I may have had 4000 LPs and a perfectly wonderful Linn LP12 turntable, but I could go for weeks on end without listening to a single LP. But I still thought of myself as one of the vinyl faithful, even as I rationalized my digital-centric listening tendencies. I loved analog in theoryI just couldn't bring myself to listen to it all that much.
Back in the last century, I mused in this space about the essential difference between recorded sound and the real thing. I had been walking to dinner with friends when I heard the unmistakable sound of live music coming from a window. But here was the kicker: rather than the instruments being of the audiophile-approved acoustic variety, they were two amplified electric guitars. Their sounds were being reproduced by loudspeakers, yet it was unambiguously obvious that it was not a recording being played through those loudspeakers, but real instruments.
I'm fortunate to own some very nice hi-fi gear: Different turntables, tonearms, and pickups for different records. Two pairs of really superb full-range loudspeakers. A choice of mildly exotic amplifiersmy favorite combination of which (a stereo preamplifier and a pair of monoblock power amps) sells for a little over $21,000. The average American consumer would think that's insane.
Though the January 2010 issue of Stereophile will be hitting newsstands before the holidays, this is nominally the last issue of 2009. But already in October, on my return flight from Denver to New York following this year's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, it struck me that 2009 had not been a good year for the world of high-end audio. Yes, the worldwide recession has bit deep into the economic health of audio manufacturers and retailers, but in the past 12 months too many of those who have helped make our hobby great, and have helped promote our shared passion for listening to music with as high a quality as possible, have breathed their last.
There's an old Russian folktale about a farmer who goes to a fair. He buys a bread roll from a vendor. He eats it, but he's still hungry. So he buys and eats another roll, and then another. Still hungry. Next, he buys a donut from a different vendor. At last, he's no longer hungry. The farmer then says to himself, "I wasted the money I spent on the rollsI should have just bought the donut first!"
I love two-channel stereo. A great stereo recording can produce such a full-bodied, three-dimensional soundstage that surround sound seems superfluous. Multichannel is just peachy for home theater, but good ol' stereo suits music just fine, thanks very much.
The drive home from Montreal and the Salon Son & Image show is smooth and uneventful. The snow kindly stops just as John Atkinson and I climb into his Land Cruiser, the woman at Customs lets us into the US with little fanfare, and, there isn't much to set the heart racing. Every fifty or so miles, the highway's long dividing guardrail is punctuated by some enormous brown birda once majestic body that owned the sky is now slung awkwardly and pitifully over cold steel. It's sad that something so beautiful and strong can die so quietly. But quiet abounds out here. The sky seems to move nearly as fast as we do, clouds cling to tall mountains, and winds tug at the Cruiser's tires.
For roughly the same amount of money, you can buy a new Toyota Camry or a used mid-sized Mercedes-Benz sedan. The new car has several things going in its favor: no one else has ever driven it, smoked in it, or ferried dogs and kids and fast-food leavings in it, and it comes with a fresh warranty and the latest safety equipment. But the used Mercedes has other things in its favor: having started with a much larger "build budget," it is, simply, more car for the money all aroundyou just have to pick a good one.
I was having breakfast in my hotel room on December 13, 2008, finally getting down to preparing the presentation I was to give at the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society scant hours later (footnote 1). I procrastinated a little more by checking my e-mail one more time. The message from Ivor Humphreys, once my deputy editor at the UK's Hi-Fi News & Record Review magazine (now just plain Hi-Fi News), and for many years technical editor at Gramophone magazine, was typically terse: "John Crabbe has died. He had a fall on the wintry ice a few days ago and broke an arm. He died at home yesterday. He was 79."
A psychological theory (footnote 1) that I've always been fond of is the one that proposes the perceptual/personality dimension of Sharpening vs Leveling. As defined by the early Gestalt psychologists, Sharpening is an exaggeration of differences, Leveling a minimization of differences. In visual-perception research on this topic, when test subjects were presented with an asymmetrical figure, some later recalled it in ways that exaggerated the figure's asymmetry (Sharpeners), while others minimized or eliminated it (Levelers).
Much has been made of the influence that Linn, Naim, and Rega have had on our ideas about music-system hierarchies: Before they and a handful of other British audio manufacturers kicked off the debate in the 1970s, the conventional wisdom worldwide was that the loudspeaker was more important than the record player, amplifier, or any other link in the domestic audio chain, and thus deserved to be the object of significantly greater care and attention, not to mention investment of cash. But the Brit-fi approach was different, and ostensibly better reasoned: Because musical information that's distorted or dropped entirely by a record player, a CD player, or any other source can't be made right by any other component in the system, it is the source that must be considered the most important component of all, and to which the majority of funds should be allocated.