Since 1992, Stereophile has recognized components that have proved capable of giving musical pleasure beyond the formal review period by naming its "Products of the Year." These are the components that can be recommended without any ifs or buts, that will grace any system in which they used.
The science of recording music is, to apply a metaphor from a very different context, akin to "breaking a butterfly on a wheel" (footnote 1). The art of recording is to make it appear as though that pinned insect could still take wing. I have been devoted to both the science and the art of recording music since 1965, when I was given a Grundig ¼" open-reel tape recorder as a birthday present. You could even say that my evolving interest in audio and my current position at the helm of Stereophile date back to my finding out how different a Shure SM57 dynamic cardioid microphone sounded from a Reslo Ribbon, even in mono, even at 3¾ips, when captured on that Grundig.
And I used to think our annual "Records To Die For" issue was difficult. Whew! When it came down to choosing the 40 most influential rock/pop, jazz, and classical records of the past 40 years, during which this magazine has been the most honest and enjoyable source of high-end audio journalism, my initial list contained more than 200 choices. A painful paring-down process ensued, with input from every member of the Stereophile staff.
"Most important." That was the phrase I used when I e-mailed the members of Stereophile's extended family of reviewers and writers to ask for suggestions when I began to compile this list. I didn't want to be more specific because I wanted to cast the net as wide as possible. But there are many factors that make an audio component "important": design innovation, sound quality, sales figures, influence on other designers, influence on the evolving market, influence on system synergy.
We all know that women generally have better hearing than men and enjoy music at least as much as men do, but women are conspicuously absent from every segment of the high-end audio scene. The vast majority of high-end companies are owned by men, and any head count of female designers, retailers, reviewers, or consumers will yield a pitifully small number. High-end audio is a man's, man's, man's world.
It's the grain elevators that break the monotony of driving across the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandle. As you pass one, another one appears on the horizon. Thus you know you're making progress, despite the fact that the landscape remains unchanged.
There's one phrase a Ferrari dealer never hears from a potential customer: "Ferrari? What's a Ferrari?" Marques such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati are so embedded in mainstream culture that their dealers never have to introduce an unfamiliar but exorbitantly expensive set of wheels to their prospects.
A true story: I got tagged for doing a howling 90mph on the way back to New York on the Jersey Turnpike late one night and got off with a warning.
I was pulled over by a beefy young Trooper, lights blinking furiously. Oops. [heh heh]. He saw Kathleen and I weren't nuts, checked the papers and my license, then checked out the Lexus very carefully with his flashlight. There was much oohing and ahhing.
In his very English way, Sony's then managing director for the UK, Tim Steele, was getting a touch, er, desperate. His oh-so-cultured voice rose a smidgen as he resorted to a direct selling of the benefits of what he was talking about. "Look, you're all sitting on riches," was his fundamental pitch. "You can sell music-lovers your entire back catalog all over again—at a higher price!"
Although Philips invented the Compact Disc, it was only when Sony got involved in the early 1980s that it was decided—at the prompting of conductor Herbert von Karajan, a close friend of Sony's then-president Akio Morita—that the CD should have a long enough playing time to fit Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on a single disc (footnote 1). Even if the conductor was using very slow tempos, and even given the minimum pit size and track pitch printable at the time, the 16-bit data and 44.1kHz sampling rate they settled on gave them a little margin.