapp don't get it. But Courtney Love understands, and so does Stereophile's Jon Iverson, who pointed out in the October issue's "As We See It" that the dispute between the RIAA and Napster is more important to audiophiles than it might seem. The Napster-MP3 phenomenon is a crack in the dike that controls music distribution. How the water seeps through that crack now will determine how it will flow when the drip turns into a trickle, the trickle into a stream, the stream into a river. Audiophiles and pop-music fans alike will be in the same boat.
I'm still using a Mac mini as a music server, using iTunes on this host server to stream music to my listening-room system via the Apple Airport Express WiFi hub. However, as the Airport Express is limited to CD-quality music, I tend to use them for nonserious listening, when I am involved in some other activity. One of those activities this past week or so was reading a new book from erstwhile Stereophile record reviewer Allen St. John: Clapton's Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument (hardcover, 288pp; Free Press, New York, $25).
Larry Archibald on CD: This article on Compact Discs and CD players is by Doug Sax, president of Sheffield Records and a longtime opponent of digital recording. J. Gordon Holt offers a response elsewhere in this issue, in which he advises readers to buy a Compact Disc player as soon as they can afford it. Gordon in general hails the Compact Disc as the greatest thing to hit audio since the stereophonic LP.
The criticisms are out there. They're in the audio newsgroups on the Internet, even in this magazine's "Letters" section. For years, Cassandras have proclaimed that Stereophile has sold out, gone down the tubes, become a mere lapdog for the big-league manufacturers whose components almost never get panned.
"Digital is superior," proclaims Mr. Alberto Arebalos in February's "Letters." I'm glad that's settled. Still, I'm typing this ten feet from a wall lined with LPs, Don Patterson's Satisfaction! is spinning on the old Systemdek turntable, and my usually cold, drafty Chicago apartment seems like a summer night at the Green Mill Jazz Club. But I agree: digital is superior. What's wrong with me?
Paul Gowan's letter in the October 1989 Stereophile hinted that, whether or not audiophiles enjoy music, it should be true that the emotional experience we derive from music is what really matters. There, barefaced, lies the problem: who are "we"? A well-known Latin epigram affirms that in matters of taste there is no point in discussion. And a Greek epigram (coined in fact by Max Beerbohm in his Oxford novel Zuleika Dobson) suggests that "for people who like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like."
I'd like to expand on the "expensive electronics/inexpensive speakers" discussion begun by John Atkinson in his Levinson No.26 & No.20 reviews. "Perhaps because it acts as a bottleneck on the signal," he wrote, "the quality of an amplifier or preamplifier is far more important than that of a loudspeaker when it comes to preserving or destroying the musical values of the signal. This would appear to be heresy in the US where, to judge by the letters I receive, large, complicated, expensive loudspeaker systems are often driven by relatively inexpensive, modestly performing electronics, the rationale behind this being that, to quote one correspondent, 'It is the loudspeakers that produce the sound, therefore they are where the majority of the budget should be allocated.'"
This journal has seen a number of thoughtful ruminations on what it is that attracts us to music or to a given audio component, and how we should describe that attraction. The "Letters" pages have been filled by readers who have taken us to task for not adhering to rigorous scientific methods in the evaluation of components, those rigorous scientific methods usually being equated with double-blind listening. Other readers have praised the magazine for its stance that an educated listener in a familiar, relaxed environment will be more accurate in his or her assessment than an average of trained and untrained listeners in unfamiliar, stressful circumstances. Overall, sonic descriptions from diverse reviewers in different publications show a remarkable consensus of observation (not opinion).
It was 2am on January 8, 2000, and I was sitting at the bar of the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas. I'd just arrived for the Consumer Electronics Show and was recovering from a stressful day of travel. The airlines have a new computerized ticketing technology called the "electronic ticket": you get a reservation and a confirmation number, but no physical plane ticket, itinerary, or the feelings of security that accompany those pieces of paper.
It's useful to ponder the wonders of democracy in this election year—not because of elections, but despite them. Were you to judge democracy by this election year, you might conclude that it consists of judging who has the best PR people, who the best pollsters, and who can muster the nastiest, most effective "negatives" about the other guy.
For all its excesses, high-quality audio is filled with purists. Some are committed to single-ended amplifiers, some to all-analog circuitry, to crossoverless speakers, or to recordings made with only two microphones. Purists seek simplicity in their quest for good sound. But how simple is it to scrub contacts, adjust tonearms, or meticulously clean discs before nearly every listening session? Maybe committed purists should just be committed.
Editor's Note from 1992: This seminal J. Gordon Holt essay on how the art of recording natural sound became compromised in favor of unmusical artificiality for good commercial reasons was originally published in August 1964, in Vol.1 No.8. Though most people these days listen to classical music from CDs, not LPs, in the intervening decades, recording technology has not changed for the better as much as one might have hoped. Nevertheless, the days of wretched multimiking excess described by Gordon are past, and it's rare to find the music treated with the lack of respect typical of a mid-'60s Columbia session. Although some of the smaller companiesReference Recordings, Delos, Chesky, Mapleshade, Dorian, and Sheffield Lab in the US; Meridian, Nimbus, and Hyperion in the UKconsistently use honest, minimal miking, it is not unknown for the majors in the '90s to do likewise. And the use of time delay for spot microphones, pioneered by Denon in the mid-'80s, means that instruments that might tend to become obscured at orchestral climaxes can now be brought up in level without unnaturally time-smearing the sound. I still find it sad, however, that it is rare to hear the sheer dynamic range of a live ensemble successfully captured on a commercial recording.John Atkinson