There's an old Woody Allen bit about his mother running the family's food through a "deflavorizing machine" a couple of times, just to make sure dinner was completely tasteless. Well, that's what a lot of contemporary music sounds like to me. Booker T. Jones's recent album The Road from Memphis has some great tunes, but the sound of the album pales in comparison with his seriously funky work with Booker T. & the MG's in the 1960s. It's not just that the new CD is maximally compressed and processed to a fare-thee-wellit's a totally lifeless recording. But this isn't just another analog vs digital diatribe. The problems have little to do with the recording format; it's the way recordings are now made. Too many are assembled out of bits and pieces of sound to create technically perfect, Auto-Tuned, Pro Tooled music. It's not that great music can't be made that way, but it's sure as hell less likely to get my mojo workin'.
Children, for the most part, are normal human beings who like to make believe that they're extraordinary, just for fun. Adults, on the other hand, are delusional creatures who enjoy pretending that they're normal, simply for their own peace of mind.
You know about them: audio products or tweaks that fall outside the standard definition of audio component. They're not source components like CD players, not amplifiers or preamplifiers, not loudspeakers, not power-line conditioners or cablesand, if aimed at modifying room acoustics, they're not the standard devices that absorb or disperse sound. Let's call them Unorthodox Audio Products (UAPs). They promise a kind of audio panacea: something that fixes whatever's wrong with the sound of your system.
On this page in the May 2011 issue of Stereophile, Steve Guttenberg became the latest in a long line of prophets of doom who periodically announce that jazz is deceased. Guttenberg argued that "Digital audio mortally wounded recorded music's creative mojo in 1982" and was "stifling creativity in rock and jazz."
I bring glad tidings to Stereophile readers. When it comes to jazz, Guttenberg is dead wrong. The jazz art form today is rich, diverse, deep, and international.
My "As We See It" in the July 2011 issue seems to have touched a nerve. At the AXPONA NYC audio show last June, more than one person stopped me in a corridor to take issue with what they thought I'd written.
That column certainly brought the Beethoven worshippers out of the woodwork. Look, I revere Beethoven, and I stand by what I wrote in the July issue: There can be little doubt, in terms of his impact on the course that Western music would follow, that Beethoven was the most important composer. But "most important" in terms of music history is not the same thing as the composer whose works most deeply touch my heart. For that, Beethoven is just not in my Top Five.
When I was a young music lover, I'd often listen to Simon and Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme LP, specifically the song "Scarborough Fair/Canticle."
Are you goin' to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
Remember me to one who lives there,
She once was a true love of mine.
That memory came back during the e-mail exchanges I had with John Atkinson and Stephen Mejias about the positives and negatives of the proliferation of regional audio shows. (JA's reflections on these shows were the subject of last month's "As We See It.")
A recent e-mail from a reader asked why we list the recordings and systems used by Stereophile writers in their reviews. I responded that we do so in order that readers can place our value judgments in context, and predict how those products might sound with different ancillaries and recordings when they audition the products reviewed at their local high-end audio retailer.
I was fortunate enough to be raised in an environment where music of many kinds was played often. I lived with my mother in small apartments in Washington, DC, in the 1960s and '70, and most of the time, music was playing. Chopin, Wagner, Beethoven, Coltrane, Miles, Sonny Rollins, Streisand, Baez, Dylan, Miriam Makebaeven the Doors, Hendrix, and Janis Joplin.
When people feel passionately about somethingwhether books, golf, auto racing, dog breeding, or musicthere is an understandable impulse to create rankings, hierarchies, and lists. Such lists can be helpful. I am quite likely to read someone's list of The 100 Most Important Jazz Recordings, or of The 100 Greatest Novels in the English Language. Engaging with such rankings and lists has several benefits. First, we all like to see our prejudices validated. When I discover that someone else is also a fan of Ralph Vaughan Williams's An Oxford Elegy, or of Herbert Howells's Master Tallis's Testament, I feel a warm glow of kinship, and feel that my respect for that person reflects well on me. (We are all human, after all.)
"Blondy watched this proud, drum-tight personality fidget past him on the street and began projecting; he couldn't help it: an unfinished degree in journalism, concerned married sisters in New Jersey or Connecticut (but probably New Jersey), weights but no cardio, aggrieved blind dates, Cigar Aficionado and Stereophile, takeout menus, acres of porn."
from "Lucky Alan," by Jonathan Lethem; The New Yorker, March 19, 2007
When did being interested in hi-fi lose its cool? When did it become antisocial? One minute hi-fi was hanging with Hef center-stage in a groovy bachelor pad, and the next thing you know it's a prop used to describe someone who "walked in a fiery aura of loneliness," as Lethem described it. I ask because I'm genuinely concerned. Some of my best friends are audiophiles. But it seems that if you want to be anything related to music, the last thing you want to be is an audiophile.
It's one of those good news/bad news stories: more people are listening to music than ever before, but the major record labels are in dire straits. Some of the reasons for the record industry's malaise are easy to spotteenagers and grandmas grooving to music-streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and MOG, or ripping each other's CDsbut the music industry's problems run deeper than lost sales. Digital audio mortally wounded recorded music's creative mojo in 1982, and the record industry never fully recovered.
On January 5, 2011, I was flying to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show (footnote 1). On January 5, 1914, Henry Ford announced that he would pay a minimum of $5 to eligible employees who worked an eight-hour day. (At that time, a good wage was $2.50 for a workday of 10 hours.) Ford was not being altruistic; he wanted to motivate his employees both to become more productive and to stay loyal to their employer. And there were strings attached: A Ford employee "must show himself to be sober, saving, steady, industrious and must satisfy . . . staff that his money will not be wasted in riotous living." But Ford also wanted his workers to be able to afford the products they made. It was Ford's action, I believe, that triggered the rise of the American middle class, and it was that middle class's combination of disposable income and increased leisure time that fueled the growth of high-end audio.
For a field based on science, high-end audio has a relationship with its parent discipline that is regrettably complex. Even as they enjoy science's technological fruits, many audiophiles reject the very methodsscientific testingthat made possible audio in the home. That seems strange to me.
I began writing these words on December 1, 2010, 13 years to the day that the magazine's website, www.stereophile.com, emerged from the digital darkness. That first, 1997 edition of our website was to a large extent the brainchild of one man, webmonkey Jon Iverson, who ever since has overseen its design and growth.
There's something happening here, and what it is is exactly clear. It's a revolution of sortsa new paradigm for the High End. Despite pessimistic proclamations of the impending death of high-end audio, an unprecedented number of new high-end consumer shows have emerged in North America. Filling the gap left by the demise of Stereophile's Home Entertainment Show in 2007, these seven (!) showstwo new in 2011, two in expanded versions following successful launches in 2010are reaching out to people of all ages, sexes, and format preferences.