In the four years since our last readership survey, Stereophile's circulation has grown by one third, from 45,000 to over 60,000 (footnote 1). We thought it time, therefore, to commission new numbers, from specialists Mediamark Research Inc. (footnote 2). Table 1 shows the demographic breakdown of the magazine's readers. While the launch of CD did bring more women into the audiophile fold almost 10 years ago, the proportion of Stereophile's female readers has not changed since 1988, at just over 1% (footnote 3). At one of the panel sessions at the 1992 High End Hi-Fi Show in Los Angeles, a man in the audience asked why high-end audio was so testosterone-bound when women were just as interested in music as men? The answers given by some of the many women at the show ranged from the fact that women only earn 47 cents on the dollar compared with men to conjecture that women are turned off by the hobby's tweak aspect. Certainly dealer Andrew Singer felt last October (footnote 4) that the high-end industry is hobbling itself by ignoring half the US's population.
My topic today is not the hardware that we use to reproduce sound, but the delicate precision instruments we use to detect it: our ears. Our enjoyment of musical sound is important enough to justify spending thousands of dollars on recordings, electronics, loudspeakers, and concert tickets. What is it worth to preserve your hearing so that you can continue enjoying great sound 10 or 20 years from now? I've been conducting an experiment for the last 30 years, at a cost of less than a penny a day. It began when I was 17.
The audio community's "Great Debate" has reached an amazing level of absurdity. On one side are the Objectivists, whose rationalist argument insists that all human auditory experience is the result of electro-physical phenomena which can be measured and mapped using established scientific methods. On the other side are the Subjectivists, romantics who believe in the synergistic interplay of music, room, equipment, and listener, and whose attempts to describe their experiences tend toward the florid and metaphorical.
In the early 1950s, a quiet, undistinguished Senator named Joseph Raymond McCarthy began a crusade against what he imagined were subversive, dangerous elements in American government. His tactics included irresponsible accusation, militant attacks on his opponents, and self-aggrandizing witch-hunting. So virulent were his methods the term "McCarthyism" entered the language. McCarthyism came to mean any unjustified persecution and the false conformity this strategy engendered (footnote 1).
Every summer, I invite a representative sample of Stereophile's equipment reviewers to the magazine's Santa Fe HQ. For the third successive year, I decided to tape some of the free-for-all discussion that takes place and offer readers the opportunity of peeking over the participants' shoulders by publishing a tidied-up version of the transcript.
As I walked through Stereophile's Taipei High-End Hi-Fi show (see the full report next month), I was startled to see four ladies in their 50s carrying Stereophile bags full of brochures. They'd just left a demonstration of Martin-Logan CLSes driven by Aragon electronics and were talking animatedly among themselves as they busily made their way to the next exhibit room. My surprise was repeated throughout the show as I saw an amazingly diverse group of people who had enough interest in high-end audio to get themselves to the Taipei Hilton and pay the show's admission price. Young couples, old couples, entire families, and women were all there to see and hear high-end audio. This was in sharp contrast to the narrow demographic group seen at US and European hi-fi shows: predominantly young to middle-aged males to whom audio is a hobby.
Blame the Puritans! say I. The high end has always had an ostinato accompaniment of grumbles from those who appear to feel that it is immoral to want to listen to music with as high a quality as possible. In a recent letter, for example, Fanfare and Stereo Review contributor and author Howard Ferstler states that "the audio world has more products of bogus quality and shills promoting them than any other industry, bar none," and trots out the old saw that audiophiles "end up spending an excessive amount of money on equipment or tweaking techniques of surprisingly dubious quality."
A man who had just looked through his very first Stereophile---April's "Recommended Components" issue picked up at a newsstand---recently called to ask my advice on a certain inexpensive CD player made by a large mid-fi company. I told him I hadn't auditioned the player and thus couldn't comment on its worth. The man then proceeded to read me the player's specifications, finally informing me that the player "had the new 1-bit thing"---all in the belief that I could make a recommendation based on what he'd just told me. He apparently had been conditioned to believe that not only was "the 1-bit thing" superior, but that choosing a CD player was merely a matter of evaluating technical specs.
Our Delta L-1011 emerged from the cloud split-seconds before its wheels touched the waterlogged ground. "How much lower does the cloud cover have to be before they divert us to another city?" I asked Tom Norton. "About an inch," came the phlegmatic reply. (Ex-F4 pilot TJN categorizes any landing you can walk away from as "good.") But at least we had reached Atlanta, after a saga of air-traffic control problems, weather delays, and missed connections. (Does anyone remember taking a flight that wasn't full, wasn't late, and wasn't sweaty and stressful? Wasn't deregulation supposed to improve service by increasing the choices available to travelers?)
Procrustean bed: a scheme or pattern into which something or someone is arbitrarily forced. Procrustes: a villainous son of Poseidon in Greek myth who forces travelers to fit into his bed by stretching their bodies or cutting off their legs.Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary
The whole field of subjective audio reviewinglistening to a piece of equipment to determine its characteristics and worthis predicated on the idea that human perception is not only far more sensitive than measurement devices, but far more important than the numbers generated by "objective" testing. Subjective evaluation of audio equipment, however, is often dismissed as meaningless by the scientific audio community. A frequent objection is the lack of thousands upon thousands of rigidly controlled clinical trials. Consequently, conclusions reached by subjective means are considered unreliable because of the anecdotal nature of listening impressions. The scientific audio community demands rigorous, controlled, blind testing with many trials before any conclusions can be drawn. Furthermore, any claimed abilities to discriminate sonically that are not provable under blind testing conditions are considered products of the listeners' imaginations. Audible differences are said to be real only if their existence can be proved by such "scientific" procedures (footnote 1).