When I first started buying records at the end of the 1950s, I had this vision of the typical recording engineer: A sound wizard wearing a white lab coat rather than a cloak festooned with Zodiacal symbols. He (it was always a "he," of course) would spare no effort, no expense to create a disc (LPs and 45s were all we had) that offered the highest possible sound quality. At that time I also believed that Elvis going into the Army meant the end of rock'n'roll, that my teachers knew everything, that politicians were honest, that socialism was the best form of government, and that talent and hard work were all you needed to be a success. Those ideas crashed and burned as I grew up, of course, but other than the long-discarded white coats, each new record I bought strengthened rather than weakened my image of the recording engineer.
Please let me explain. Because I've never been especially adept at making lifelong commitments and irrevocable decisions, when it came to naming this new column, Managing Editor Debbie Starr and I decided that we would gather the passionate (and supremely efficient) minds of the Stereophile production staff, add a near–life-threatening amount of margaritas, and put the question to them.
"If the midrange isn't right, nothing else matters." StereophilefounderJ. Gordon Holt's decades-old observation of the musical importance of the midrange has become a truism cast in stone. Gordon's other famous observation, "The better the sound, the worse the measurements," was made only partially in jest.
You would have thought the hardware companies who trumpeted at the January 2006 Consumer Electronics Show that their video DVD players would be in US retailers' showrooms by September 1996 would have learned an important lesson from the bungled DAT launch almost 10 years ago: Without first getting complete agreement of the software industry on substantive issues, it's foolish to announce a firm launch date for a new medium. September came and went without DVD discs or players being available in US stores. In fact, all that happened was that the bottom fell out of sales of 12" laserdiscs and laserdisc players.
As Stereophile's Equipment Reports Editor, I get a lot of calls from readers asking how we choose the gear we review, and from manufacturers asking how to get their products reviewed. So I told JA to take the month off from writing this column so that I could talk about Stereophile's Equipment Reports section.
In recent months, Stereophile's "Letters" column has been filled with complaints about the equipment we choose to review. "Too rich for my pocketbook" is the universal sentiment. This puzzles me, considering that Stereophile does review many "affordable" components. In part, I think this reaction is due to the high profile invariably associated with very expensive gear. Although we did put both speakers on our cover, one review of a Wilson Grand SLAMM or a JMlab Grand Utopia seems to outweigh 10 reviews of more realistically priced products. Our writers love to cover the cutting edge of audio—witness Martin Colloms's report from HI-FI '96 in this issue—because progress is more easily made when a designer is freed from budget constraints. But without the Grand SLAMM or Utopia, would Wilson have been able to produce the $9000/pair WITT, or JMlab the $900/pair Micron Carat, to name two high-value, high-performance designs recently reviewed in the magazine?
The announcement in October 1995 of the Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) set the hearts of audiophiles and music lovers pounding. Although primarily a digital video and computer-data storage format, DVD's massive capacity could be applied to a "super CD" audio-only disc. Finally we would be liberated from the musical limitations of the CD's 16-bit word length, 44.1kHz sampling rate, and two-channel format. We were tantalized by reports of 96kHz sampling rate, 24-bit word length, and multichannel playback. Digital redemption appeared to be just around the corner.
"Everyone I know used to sit in front of the stereo and listen to music...Now no one I know, except for us lunatics, listens to music the way one would watch a movie on TV."—from The Audiophile Network
"A newspaper can flout an advertiser...but if it alienates the buying public, it loses the one indispensable asset of its existence."—Walter Lippman, 1922, reprinted in Public Opinion, New York: Free Press, 1965.
When J. Gordon Holt founded Stereophile in 1962, it was very much the outsider. Compared with the mass-market magazine of which he had been Technical Editor, High Fidelity, Gordon's Stereophile was the very model of an "underground" publication, with a publication schedule as irregular as its production values were inconsistent. Its writing was from the heart, however.
Watching the Beatles Anthology TV shows last Thanksgiving, I was struck by how good recorded sound quality was in the early to mid-1960s and how bad it had become by the era of Let It Be. Early Beatles recordings may have been primitive in terms of production, but their basic sound quality was excellent, with extended response at the frequency extremes and a natural, clean-sounding midrange. Late Beatles recordings lacked highs and dynamic range, and sounded grainy by comparison. This was partly because, by 1969–70, studios had replaced their simple tubed mixing consoles with the first generation of solid-state desks, and their old tubed two-track Studers and Ampexes with solid-state multitrack recorders. These featured track widths so narrow that only the massive use of Dolby-A noise reduction made it possible to produce recordings that had any dynamic range at all!
As you can read in this month's "Industry Update" (pp.35 & 37), the two conglomerates who hitherto seemed driven to offer the world two competing standards for the forthcoming Digital Video Disc came to their senses. Instead of consumers being offered Toshiba/Warner/Matsushita's SD and Sony/Philips's MCD, there will be just one high-density 4.75" disc to take both video and audio data storage into the 21st century.