A recent e-mail from a reader asked why we list the recordings and systems used by Stereophile writers in their reviews. I responded that we do so in order that readers can place our value judgments in context, and predict how those products might sound with different ancillaries and recordings when they audition the products reviewed at their local high-end audio retailer.
I was fortunate enough to be raised in an environment where music of many kinds was played often. I lived with my mother in small apartments in Washington, DC, in the 1960s and '70, and most of the time, music was playing. Chopin, Wagner, Beethoven, Coltrane, Miles, Sonny Rollins, Streisand, Baez, Dylan, Miriam Makebaeven the Doors, Hendrix, and Janis Joplin.
When people feel passionately about somethingwhether books, golf, auto racing, dog breeding, or musicthere is an understandable impulse to create rankings, hierarchies, and lists. Such lists can be helpful. I am quite likely to read someone's list of The 100 Most Important Jazz Recordings, or of The 100 Greatest Novels in the English Language. Engaging with such rankings and lists has several benefits. First, we all like to see our prejudices validated. When I discover that someone else is also a fan of Ralph Vaughan Williams's An Oxford Elegy, or of Herbert Howells's Master Tallis's Testament, I feel a warm glow of kinship, and feel that my respect for that person reflects well on me. (We are all human, after all.)
"Blondy watched this proud, drum-tight personality fidget past him on the street and began projecting; he couldn't help it: an unfinished degree in journalism, concerned married sisters in New Jersey or Connecticut (but probably New Jersey), weights but no cardio, aggrieved blind dates, Cigar Aficionado and Stereophile, takeout menus, acres of porn."
from "Lucky Alan," by Jonathan Lethem; The New Yorker, March 19, 2007
When did being interested in hi-fi lose its cool? When did it become antisocial? One minute hi-fi was hanging with Hef center-stage in a groovy bachelor pad, and the next thing you know it's a prop used to describe someone who "walked in a fiery aura of loneliness," as Lethem described it. I ask because I'm genuinely concerned. Some of my best friends are audiophiles. But it seems that if you want to be anything related to music, the last thing you want to be is an audiophile.
It's one of those good news/bad news stories: more people are listening to music than ever before, but the major record labels are in dire straits. Some of the reasons for the record industry's malaise are easy to spotteenagers and grandmas grooving to music-streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and MOG, or ripping each other's CDsbut the music industry's problems run deeper than lost sales. Digital audio mortally wounded recorded music's creative mojo in 1982, and the record industry never fully recovered.
On January 5, 2011, I was flying to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show (footnote 1). On January 5, 1914, Henry Ford announced that he would pay a minimum of $5 to eligible employees who worked an eight-hour day. (At that time, a good wage was $2.50 for a workday of 10 hours.) Ford was not being altruistic; he wanted to motivate his employees both to become more productive and to stay loyal to their employer. And there were strings attached: A Ford employee "must show himself to be sober, saving, steady, industrious and must satisfy . . . staff that his money will not be wasted in riotous living." But Ford also wanted his workers to be able to afford the products they made. It was Ford's action, I believe, that triggered the rise of the American middle class, and it was that middle class's combination of disposable income and increased leisure time that fueled the growth of high-end audio.
For a field based on science, high-end audio has a relationship with its parent discipline that is regrettably complex. Even as they enjoy science's technological fruits, many audiophiles reject the very methodsscientific testingthat made possible audio in the home. That seems strange to me.
I began writing these words on December 1, 2010, 13 years to the day that the magazine's website, www.stereophile.com, emerged from the digital darkness. That first, 1997 edition of our website was to a large extent the brainchild of one man, webmonkey Jon Iverson, who ever since has overseen its design and growth.
There's something happening here, and what it is is exactly clear. It's a revolution of sortsa new paradigm for the High End. Despite pessimistic proclamations of the impending death of high-end audio, an unprecedented number of new high-end consumer shows have emerged in North America. Filling the gap left by the demise of Stereophile's Home Entertainment Show in 2007, these seven (!) showstwo new in 2011, two in expanded versions following successful launches in 2010are reaching out to people of all ages, sexes, and format preferences.
There is something about the performance of music that is in the nature of a spectator sport. By this I do not mean big-arena stagecraft and lights and fireworks and dance routines. I mean the actual making of the music.
To see Eric Johnson's fingers flying over his Fender Stratocaster as he hits "Cliffs of Dover" out of the park one more time is to enjoy something that is every bit as much an athletic performance and a spectator sport as baseball is. There is a thrill to watching people do difficult things exceptionally well, things that most of us can only take random sidelong swipes at.
The cover is cracked. It is time to rip it off, look directly at the inner workings, and begin to fix things for ourselves.Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work
Otto von Bismarck (18151898), the Prime Minister of Prussia who brought about the unification of Germany, was not a nice man. But he was no dummy, either. One of his most prophetic remarks was in response to a journalist's question about what Bismarck thought to be the single most decisive factor in modern history: "The fact that the North Americans speak English."