For a while, I've been hearing rumors that the record-club editions of popular compact discs differ from the original versions produced by the record companies. I've met listeners who claim their club versions are compressed in dynamics, and some have reduced bass. Perhaps the clubs, in their infinite wisdom, think the typical member has a lower-class stereo system (in fact, the opposite may be true). Maybe these lower classes could benefit from some judicious dynamic compression, equalization, and digital remastering.
"What's that noise?" Bob Harley and I looked at each other in puzzlement. We thought we'd debugged the heck out of the recording setup, but there, audible in the headphones above the sound of Robert Silverman softly stroking the piano keys in the second Scherzo of Schumann's "Concerto Without Orchestra" sonata, was an intermittent crackling sound. It was almost as if the God of Vinyl was making sure there would be sufficient surface noise on our live recording to endow it with the Official Seal of Audiophile Approval. Bob tiptoed out of the vestry where we'd set up our temporary control room and peeked through a window into the church, where a rapt audience was sitting as appropriately quiet as church mice.
If you read much promotional literature for recently introduced high-quality equipment, you'll notice a common theme emerging: balanced connection. Balanced inputs and outputs are becoming a must for any audio equipment that has any claim to quality. The word itself has promotional value, suggesting moral superiority over the long-established "unbalanced" connection (for the purpose of this discussion, I will call this "normal"). What's my problem with this? Simply this: The High End could be paying dangerous, costly lip service to the received wisdom that balanced operation is the goal for an audio system.
High-end audiophiles are space freaks---we relish the warmth and spaciousness of a fine, old performing hall almost as much as we do the music recorded in it. But my attendance at a series of orchestral concerts held last summer brought home to me---as never before---the sad fact that our search for the ultimate soundstage is doomed to failure: we're trying to reproduce three-dimensional space from a two-dimensional system, and it simply can't be done.
Editor's note: When Jonathan Scull reviewed the Shun Mook devices back in 1994, he unleashed a hailstorm of controversy that continues to this day. Below is his original report along with some of the follow-up articles and fallout.
Slowly, painfully, high-end audio seems to be dying. We all know it but we're apparently unable to resuscitate the patient. US dealers are closing at alarming ratesit must be the economy. Women continue to avoid the High Endit must be the technobabble combined with male equipment fetishism. Younger people aren't hopping aboardit must be all those other things competing for their money. (Then again, it might be the High End's abhorrence of rock'n'roll.)
Not that long ago, digital audio was considered perfect if all the bits could be stored and retrieved without data errors. If the data coming off the disc were the same as what went on the disc, how could there be a sound-quality difference with the same digital/analog converter? This "bits is bits" mentality scoffs at sonic differences between CD transports, digital interfaces, and CD tweaks. Because none of these products or devices affects the pattern of ones and zeros recovered from the disc, any differences must be purely in the listener's imagination. After all, they argued, a copy of a computer program runs just as well as the original.
"Equipment Reports," "Record Reviews," "Letters," "Industry Update," "Sam's Space," "As We See It," "The Final Word"---I read and enjoy them all. But the section of Stereophile I especially look forward to reading is "Manufacturers' Comments." How is the manufacturer going to respond to a review that's considerably less than 100% positive? Can they take criticism gracefully, or do they have an attitude? If I were a consumer considering purchase of one of their products, would their comments convince me that they'd be a good company to deal with? Are they uptight beyond reason, or do they have a sense of humor? Can they respond to a positive review without gloating?
Someday we may speak wistfully to our grandchildren about the "golden age" of digital audio when consumer formats (CD and DAT) contained a bitstream that was an exact bit-for-bit duplicate of the original studio master recording—not a digitally compressed, filtered, copy-resistant version whose sound is "close enough" to the original. Digitally compressed formats such as DCC and MiniDisc represent, in effect, a return to the pre-CD era when consumer-release formats were always understood to be imperfect copies of the studio original. Even the most ardent audiophile accepted the fact that LPs and mass-produced tapes did not, and could not, sound as good as the master tapes they were derived from.
One of the great imponderables in hi-fi is how much the vibrations of a dynamic loudspeaker's cabinet walls contribute to its overall sound quality. Studies by William Stevens in the mid-1970s showed that, with some speakers, the acoustic output of the enclosure could be almost as much as that from the drive-units. Since then, responsible speaker designers have worked hard either to damp cabinet vibrations or to shift them to higher frequencies where their effect on the music will be less deleterious.
Back in the Spring of 1990, Stereophile introduced its first Test CD. Featuring a mixture of test signals and musical tracks recorded by the magazine's editors and writers, it sold in large numbers—around 50,000 had been produced at last count. Even as we were working on that first disc, however, we had plans to produce a second disc that would expand on the usefulness of the first and feature a more varied selection of music. The result is our Test CD 2, introduced this month for just $7.95 plus postage and handling. With a playing time of over 74 minutes, the new disc should prove an invaluable tool to help audiophiles optimally set up their systems and rooms by ear—and the music's pretty good, too!—John Atkinson
Editor's Note: This article is now only available as an Audio Engineering Society preprint, under the title "The Role of Critical Listening in Evaluating Audio Equipment Quality," preprint number 3176. The price is $4.00 for AES members, and $5.00 for non-members; it can be ordered (currently on paper only, not as a downloadable pdf) by entering the number in the appropriate field on the preprint search page at the AES website.
Every summer, I invite a representative sample of Stereophile's equipment reviewers to the magazine's Santa Fe HQ. For the third successive year, I decided to tape some of the free-for-all discussion that takes place and offer readers the opportunity of peeking over the participants' shoulders by publishing a tidied-up version of the transcript.
The most important change made to the system was one that held up the writing of my review of the Mark Levinson No.23.5 power amplifier for several months, such was its anticipated impact. Though my listening room is well-equipped with wall sockets, there are actually only two 15A circuits serving these outlets. Ever since I had converted what had hitherto been our house's master bedroom into my listening room, I had intended to run new circuits to it.