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).
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.)