Does high-end audio have a future? High-end audio most definitely does have a future. So do the Latin mass, chess, leather-bound books, and wooden boats. But the future will not be like the past, and I think we must face the fact that high-end audio's future, both for hardware and software, will be as a minority enthusiasm. We should plan and act accordingly.
I've recently been rereading Mark Lane's and Donald Freed's 1970s screenplay cum novel, Executive Action, which develops the theory that John F. Kennedy was assassinated by a conspiracy between organized crime, expatriate Cuban Batistists, and Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex." Long predating Oliver Stone's JFK, the book is fascinating, convincing stuff, from authors who had done considerable research into what really happened in November 1963. But, like all conspiracy theories, it falls down on the hard rock of reality: the more people and organizations are involved in a conspiracy, the less likelihood there is of anything happening at all, let alone going according to plan.
The January 2000 issue of Stereophile is actually the last to be published in 1999, so, at the risk of adding to your millennial fatigue (footnote 1), it is appropriate to devote much of this month's magazine to navel-gazing. Robert Baird, Chip Stern, David Patrick Stearns, and Larry Birnbaum examine the state of recorded music, while in the first of two articles, Markus Sauer questions the beliefs that underpin the audiophile world. And this "As We See It" offers an overview of what used to be called "high fidelity."
One of the delights of being published by a multinational conglomerate that grows through acquisition, as Emap Petersen does, is that Stereophile finds itself in interesting company. Like La Nouvelle Revue du Son in France, for example, edited by the legendary Jean Hiraga, who turned me on to the sonic importance of wires and passive components almost 25 years ago. And Mojo, an English music magazine tightly targeted on baby boomers like me, who bought their first stereo systems in the '60s to better appreciate the progressive rock we lived and loved by. (I wonder if turn-of-the-millennium college students gather 'round a new G4 Mac to get off on MP3s the way, 30 years ago, we gathered 'round our precious vinyl.)
Successful new prerecorded audio media emerge, on average, every two decades—one human generation. The LP made its debut in 1948, 21 years after the introduction of electrical recording ended the adolescence of the record industry and the acoustic 78rpm disc. This was almost coincidental with Jack Mullin's retrieval of analog tape technology from the wreckage of post-WWII Germany and its subsequent commercialization by Bing Crosby's Ampex company (footnote 1). The compact cassette made its appearance in 1963, followed almost 20 years later by the CD, in 1982. And now, as I mentioned in the October issue's "As We See It," we have Sony and Philips' Super Audio CD and the DVD Forum's DVD-Audio to contend with (not forgetting MP3 and the Internet).
Someone once said that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. Well, this month, we will see not one but two better mousetraps, in the form of Sony's and Philips' Super Audio CD and the DVD Forum's DVD-Audio. Both are intended to replace the humble CD, now in its seventeenth year; both offer higher-resolution digital audio; and both offer multiple channels. To accompany SACD, Sony's $5000 SCD-1 two-channel player is now on sale (and will be reviewed in the November Stereophile), while Panasonic has announced October sale dates for two DVD-A players, the $1000 Panasonic DVD-A7 and the $1200 Technics DVD-A10.
The audiophile in the plaid shirt and gray Dockers had his hand up. Moderator Jonathan Scull handed him the roving microphone, and the Stereophile writers on the podium at HI-FI '99's Sunday afternoon "Ask the Editors" session shifted in their chairs. "This one's for John Atkinson," came the windup. The other writers relaxed; I started to sweat. Then the pitch: "How come Stereophile issues are so small these days?"
Audiophiles have a mess on their hands. In a somewhat surreal press conference in May, a half dozen audio luminaries—representing Sony, Philips, and several titans of the high-end recording business—stood on a HI-FI '99 stage looking awkwardly at the audience.
It was the road signs alongside I-44 that first caught my attention, each with its twin supports neatly snapped halfway up. Then I saw the outlet center east of Oklahoma City, smashed flat as if struck by the mother of all baseball bats swung by a careless god.
Just what is the absolute sound, and how do you get there from here? What the heck are we looking for as we endure the mirth of others while purposefully setting up our high-end systems? Is it, indeed, the sanctified sound of acoustic instruments in real space? Can we ever really achieve that? Or is it the accurate realization of the signal on the master tape? Or—as was recently suggested at the New York Noise single-ended lovefest, covered in this issue's "Industry Update"—are some of us looking for the emotion and the artist's intent?
The night after we got home from the 1999 Consumer Electronics Show in January—see the report in this issue—my dear companion and I attended a performance of Madama Butterfly at San Francisco's beautifully refurbished War Memorial Opera House. It was a Tuesday evening, traditionally a big event for the Opera's benefactors. From our box seats, we had an excellent view of a production musically sumptuous and visually austere—and of a sea of gray and balding heads.
The March 1999 issue of Stereophile is my last as the magazine's Equipment Reports Editor. I have accepted a job elsewhere in the industry, and, as a public relations consultant, will be actively promoting this wonderful hobby of ours in a different capacity.
It was the weirdest orchestral balance I'd ever heard. The gentle woodwind chords that begin Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream were as loud as the climactic "Wedding March" that ends the piece. The radio broadcast was obviously being compressed to hell. Yet, sitting at the wheel of the rented Vauxhall Vectra I was driving down to Cornwall for an old friend's surprise 50th birthday party, I was actually glad for the compression. Had Classic FM broadcast the Mendelssohn with its true dynamic range intact, the quiet passages would have been irretrievably buried in the road noise and the loud passages would have had me lunging for the volume control, to the possible danger of those sharing England's congested A303 trunk road with me.
One reason I have never felt the need to invest in a high-end home-theater system is that it is all too easy for me to go 'round to Tom Norton's house. As well as contributing the amplifier measurements and the all-too-rare component review for Stereophile, Tom is technical editor of our companion book, Stereophile Guide to Home Theater (footnote 1). As you might expect, he has access to video equipment that the rest of us can only dream about.