A committed audio equipment reviewer operates at the front line of audio subjectivity. Working on behalf of a readership made up of consumers thirsting for independent, informed opinion and advice, a reviewer is commissioned by the editor of a magazine to produce reports with a technical and subjective content on a wide range of available audio products. These reviews must be both fair and completed at short notice on a relatively small budget.
Just when you thought it was safe to put green paint around the edges of your CDs without ridicule, there's yet another CD tweak that's sure to bring howls of laughter from the skeptics: cryogenically freezing CDs. They won't be laughing for long, however, when they hear for themselves the sonic results of this process.
I've been wondering whether we who write about audio will ever agree on a sensible way to express the scale of the differences we hear. If magazines like Stereophile and The Abso!ute Sound lack credibility among the broader audience of music lovers and hi-fi shoppers—and we do—one important reason may be our habit of greatly exaggerating the importance of differences that in fact are very small. A subtle improvement, one that most people wouldn't notice except in a carefully arranged comparison, is often described by audiophile reviewers in language that makes it seem like the contrast between a whisper and a thunderclap.
I had a wonderful chuckle while reading the reviews of the Finial Laser Turntable in the May 1990 issue of HFN/RR. Perhaps I should preface this by saying that, in the entire quarter-century since I became intensely involved in audio, I have always found the LP an unsatisfactory playback medium for music. As a regular concert-goer in Boston and an addict of WGBH-FM's simply miked, virtually unprocessed live broadcasts of BSO concerts direct from Symphony Hall, I never learned to ignore the many anti-musical distortions endemic to LPsthe ticks and pops, the inner-groove congestion and tracing distortion, the harsh mistracking of high-level climaxes and overcut grooves, the persistent static in dry winter air, the constant slight wow due to off-center spindle holes, the muddy bass due to resonances and feedback, the universal cutting engineer's practice of blending low bass into mono (which wipes out low-frequency hall ambience).
As a card-carrying member of the Audio Engineering Society and an avid audiophile, I was particularly disturbed by the ideas expressed at the 1990 AES Conference entitled "The Sound of Audio." (A report on the papers presented appears in this month's "Industry Update" column.) The tone of the three-day session in May was set during the Conference Chairman's opening remarks. He said that an AES conference on the sound of audio was "unusual" and "out of the mainstream." Further, he expressed a common underlying attitude among the AES that "audiophile claims" (of musical differences between components) have been "nagging us" and are "an annoyance."
1950: "The ultimate in disc recording is to make the reproduced sound as near as possible to the original..." (The founder of Audio magazine, C.G. McProud, in "Recording Characteristics," Audio Engineering, January 1950, reprinted in The 2nd Audio Anthology, p.67, Radio Magazines, 1954.)
"The large peak at 16kHz reported by Stereophile...was nowhere in evidence...The most probable explanation of this discrepancy is that the [Waveform supertweeter's] very light ribbon depends on the air load for damping, and that load is much smaller in the thin air up there at 7000' in Santa Fe than at altitudes where less lightheaded and scientifically more accountable reviewers dwell." Thus spake Peter Aczel (footnote 1), erstwhile loudspeaker designer and Editor/Publisher of the reincarnated The Audio Critic, a publication that advertises itself as having "unusual credibility among the top professionals in audio."
Paul Gowan's letter in the October 1989 Stereophile hinted that, whether or not audiophiles enjoy music, it should be true that the emotional experience we derive from music is what really matters. There, barefaced, lies the problem: who are "we"? A well-known Latin epigram affirms that in matters of taste there is no point in discussion. And a Greek epigram (coined in fact by Max Beerbohm in his Oxford novel Zuleika Dobson) suggests that "for people who like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like."
Stuck out here in the desert depths of the Southwest, we look forward to visits from out-of-towners. So when David Wilson, one-time audio reviewer but now full-time high-end manufacturer, called to say he was going to be in Santa Fe, there was a flurry of activity. David had agreed to an interview, so I started going through back issues of The Absolute Sound and Stereophile for background. Vol.6 No.2 of Stereophile from 1983, with its front-cover photograph of David and Sheryl Lee Wilson with their WAMM speaker system, seemed a good place to start—except that nothing inside the magazine corresponded to the cover picture. It was the next issue that had featured Larry Archibald's write-up on the WAMM, and once I opened its pages, I got trapped into reading the entire issue.
Dateline: late August 1989. The scene: my palatial office in the Stereophile Tower. Present were the magazine's official technowizard Robert Harley, Circulation Kahuna Michael Harvey, and myself. The subject under discussion was the program for the Stereophile Test CD, launched in this issue, and Bob had been dazzling Michael and myself with a description of the sophisticated signal-processing power offered by the Digidesign Sound Tools music editing system with which he had outfitted his Macintosh IIX computer. (He had to fit it with a 600-megabyte hard-disk drive!) "It'll even do edits as crossfades as well as butt joins," enthused Bob. "Let me tell you about the crossfade I once did when editing a drum solo for a CD master that lasted ten seconds..."
Twice a year, Stereophile brings some of its writers out to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to discuss the compilation of the magazine's "Recommended Components" listing, the most recent of which appeared in the October issue. Following a comment from Will Hammond, John Atkinson's collaborator on the recent amplifier blind listening tests, that the magazine's readers would love to eavesdrop on the conversations that take place on these occasions, it seemed a good idea to tape (footnote 1) some of the discussions and publish the transcript as this month's "As We See It" (footnote 2). Accordingly, Lewis Lipnick, Gary A. Galo, Robert Harley, Thomas J. Norton, Guy Lemcoe, Richard Lehnert, Dick Olsher, Peter Mitchell, Robert Deutsch, J. Gordon Holt, Larry Greenhill, John Atkinson, and Arnis Balgalvis all gathered in LA's palatial listening room one August Saturday. JA set the ball rolling by asking the assembled writers where they thought Stereophile had been, where it was, and where they thought it should be going, particularly in view of Robert Harley joining the magazine as Technical Editor.