In common with the mood of our times, there seems to be an increasing amount of bad temper in the High End. There are more people around who, in Jonathan Scull's timeless phrase, have a "level of audiophile rage very close to the surface." Witness, for example, the "cancel my subscription" letter from Professor Daniel H. Wiegand in this issue: he obviously feels a line has been crossed.
In this month's "Letters," Donald Bisbee raises the subject of the government's proposed reduction in funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), I agree with Mr. Bisbee that commercial radio broadcasting in the US is an intellectual desert. Music is narrowcast, with listeners' tastes bound into predigested categories. There is no depth or analysis to radio news programs, other than discussions by populist commentators who, no matter what you may think of their politics, usurp the ability of their audiences to think for themselves. As a regular listener to NPR and watcher of PBS, I feel that public broadcasting is an essential factor in American public discourse (footnote 1), but not for the reasons some might think.
Compuserve's CEAUDIO forum has been buzzing in recent weeks about audio cables. The subject even spilled over into an April meeting of the New York chapter of the Audio Engineering Society (see Wes Phillips's report in this month's "Industry Update"). Nearly two decades after Polk, Fulton, and Monster Cable raised our collective consciousness about the differences cable choice can make in an audio system, the debate still rages between audiophiles and some members of the engineering community. "High-priced tone controls" is how some engineers dismiss the subject of cables, while admitting that they can sound different. Other engineers adopt the "Hard Objectivist" line that if there are differences to be heard between cables, differences in the lumped electrical parameters of resistance (R), inductance (L), and capacitance (C) are all that are required to explain such differences.
When some unknown copywriter coined that immortal phrase to promote the worldwide launch of Compact Disc in late 1982, little did he or she foresee how quickly it would become a term of ridicule. Yes, early CDs and players offered low background noise, a flat spectral balance, and freedom from wow and flutter. But all too often, the music encoded in the "perfect-sounding" pits seemed to have taken a vacation, leading the renowned recording engineer John Eargle to offer, in the medium's defense, that if you were to hear just one CD that sounded good, digital technology would be proved to be okay.
Conventional wisdom has it that the perfect sculpture is present, but hidden within the raw material. And the same conventional wisdom similarly applies to magazine editing: all it needs is careful chipping away at the extraneous material in the raw text files we receive from our authors—sometimes the barest degree of reshaping, repointing, and restructuring—and you have a finished product that both maximally communicates the writer's message and makes the anonymous artisan-editor proud of a job well done.
As in any community bound tightly together by shared enthusiasms, the High End is regularly swept by tides of fashion. Some of the fads prove to be based on something of value, and outlast the initial burst: loudspeaker spikes and Tiptoes, for example, or the resurgence of tube designs, or making use of high-quality passive components. Other fads, particularly if not based on good engineering, fall by the wayside. (Does anyone still use a Tice Clock in their system? Or suspend their cables and interconnects on little acrylic bridges?)
As easy as it is to communicate electronically, some things are still better done in person. At too-infrequent intervals, I visit Stereophile's writers, listen to their systems, and basically get them to show'n'tell the components they're reviewing. In this way, if they describe what I'm hearing, I have the confidence to publish their review, even if its findings run counter to accepted wisdom.
My eyes were inexorably drawn to a surprising headline this morning: "New Studies Say Universe Younger than Objects In It." A study by Indiana University's Michael Pierce has just been published establishing a new value for "Hubble's Constant" (the ratio of velocity to distance for distant, receding galaxies) which suggests that the universe may be as young as 7 billion years old; at the same time, researchers at Harvard are saying that the universe is somewhere between 9 and 14 billion years old. Quite a discrepancy! (A billion here, a billion there—pretty soon you're talking real age.)
The future is rarely what anyone expects it to be. I still remember reading, as a child, predictions in Popular Science that everyone would have a personal helicopter by 1980. It never happened, though it sure seemed like a reasonable projection of events. Events, however, have their own agenda.
During a recent visit to Canada's National Research Council, I noticed stuck to the wall of the prototype IEC listening room a page of results from one of Floyd Toole's seminal papers on the blind testing of loudspeakers. The scoring system was the one that Floyd developed, and that we adopted for Stereophile's continuing series of blind tests. "0" represents the worst sound that could possibly exist, "10" the perfection of live sound—a telephone, for example, rates a "2." The speakers in Floyd's test pretty much covered the range of possible performance, yet their normalized scoring spread, from the worst to the best, was just 1.9 points.
I was once in a sushi bar in Osaka; sitting next to me was a live abalone, stoically awaiting its fate. It stuck its siphon out of its shell, the waiter tapped the tip with a spoon, the siphon withdrew. Again the siphon appeared, again the waiter tapped it with a spoon, again it withdrew.
In this space last January, I enthused about the sound of linear 20-bit digital recordings which, I felt, preserve the quality of a live microphone feed. "I have heard the future of audio—and it's digital!" I proclaimed, which led at least a couple of readers to assume I had gone deaf. Putting to one side the question of my hearing acuity, 20-bit technology has been rapidly adopted in the professional world as the standard for mastering. The remaining debate concerns how to best preserve what those 20 bits offer once they've been squeezed down to the 16 that CD can store. Sony's Super Bit Mapping algorithm and Harmonia Mundi Acustica's redithering device have been joined by new black boxes from Apogee Electronics, Lexicon, and Meridian; it appears likely that, in next to no time at all, all CD releases will be offering close to 20-bit resolution—at least in the upper midrange, where the ear is most sensitive.