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
It's not often that you get a chance to have extensive discussions with the horse's mouth, but we recently had that opportunity. Since July of this year there has been extensive discussion in the audio community, particularly the high-end segment, of Larry Greenhill's article on speaker cable listening tests in the August, 1983 issue of Stereo Review (footnote 1). From recent talks with author Greenhill we've learned that the most interesting story was not in Stereo Review; instead it can be found in the varying reactions from different quarters, and what they say about the high-end industry in general.
"Turntable Wars" was the phrase used by Anthony H. Cordesman to head his review of the Oracle, SOTA, and VPI turntables in Vol.9 No.4. To judge from the reaction of the manufacturers at CES to this innocent phraseology, you would have thought that Stereophile had been warmongering, rather than publishing what were actually pretty positive opinions of the products concerned. So enraged was Jacques Riendeau of Oracle, and concerned that the record be put straight, that he insisted on a "right to reply" to AHC's review; as it happened, Ivor Tiefenbrun and Charlie Brennan of Linn (right in photograph, footnote 1), and SOTA's Rodney Herman (center in photo, footnote 2), also wanted to contribute to the debate, so a small crowd of illuminati gathered in Room 417 of the Americana Congress to commit opinions to tape. I held the microphone and clicked the shutter; Larry Archibald (left in photo) was there to lend the proceedings a businesslike air.
Ask most professional symphony musicians for their views concerning recording sessions, and you might be greeted with seemingly nonchalant and cavalier responses. You will probably be told that although recording can be quite lucrative, it is almost always an exercise in futility. If you press further, and inquire as to why these "artists" display such negative attitudes, they would treat you to both a lecture concerning the shortcomings and gross musical distortions usually involved in the recording process, and to a tirade on the incompetence and arrogance of many recording engineers and producers. And once you have opened this can of worms, you will undoubtedly be told about the frustrations of having to deal with inaccurate and distorted representations of their art at the hands of the musically inept.
The Question of Bass: J. Gordon Holt A few issues back, in Vol.9 No.3, I used "As We See It" to clarify what Stereophile writers have in mind when they use the term "transparency" in equipment reports. This time, I'll do the same thing for the performance parameters of bass reproduction.
"Time to write another equipment report," thought the Great Reviewer, aware that the IRS would soon require another small donation to keep the country running on track. Deftly donning his Tom Wolfe vanilla suit, he sat at the antique desk acquired on one of his many all-expenses-paid research trips to Europe, patted the bust of H.L. Mencken that invariably stood by the word processor, ensured that his level of gonzo awareness was up to par, arranged his prejudices and biases in descending order of importance, checked that the requisite check was in the mail, coined a sufficient number of Maileresque factoids appropriate to the occasion, and dashed off 3000 words of pungently witty, passionately argued, convincingly objective, and deeply felt prose.
One day last year, my friend Larry and I were talking about our college-fraternity days and loudspeakers. Those were four of the best years of my life. Strong friendships were formed, and ever since, we've kept in touch with most of our fraternity's brothers-in-heart. Ours was not a jock house, nor was it the last bastion of rampant male sexuality—it was, after all, an MIT frat house. But it was full of music lovers who fell neatly into three camps: the California School owned JBL Decades, the New England School had Smaller Advents, and the Renegades boasted bootlegged Bose 901s (footnote 1).
Editor's Note: Those of us who cut our engineering teeth on tubes still remember the advent of the solid-state amplifier with mixed feelings. Yes, they were lighter and cheaper per watt than the thermionic hulks we loved so much, but they broke all the time (thanks to the germanium transistor) and sounded like—well, let J. Gordon Holt tell us what they sounded like in an "As We See It" article from Vol.1 No.10, first published in May 1965. We also develop the theme with a JGH review of an early transistorized amp, as well as a selection of readers' letters from the early days of Stereophile. Enjoy.—John Atkinson
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.
This issue contains a report on a truly ingenious little device called the ABX Comparator, which takes the fraud out of subjective testing. It does this by making its own selection of source A or source B for each listening trial, without telling you which was selected. Only after all the tests will it reveal what you were listening to each time. "Score" sheets are provided so you can list your guesses, compare them with the cold, uncompromising truth, and file the results for posterity. Or better still, for the first hard evidence that has ever been presented that a lot of people can hear differences that cannot as yet be measured.
Lars recently received a device that looks and works like a $25 digital alarm clock and is said to subtly improve the overall sound of one's system. It's the ElectroTec EP-C, from a company called Coherence Industries.
Stereophile: You are president of Esoteric Audio Research, a British manufacturer of tube amplifiers, and a world-renowned designer of tube equipment and output transformers. I thought we'd begin with a little background. Where were you born? What kind of education did you get to prepare you for a career in audio?
While the LP-vs-CD debate continues unabated among high-end audiophiles, the rest of the world has already closed the book on the venerable LP. All but a few specialized classical record companies (footnote 1)(and some weird magazines) have ceased releasing new LPs, few record stores sell them any more, and consumers who wouldn't be caught dead owning something that wasn't trendy have long ago dumped their LP collections for cents on the pound.
Few people in the audio business would deny that John Curl is an audio design genius—arguably the greatest one of our generation. He designed and built the electronics for Mobile Fidelity's SuperMaster and David Wilson's (of Wilson Audio) UltraMaster tape recorders, two of the three best analog recorders in the world. (The other is Keith Johnson's home-brew unit.) He designed the JC-1 head amp and JC-2 preamplifier sold under the Mark Levinson name some years ago. He designed head amps for SOTA, Michaelson & Austin (TVA), and has done consulting work for more high-end companies than you can shake a stick at.
One of the nicest features of the High End is its diversity. Regardless of whatever trend is fashionable, there will always be manufacturers to buck it, and sell alternative concepts and sounds. VMPS is just such a case. With few exceptions, the recent trend in speaker systems has been toward small-to-medium-sized "monitors" with good imaging and high resolution, but limited bass and dynamics (footnote 1). The VMPS SuperTowers provide the former, but buck the trend by adding reproduction of the deepest bass and outstanding full-range dynamics.