An acquaintance in the world of CD distribution recently gave me an astonishing statistic: that the average classical title sells fewer than 2000 copies worldwide in its first year of release; which in turn means that many titles sell only about 500 copies! Given that the cost of producing a classical orchestral album can include up to $100,000 in union-mandated musician fees, such minimal sales guarantee financial disaster.
This morning, John Atkinson passed along to me an e-mail he received from one of our most attentive correspondents—a reviewer, in fact, for an erstwhile competitor. We know that this particular writer ranks among our closest readers because an issue seldom comes out but that he writes an analysis of it, including, and down to, what he considers our excessive political correctness in choice of pronouns.
In his impassioned "As We See It" in May (Vol.20 No.5, p.3), Robert Harley pleaded that the Compact Disc is actually quite a bit better than it sounds, and requested that audiophiles focus instead on the significant improvements wrought in digital sound since its inception. Bob's point—that picking on CD's shortcomings has become a ritual bloodsport within the High End—is well taken: witness my own catty swipe at it in the first sentence. The fact is that the glaring imperfections of the first generation of digital products are now mostly distant memories. Most of us do derive hours of musical pleasure from our CD players and CD collections.
Attacking the compact disc has lately become almost a blood sport among audiophiles and audio writers. Not a month goes by that I don't read—often in Stereophile—some vehement statement about how CDs are a musical abomination.
Just about everyone knows that a new high-quality digital audio disc, called DVD, is being developed by the world's electronics giants. What few realize, however, is how politics and corporate politics influenced the format's technical specifications. The result may be unnecessary sonic degradation for millions of music listeners.
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.