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).
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.