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."
I'm starting to hate computers. They take up all my time. Whether I'm writing, preparing classes to teach, toying with computer-generated music, managing finances, or (too often) upgrading hardware, I'm spending too much time in the computer chair, not enough in the listening chair.
Have you seen that advertisement running on the Arts & Entertainment channel? A girl and her brother are arguing in front of their TV: "Are not." "Are so." "Are not." Etc., etc. Finally, she punts: "Mom! He's calling me a neo-fatalist again!" From off-screen: "Do I have to come in there and demonstrate your free will?"
Pollock, Rothko, Amperex, and Sylvania? Last spring I went to a contemporary art show out on Chicago's Navy Pier. I wanted to get away from things with wires and knobs—you know, rub elbows with Chicago's better-dressed, sip some wine, maybe practice talking about artistic creations that I usually don't understand ("It's so brutally honest...yet, somehow, still deceptive"). But there's no rest for the weary, confused audiophile. Along with artists, paintings, and sculptures from all over the world, thousands of vacuum tubes had descended on the Pier.
Remember the old mathematical riddle about moving a football from a hundred yards out to the goal line? Known as Xeno's Paradox, it goes like this: if each time the ball is moved it travels half the distance to the goal, how many moves will it take to get there? The answer: an infinite number, because no matter how many times you cut the distance to the goal by half, you'll always be some infinitesimal distance away from it.