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.
It was a powder blue Pinto. Brand new, it drove like a bowl of Jello with wheels. No matter how firmly I gripped the steering wheel, I had no confidence that it had any kind of relationship with the wheels on the road. And pickup? There was none. But because its designers had sacrificed all quality to build it cheaply, the Ford Pinto was equally cheap to rent when I did so back in 1980.
It was the subhead that caught my eye: "Today's super-rich just don't seem interested in $300,000 stereos." Clunky writing, sure. But at least it gave some idea of what the next 2000 words were about, and spared the pain of having to read further.
Nicholas Negroponte, Professor of Media Technology at MIT's Media Lab, is somewhat of a hero of mine, not the least because in his 1995 book Being Digital (Alfred A. Knopf), he mentioned specialty magazines as being a paradigm (of a sort) for the information-rich future. The role of a magazine such as Stereophile is to act as an intelligent (we hope) filter applied to the breadth and depth of human activity. Those who define themselves by their interest in the publication's specialty can therefore go to just one source to find everything of relevance.
It's the voice that grabs you first, balanced preternaturally high in the mix. As the singer effortlessly projects the vocal line, imperceptibly grabbing breath without disturbing the long, meandering melody, you can't help but realize what a superb instrument she had. As the song's harmonies modulate their way to the dominant, the bass guitar stubbornly sticks to the tonic so that what would otherwise be a conventional chord progression is transformed into a yearning series of suspensions echoing the lyric's despair. As guitarist Tony Peluso hammers down on his power solo, his instrument so fuzzed and compressed that the very plectrum strokes are thrown forward as disconnected transients, it becomes evident that there are layers upon layers to the backing vocals, each carefully placed upon the others by a master orchestrator, each appropriately filling in the gaps in the harmonies without turning the mix to glutinous syrup.
I was watching Mr. Holland's Opus on the tube the other day and was surprised to find myself teary-eyed, even though the film lost me by subjecting me to Michael Kamen's atrocious "symphony" in the finale. Why had I become all choked up? Because I had a Mr. Holland of my own.
"What the heck is that icon trying to tell me?" I had switched on Denon's new DVD-3000 player—a cute "Welcome to DVD World" message scrolled across its display—and put a disc in its drawer. The icon, which looked at best like a Japanese character and at worst like a child's drawing of a house (complete with windows), was lit up in light blue on the display. But the game was given away by the magic words "96kHz 24 bit" illuminated in red below the mysterious icon. For this was no DVD movie, but a test pressing of Chesky's new Super Audio Disc, The Super Audio Collection & Professional Test Disc, which makes use of the DVD-Video specification's provision for including a two-channel, linear-PCM signal encoded with a 96kHz sampling rate and a word depth of up to 24 bits. (Contrary to what you may have read in the popular press, using DVD-Video to carry high-definition sound quality does not introduce a new and incompatible standard.)
I don't know how many of you buy disposable diapers, but while Harry (now 6) and Emily (now 5) were still toddlers, diapers played a large role in my life. I can still remember my panic when I first saw the miles of drugstore shelves devoted to Pampers and Huggies—not just large, medium, and small, but such a variety that it could almost have been possible that each child had a diaper tailored for him or her. I'm sure that even the weirdly shaped backside of Tommy Pickles could have been securely wrapped.
It's a beautiful drive, considering you're on a freeway. You take I-25 north out of Albuquerque, Sandia Peak to your right and the Jemez Caldera and Mount Taylor dimly visible in the distance to your left. As you broach La Bajada hill south of Santa Fe, the Sangre de Cristo range—the "Blood of Christ Mountains" described by Paul Simon in "Hearts & Bones"—appears before your windshield. You take the Old Pecos Trail exit to the City Different, but before you reach town you bear to the left, then take another left opposite St. Vincent Hospital. There, in a cul-de-sac, you peer up at the street sign: "Stereophile Way," it says (footnote 1). "Not just a street, but a philosophy," I kidded Larry Archibald when the city told him that he could name the road where the magazine's headquarters would one day be situated.
"One of the worst-kept secrets in audio engineering is that what we hear does not always correlate with what we measure." So wrote the late Richard Heyser 30 years ago, as quoted in Time Delay Spectrometry, a 1987 anthology of his writings (footnote 1). What do we hear? Music heard live consists of a sound pressure that changes according to the logical demands of two things that have no physical reality: the way in which music is structured in time and pitch, and how that structure is ordered by the composer/musician. Heyser, one of the most perceptive audio engineers I've had the privilege to meet, repeatedly emphasized in his essays and papers that the reproduction of music is a multidimensional event.
"Do you have another DVD player?" asked Classic Records' Michael Hobson. As is usual in important demonstrations, Murphy's Law had struck with a vengeance. The prototype Muse DVD player Kevin Halverson had worked on most of the previous night was refusing to play the DVD Mike had placed in its tray.