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.
In last month's "As We See It," I examined how I decide upon ratings in Stereophile's biannual "Recommended Components" listing. This leads me to talk about who writes our equipment reports. Stereophile currently has a team of 16 active reviewers. The core are professional: J. Gordon Holt, Robert Harley, Thomas J. Norton, Corey Greenberg, and Martin Colloms. The others—Sam Tellig, Jack English, Robert Deutsch, Don Scott, Jonathan Scull, Larry Greenhill, Dick Olsher, Guy Lemcoe, Lewis Lipnick, and Steven Stone—may be enthusiastic amateurs, but they are amateurs only in the sense that they don't earn their livings from writing. I'm the team's catcher, both calling the game and keeping the stray balls from getting away. Why, then, is it this cast of characters (footnote 1) who gets to cast judgments in stone in my magazine?
The very first "Recommended Components" listing appeared in Vol.1 No.5; this is the 16th time I've put the listing together since I took over the task from J. Gordon Holt in the November 1986 'phile. No other Stereophile feature seems to be as popular, or as misunderstood. While it might inform, it never fails to offend, particularly when it involves the dropping, or—horrors!—the not listing at all, of components that the magazine's readers own.
Stereophile Consulting technical editor Robert Harley and I were walking down Brooklyn's Flatbush Avenue trying to remember where we'd parked our rental car. We were in town for the Fall 1993 Audio Engineering Society Convention, and had just had dinner with record reviewer Beth Jacques.
When I browse through early issues of this magazine, I envy J. Gordon Holt. When he foundedStereophile in 1962, there were aspects of society that stood as solid as the Rockies overlooking his current Colorado home. Back then a magazine was a thing forever; the main means of serious communication would always be the written word; records would always be LPs...recorded in stereo; the US had a large, prosperous consumer electronics industry; computers were huge mainframes made in the USA by IBM (of course), and required air-conditioned rooms and armies of white-coated attendants; everyone watched three broadcast television networks; once a film left the neighborhood cinema, it was gone forever—or at least until it appeared on the "Late, Late, Late Show." And most importantly, people took for granted that progress in sound reproduction meant improvements in quality.