As January 1, 2000 approaches, and the MP3 whirlpool continues to swirl, one simple fact has made me feel as if I'm stuck at the starting line of the entire download controversy: The sound quality of MP3 has yet to improve above that of the average radio broadcast. Until that changes, I'm merely curious—as opposed to being in the I-want-to-know-it-all-now frenzy that is my usual m.o. when to comes to anything that promises music you can't get anywhere else.
Call me sentimental, but I'm sad to see turntables disappear. They were my original calling. Back in 1973 or so, when a kid from my neighborhood insisted that I see his brother-in-law's "fantastic stereo," I was entranced by a huge Pioneer receiver and walnut AR3a speakers. But most alluring by far was the Marantz turntable. Its brushed stainless-steel controls and gleaming, chromed tonearm made it look like some delicate and expensive scientific instrument. Compared to the all-in-one plastic unit I played my Partridge Family records on, the mere sight of it put me on the audiophile path. (And I mean just the sight of it. We weren't allowed to touch.) Eventually, his brother-in-law played a record for me—Gordon Lightfoot's Endless Wire. Since that day, I can chart the passage of my life according to the turntables I've owned—if it's VPI, this must be Chicago.
"Digital is superior," proclaims Mr. Alberto Arebalos in February's "Letters." I'm glad that's settled. Still, I'm typing this ten feet from a wall lined with LPs, Don Patterson's Satisfaction! is spinning on the old Systemdek turntable, and my usually cold, drafty Chicago apartment seems like a summer night at the Green Mill Jazz Club. But I agree: digital is superior. What's wrong with me?
Call me naÏve, but I thought the Hi-Fi Wars were merely in-house squabbles. Yes, meter-carrying objectivists and wide-eyed subjectivists can carry on worse than Republicans and Democrats in Congress. But I always figured that once someone cues up Dark Side of the Moon or Kind of Blue, the partisanship subsides as we revel in our common passion for music and sound. C'mon, everybody—group hug! Okay, I exaggerate.
The criticisms are out there. They're in the audio newsgroups on the Internet, even in this magazine's "Letters" section. For years, Cassandras have proclaimed that Stereophile has sold out, gone down the tubes, become a mere lapdog for the big-league manufacturers whose components almost never get panned.
For all its excesses, high-quality audio is filled with purists. Some are committed to single-ended amplifiers, some to all-analog circuitry, to crossoverless speakers, or to recordings made with only two microphones. Purists seek simplicity in their quest for good sound. But how simple is it to scrub contacts, adjust tonearms, or meticulously clean discs before nearly every listening session? Maybe committed purists should just be committed.
In a dark, smoky office, a desk lamp beams a cone of light onto papers, books, pipes, and notepads. A theoretical physicist hunches over his desk, half-illuminated, visualizing the world inside his equations.
John Atkinson, you were right the first time ("Letters," Stereophile, December 1997, p.17, footnote 1): Jeremy Bentham is, indeed, the famous English philosopher and legal theorist whose mummified remains are preserved at the University of London. Sitting in a large glass display case, Bentham has been holding court since his death in 1832. As you noted, Bentham looks deceptively like a waxwork. But this is because his head, in fact, is made of wax. The original, rumor has it, suffered through one very macabre rugby game played long ago by mischievous students.
Mojo Nixon sings, "Elvis is everywhere." My version is "Darwin is everywhere." Last Thanksgiving, as my extended family was gathered around the dinner table, my 11-year-old nephew abruptly reminded us that Darwin was there, too. Out of the blue, he broadcast the $64,000 question:
Everyone knows the story: Isaac Newton got hit on the head by an apple and suddenly discovered the physics of gravitation. Like the one about Archimedes discovering the basics of hydrostatics while taking a bath, this story turns up everywhere. Even Michael Stipe, in R.E.M.'s "Man in the Moon," sings "Newton got beaned by the apple good."
Here in Chicago the other day, I was on my way to an appliance store, so audio was the last thing on my mind. But, as if by some miraculous intervention (or just stupidity), I parked and went in the wrong store: "Why does this appliance store have bins and bins of CDs in it?" Realizing my mistake, I found the stoves and ranges I was looking for next door—but not before noticing bins and bins of used LPs behind all those CDs.
Suppose you've put aside some cash for a new preamp. You survey the field and zero in on the Musical Ecstasy 1000 and the Sonic Nirvana Special. Both got good reviews in all the magazines, they look great, and each will set you back about the same number of mortgage payments. So you visit your dealer and camp out for a weekend or two. You listen, you think, you walk around the store, you listen some more, you recalculate your tax return. You listen some more. Finally, you have a winner. "I want that one," you tell your dealer; "the Sonic Nirvana."