It was the strangest feeling: to be part of something yet without any understanding of how what I was doing fit into the whole. Back in the early 1980s, I had graduated from playing miscellaneous instruments in an early-music ensemble to devoting myself to the recorder (the end-blown fipple flute, not the audio archiving machine). My teacher, Nancy Winkelmann, had introduced me to various ensembles, and one Saturday afternoon, an ad hoc group of us was working with a composer of so-called "aleatoric" music; literally, music by chance.
It was 45 years ago this month that the first issue of Stereophile, just 20 pages in length, went in the mail. It had been founded by one J. Gordon Holt. Gordon had been technical editor of High Fidelity magazine in the 1950s, and was tired of being asked to pander to the demands of advertisers. "I watched, first with incredulity and then with growing disgust, how the purchase of a year's advertising contract could virtually insure a manufacturer against publication of an unfavorable report," he said in a 1974 article looking back at those dark times. And if a company didn't buy advertising, they didn't get reviewed at all. The Stereophile, as it was then called, was Gordon's answer to audiophiles' need for an honest, reliable source of information. "Okay, if no one else will publish a magazine that calls the shots as it sees them, I'll do it myself," he later wrote.
"Why didn't they choose a color set?" I had been reminiscing about the early days of TV and how my parents bought a black-and-white set so we could watch the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. My daughter Emily's question had me stumped. It is difficult to explain to someone born 10 years after the launch of CD—someone who, for example, has never seen, let alone used, a typewriter, and who enjoys a comparatively infinite set of choices among mature 21st-century technologies—that it was not always thus.
Back on April 13, Stereophile assistant editor Stephen Mejias posted the following thought on his "Elements of Our Enthusiasm" blog: "Is it possible to listen to music and listen to the hi-fi? Or are they two entirely different activities, incomparable and incompatible? Right now, for me, they seem to have nothing in common, whatsoever."
A fellow member of the Bay Area Audiophile Society recently forwarded to me a link to Wikipedia's entry for audiophile. It's a horror. Even before the page defines the word, it begins with a large question mark, circled in green, and the warning, "This article or section may contain original research or unverified claims. Please help Wikipedia by adding references."
As I write this in the first quarter of 2007, CD sales are off over 22% compared to this time last year. The music industry as we know it, based on sales of some kind of physical medium, is over. While CDs and even LPs will remain available—they're so easy and cheap to make—they've become irrelevant to the mass market and to the future of audiophile recordings. The major labels have also become irrelevant (not to mention highly irritating).
I began writing this essay on New Year's Day 2007. The passing of the old year reminded me that I am now in the 21st year of editing Stereophile, my 25th of being the editor-in-chief of a mainstream audio magazine, and my 31st of working full-time as an audio journalist. (Prior to joining Stereophile in 1986, I had worked for 10 years at British magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review, the final four as its editor.) Back in the innocent 1970s, reviewers and editors generally picked and chose what products to review based on their own interest and what they felt appropriate for their readers to know about. Back then, there was only a tiny fraction of the audio brands now available to the audiophile, and even with fewer review pages than we now have, it was possible each year to cover a representative sample of the products being offered our readers. But such was the explosion in high-end audio throughout the 1980s that, by 1989, I felt it necessary to impose some restrictions on what products we choose for full review coverage in Stereophile.
Finding myself in the Northwest on business, I reckoned I'd grab some Seattle dim sum with my nephew before heading my rental car south on I-5 to visit old friends in Oregon. "You live here," I said to Sean. "What are the good radio stations?"
It's called the "Cocktail Party Effect." You may be immersed in the middle of a crowd of audiophiles all talking at once, but when someone says something that catches your attention, such as your name, you can focus on the sound of that person's voice and exclude the babble. The noise suppression can be 9–15dB; ie, the sound being concentrated on seems to be three to four times louder than the ambient noise, according to Wikipedia. The exact mechanism of the Cocktail Party Effect is not known, but it is conjectured that it has something to do with the binaural nature of human hearing: the fact that we have two ears allows us to apply spatial discrimination to what would otherwise be a jumble of sound.
"You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like—static."—Bob Dylan, interviewed by Jonathan Lethem. Rolling Stone, September 7, 2006
It's a jungle out there. The shrinking shelves of your neighborhood newsstand drip with the blood and corpses of magazines that have gone under in the intense battle for browsers' eyeballs. And only if we can make our latest issue's cover sufficiently eye-catching to get enough newsstand browsers to pick up and buy a copy do we get to play another round of the game. (Conventional publishing wisdom holds that, at most, a magazine's cover has six seconds to get its message across.)