Now that Sony has bought CBS's records division, and the infamous Copycode bill seems to be dying in Congress, the way may be clearing at last for the US introduction of the new Digital Audio Tape system. This has sparked renewed speculation in the industry about the impact DAT will have on existing formats, particularly the fledgling CD. Some are convinced DAT will kill CD, because of its ability to record as well as play digital recordings. Others believe DAT won't even gain a foothold in the market, for the same reason quadraphonic sound laid an egg back in the '70s: The public can't handle more than one "standard" format. I feel that both views are wrong, and thatas is usually the case with extreme viewsthe truth lies in between. I believe DAT will catch on in the marketplace, but never in a big way, and certainly not the way CD has. Here's why.
When I attended the Audio Engineering Society convention in October 1987 (my first time in over eight years; full report in this issue), I was impressed by the incredible technology now available to composers of music. I was also dismayed, however, by the extent to which so-called purist audio, as well as "acoustical" music, have been consigned to oblivion by the pro audio community. It was clear, both from the exhibits and the many conversations on which I eavesdropped, that audio professionals are no longer concerned about fidelity, in the sense of trying to reproduce sounds accurately. A "real" sound has become to them merely raw material of no value except as something to be processed, manipulated, folded, bent, and spindled to produce any sonic effect except the original one. About a third of the products displayed at the 83rd AES convention were tools for doing that.
When I attended Britain's Heathrow Penta hi-fi show in September 1987, I had hoped to come back with big news about some breakthrough cartridge or preamp or loudspeaker system. I didn't. No, the talk of the Penta show was something called the "Belt Phenomenon," which may possibly be a breakthrough of some kind, but then again, it may not.
Scene the First. You are sitting in a concert hall, dead center, row M; the cellist walks on to the stage, sits down and starts to play the prelude to the first of Bach's solo cello suites, that intricate unfolding of a rhapsodic melodic line within the tight framework of an implied chordal structure. Melody, harmony, rhythm—none exist at any one point of time in this most exquisite of Bach's solo instrumental writing, yet the skill of the composer, coupled with the artistry of the musician, allow you to perceive the abstract as reality.
Caveat: This article is written by a non-audiophile. I own and listen to several thousand recordings through about $2500 worth of a rather motley assortment of audio components. Though very well informed musically, and a disciplined listener, Audiophilia remains for me a storied land. Various desultory discussions with Larry Archibald and John Atkinson, some going back almost two years, about the possibly refreshing, certainly outré (for these pages) outlook of a certified Audio Ignoramus, have finally borne astringent fruit in this diversion of an article.
During my recent interview with the Sheffield Lab people in connection with their Moscow recording sessions (Vol.10 No.3), both Lincoln Mayorga and Doug Sax had some unkind things to say about the cost of recording an orchestra in the US. Their complaints are justified. It costs more to record in the US than anywhere else in the world, and these astronomical costs are detrimental both to symphonic music in the US and to the audiophile's pursuit of sonic perfection.
Enid Lumley accosted me in the corridors of Santa Monica's BayView Plaza Hotel in March: "That doesn't sound like a real piano!" I was taken aback. The sound to which the redoubtable Ms. Lumley was referring emanated from a 7' Steinway we had hired for James Boyk to play at the Stereophile show. Jim was conducting a series of tutorials on how the sound of a real piano is constituted, so Enid's criticism, on the face of things, seemed absurd. As my face obviously showed this conclusion, she hastily explained that, of course it was a real piano, but the fact that it overloaded the 40-seat room in which it was being played caused it to sound different from the sound of a real piano played in a concert hall. To lead visitors to the show to expect piano records to sound similar to what Jim was producing was dishonest.
As the person who "invented" subjective testing, I have followed with great interest the many articles in the mainstream audio press which purport to prove that none of us can really hear all the differences we claim to hear, particularly those between amplifiers. My reaction has usually been: "Why didn't they invite me to participate? I would have heard the differences under their double-blind listening conditions." I could make that assertion with supreme confidence because I had never been involved in any such test.
Everyone knows music is a good thing. More than merely good, it appears to meet some kind of human need, because every race in every land has a musical tradition going back to before recorded or recounted history. Some of their music may not seem like music to our unsophisticated ears, but as soon as someone discovered that two sticks of different sizes produced different pitches when struck on a venerated ancestor's skull, he advanced beyond mere rhythm to what must be considered music. (Two sticks would, presumably, play binary music: the first precursor of digital sound.) In fact, were there no music at all today, humankind would probably find it necessary to invent it on the spot, along with a mythology relating how it was created on the eighth day, after ingrown toenails.
1987 will mark Stereophile's 25th year of continuous (if initially sometimes sporadic) publication. And while we haven't yet decided what we're going to do in celebration, the first issue of 1987 does seem to be as good a time as any to contrast the state of the audio art when we began publication with what is routinely possible today.
The accuracy of a hi-fi system's "soundstage" reproduction seems to be of paramount importance these days, just as a component must now have "transparency" to possess hi-fi righteousness. If the system in which that component is used doesn't give good soundstage, then the system's owner has definitely fallen by the wayside. But what defines a good soundstage? Stereo imaging must have something to do with it, I hear you all cry. (I would have said stereo imagery until Larry Archibald pointed out that imagery has far less to do with hi-fi than with good writing, something I'm sure we agree has no place in a hi-fi magazine.) OK, what defines good stereo imaging?
Most readers of Stereophile are in it to read about great products—things that make the hobby and art of home sound reproduction exciting. In this respect, reviewers aren't too different—we love sound reproduction and music in general, and products that help bring this to life are the cat's meow. Reviewers that can't respond with this kind of excitement don't have a place writing for this magazine.
According to a recent newsletter sent to its regular contributors, our "competition"—The Absolute Sound—sees "controversy and confrontation" as the core of its editorial policy. By contrast, Stereophile sees as its modus schtickus an unflagging devotion to, and pursuit of, truth, reason, all of the eternal verities (including some you never heard of), and the intelligent exchange of informed ideas. In honor of all of the above-mentioned precepts (as well as some I didn't mention), this issue of Stereophile is largely devoted to the confrontation between knowledgeable writers for whom the widely proclaimed perfection of the Compact Disc remains a controversial issue.
From London, England, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a pretty big jump, both geographically and culturally. From Hi-Fi News & Record Review to Stereophile, however, is a mere hop; the similarities overwhelm the differences. Unlike the US, mainstream magazines in the UK have managed to keep in touch with the fact that hi-fi components sound different; to edit and to write for an ostensibly "underground" American magazine presented no major philosophical problems. (I say "to edit," but as mentioned in "The Big Announcement," Vol.9 No.3, my editing is done in harness with Stereophile's founder and guiding light, J. Gordon Holt.)