Not too many years ago, high-fidelity movement was being hailed from all quarters (and many halves) as a revolution. In the sense that it took the country storm, and made billions of dollars for many entrepreneurs during heyday, it was indeed a revolution. But now the public has grown tired of high fidelity and is turning other electronic diversionsvideo, video games, and computering. And what, as of this summer of 1982, do we have to show for the high-fidelity revolution?
As another Consumer Electronics Show rolls around, we are seeing some interesting and not-entirely encouraging things taking place in the audio field. The people for whom high fidelity was originally intendedso-called serious music listeners have abandoned audio almost completely, leaving the pursuit of perfect music reproduction to a group of hobbyists who have more interest in hardware than in music. This, plus the recession, has almost killed middle-fi, which is now flailing out in all directions looking for a new market. Here's how it all came to pass:
There was a time, very recently in terms of human history, when high fidelity promised to free the music lover from the constraints of the concert hall and the local repertoire, allowing him to choose at his whim any orchestra in the world playing any work he desired under the baton of any conductor he preferred. "All the pleasure of concert-hall listening, in the comfort of your home," was the way one display advertisement painted this musical utopia which, only 20 years ago, seemed right around the corner.
As of February, 1982, the ownership of this publication passed to other hands. In total despair about its precarious finances, JGH accepted with alacrity an offer by Larry Archibald (an occasional contributor in recent years) to purchase the magazine. This has now come to pass, and it is because of the resulting infusion of money that you are holding this issue in your hot little hands now instead of three months from now (and that is probably being a little optimistic about the way things were).
A very popular myth among the audio unwashedand one still perpetuated by the pop hi-fi writersis that nothing is to be gained by paying more than $1000 for a stereo system (footnote 1). Members of the general public, including masses of people who enjoy live, unamplified music, have the impression that more money simply buys one wider and wider frequency range, and defend their $500 "compact" systems with the lame excuse that their ears aren't all that good, and who needs to hear what bats hear anyway? This is no doubt a soothing emollient for one's disinclination to invest more money in audio gear, but it is a supreme self-deception.
Editor's Introduction:In 1963, Stereophile's founder J. Gordon Holt published attacks on what he saw as the single largest step backward in high-fidelity sound reproduction at that time: RCA's introduction of "Dynagroove" LP records, where the recorded signal was pre-distorted and dynamically equalized to compensate for the poor performance of cheap phonograph players. "Issue 5...revealed most of RCA Victor's 'revolutionary' new system as nothing more than a sophisticated way of bringing higher fi to record buyers who don't care enough about hi-fi to invest in a decent playback system." Ten years later, Gordon wrote that, "As of 1974, the best we can say for Dynagroove is that there is no audible evidence of it on current RCA releases." (These articles were reprinted in June 1992, Vol.15 No,6, as part of Stereophile's 30th-anniversary celebrations.)—John Atkinson
"As We See It" in the Stereophile issue dated Summer 1968 (actually published in 1970) noted the idealistic, glowing claims about how four-channel sound could put you right in the concert hail, but urged readers to wait before buying, to see whether quadrisound would indeed bring higher fidelity. We predicted it wouldn't—that whatever the potential of quadrisound (footnote 1), it would not be used to increase fidelity, but rather to play ring-around-the-rosy with music.
We're not really sure who coined the term—it is usually attributed to Alistair Cooke, former host of the "Omnibus" TV program—but "audible wallpaper" is an apt term for something that is of more than passing concern for the serious music listener.
A reader who asked to remain anonymous wrote to tell us the results of some tests he saw conducted on one of our top-rated loudspeaker systems. Frequency-response checks showed that the system had virtually no deep bass, a midbass peak, a midrange slump, and a high-end rise. Further checks had shown gross distortion at input levels of over about 6W, and a definitely limited (although adequate for Row-M listening) maximum output-level capability. Said reader then went on to ask how we could possibly consider such a speaker to be one of the best available.
Editor's Note: Those of us who cut our engineering teeth on tubes still remember the advent of the solid-state amplifier with mixed feelings. Yes, they were lighter and cheaper per watt than the thermionic hulks we loved so much, but they broke all the time (thanks to the germanium transistor) and sounded like—well, let J. Gordon Holt tell us what they sounded like in an "As We See It" article from Vol.1 No.10, first published in May 1965. We also develop the theme with a JGH review of an early transistorized amp, as well as a selection of readers' letters from the early days of Stereophile. Enjoy.—John Atkinson
In 1960 the high-fidelity field was in a period of stasis. The hi-fi boom was starting to crest out, and there were three magazines for audiophiles: High Fidelity, Stereo Review and Audio. The first two were (and still are) little more than vehicles for their advertising, more dedicated to promoting their advertisers' wares than in advancing the state of the art. Audio was more into equipment testing than either of the mass-hi-fi magazines, but it too was contributing to the stagnation by listening to its test results rather than to the components.
101 years ago, the tinfoil cylinder started it all. Within 22 years, its heyday was done, and public support swung to favor the then-new wax-mastered disc. 1948 saw the switch to a slower speed and a finer groove, but the flat disc, traced by a stylus, has held sway for almost 80 years now. Even today, people with multi-speed turntables and a couple of arms (or plug-in cartridges) can reproduce from a single phono unit the earliest or the latest discs merely by the flip of two switches (for speed change and cartridge change). All that is about to come to an end.
Hey, kids, here's the Big News. We've been deluding ourselves all along, worrying about piddling little bits of distortion that we can't hear at all. How's your preamp distortion? 1% at 1 volt out? You have a perfect preamp—a veritable straight wire with gain! That ear-shattering shrillness is all in your mind, because it has now been demonstrated that the human ear cannot perceive distortion levels of less than 6–12% on "normally complex music." If you think you can hear 0.1%, you are deluding yourself.