Editor's Note: In 1985 and 1986, an argumentative thread ran through Stereophile's pages, discussing the benefits or lack of double-blind testing methods in audio component reviewing, triggered by J. Gordon Holt's review of the ABX Comparator. As this debate is still raging nearly 15 years later, we present here the entire discussion that bounced back and forth between the magazine's "Letters" section and features articles. It was kicked off by a letter from C.J. Huss that appeared in Vol.8 No.5.—John Atkinson
As January 1, 2000 approaches, and the MP3 whirlpool continues to swirl, one simple fact has made me feel as if I'm stuck at the starting line of the entire download controversy: The sound quality of MP3 has yet to improve above that of the average radio broadcast. Until that changes, I'm merely curious—as opposed to being in the I-want-to-know-it-all-now frenzy that is my usual m.o. when to comes to anything that promises music you can't get anywhere else.
John Atkinson, you were right the first time ("Letters," Stereophile, December 1997, p.17, footnote 1): Jeremy Bentham is, indeed, the famous English philosopher and legal theorist whose mummified remains are preserved at the University of London. Sitting in a large glass display case, Bentham has been holding court since his death in 1832. As you noted, Bentham looks deceptively like a waxwork. But this is because his head, in fact, is made of wax. The original, rumor has it, suffered through one very macabre rugby game played long ago by mischievous students.
The "Want to make an easy $1,000,000?" e-mail wasn't a scam from Nigeria but an alert from Paul DiComo, late of Polk Audio and now of Definitive Technology, about a double-blind cable-identification challenge made by The Annoying Randi, a magician and debunker of paranormal events who goes by the name of "The Amazing Randi."
Alright already, quit shoving. I know I don't belong here. This magazine already has a place for manufacturers---in the back, where those large egos are squeezed into small column inches so they can't hurt you. Not that I'm exactly proud of my job. On social occasions, if pressed as to my profession, I will usually admit to some honest toil such as mortician or hodcarrier. Speaker design is downright devious work. As proof, examine the specifications for the 1376 models in Audio's 1988 equipment directory. Much of this data, when compared with each described system's real-world performance, looks like Joe Isuzu wrote it on a bad day.
In debates about audio, philosophy, literature, fine art, or whatever, people often adhere to either absolutism or relativism. Absolutism supposes, for example, that either analog or digital is superior and that whichever is better holds for all parties concerned. Michael Fremer, for instance, is not just advertising his opinion about the superiority of analog; he believes that everyone would acknowledge it if they paid attention to the evidence. Relativism, on the other hand, teaches that no such absolute and univocal consensus can be reached. In the end, we all have our own subjective preferences, and that, quite simply, is that. If we disagree about whether tube amps are better than solid-state, or single-ended is better than push-pull, c'est la vie.
Here in Chicago the other day, I was on my way to an appliance store, so audio was the last thing on my mind. But, as if by some miraculous intervention (or just stupidity), I parked and went in the wrong store: "Why does this appliance store have bins and bins of CDs in it?" Realizing my mistake, I found the stoves and ranges I was looking for next door—but not before noticing bins and bins of used LPs behind all those CDs.
There are all sorts of ways of having fun, and just as many ways of spending money. Most of the time, spending money is necessary to have fun; whether it's going to a movie, having dinner out, scrapbooking, playing video games, whatevernothin's free.
Editor's Introduction: Stereophile's "Recommended Components" feature is, as I am sure you will have guessed, produced by a committee. The reviews are studied, the reviewers polled to verify the continued validity, the merits and demerits of specific pieces of equipment are discussed or, rather, argued over at length by JGH, JA, and LA, and out of the whole business emerges the "truth." But, as with the findings of any committee, what is presented as a consensus will have significant undertows and countercurrents of opinion; if these are very strong, a "Minority Report" is often also produced. Such has been the case this time, concerning loudspeakers.
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..."