As I write this, I am recuperating from four days of frenzy at the 1986 Winter CES in Las Vegas, Nevada. I am also pondering why I was so unexcited by most of what I saw and heard of the high-end exhibits; high-end audio may have reached a developmental plateau of sorts.
The title of this month's column is the legend Sheffield Labs emblazoned on a T-shirt a couple of years ago, to promote their jaundiced view of digital audio. Since then, even Sheffield's reactionary perfectionists softpedalled their anti-digital crusade, perhaps because of the number of CDs they've been selling! Their personnel no longer wear those T-shirts at CES, which is unfortunate. Although most people in the audio field no longer see digital audio as madness, digital denouncing is still very much with us.
Almost 30 years ago, Columbia records issued a unique disc called The Art of Jonathan and Darlene Edwards. Darlene sang and Jonathan played piano, and the jacket notes rhapsodized about the depth of feeling they brought to their duos, despite some imperfections of technique.
As you may have noticed, Stereophile's approach to equipment testing is quite different from that of "mainstream" audio publications. Instead of throwing a bunch of measurements at you, and telling you how we think components ought to sound because of those measurements, we test them as you would: by listening. But we have an extra problem: we have to convey to someone else—you—a feeling for what we hear from that component. It ain't always easy.
Now that Stereophile's reporting on the 1985 Summer Consumer Electronics Show has ended (I hope!), I would like to express strong dissent with its style and content. In fact, I believe that most of it should never have appeared in print.
A tradition is anything we do, think, or believe for no better reason than that we have always done it, thought it, or believed it. Most traditions are followed in this mindless and automatic way, and, if questioned, are defended with the argument of, well, that it seems to work. It's time-tested, true-blue and, because so familiar, as comfy as an old slipper. So why rock the boat, throw a wrench in the works, or fix it if it ain't broke.
A number of recent letters have accused us of snobbishness and elitism because we devote so much space to reports about components that "common folk" can't afford. We are "snobbish" because we seem to look down on anything less perfect than a Wilson WAMM speaker system or an Audio Research SP-10 preamplifier. And we are "elitist" because we seem to show little interest in any components which fall short of state of the art. Far from being chastened by these letters, I am proud, to declare that they are right on target.
Stereophile is happy to start off another year, only one issue behind our published schedule. For most magazine subscribers, this would seem a confession of weakness; underground aficionados will, however, know what I'm talking about. We did in fact publish eight issues last year, but the first one happened to be Volume 6, Number 6 (the last issue in that volume), so that puts us still one behind. Ambitiously, I predict we'll get out nine (count them, 9) issues in 1985 and catch up with our schedule.
When it comes to video, most audiophiles are insufferable snobs. These normally reasonable people, who are among the first to admit that great sound in a motion picture theater makes a great film much more enjoyable, nonetheless. scoff at the very idea of augmenting their own sound with images, or of trying to create the kind of audio-visual experience in their home that they routinely enjoy at the cinema. Doing that involves video, which they equate with TV, which they equate with LCD (footnote 1) dross. This is unfortunate, because visuals can enhance good sound, and good sound can do wonders for non-TV video programs like Hollywood motion pictures.
Ever since Stereophile took up the cudgels for subjectivity, and had the temerity to insist that even the best products have certain colorations, we have stressed compatibility in choosing components. By compatibility we do not mean merely matching impedances and signal levels, but mating components whose sonic peculiarities tended to offset one another.
I believe it was 1958 when I first heard a transistorized audio product. The Fisher TR-1 was a small battery-powered box that provided microphone preamplification and inputs for three magnetic phono sources.
The American computer industry was a little shaken up to learn recently that the Japanese micro manufacturers had gotten together and standardized their component interconnections so that any Japanese computer will (supposedly) plug into any Japanese printer, modem, or competing computer, and work right off the bat. Anybody who has tried to fire up an Apple computer with a Diablo (Xerox) printer will appreciate what the Japanese move means in terms of compatibility. It means "For no-hassle interconnections, buy Japanese."
If you are to believe all the promotions for the Compact Disc, simply buying a player will transport you instantly to sonic nirvana. No background noise! No distortion! Flat frequency response from 20 Hz to 20kHz, pIus or minus zilch! The most perfect sound that modern hightech can provide! But if CD sound is so perfect, what are so many people screaming bloody murder about? It seems that half the golden ears who hear it are smitten with hate at first hearing. The other half finds it the best thing since tax shelters.