Paul Gowan's letter in the October 1989 Stereophile hinted that, whether or not audiophiles enjoy music, it should be true that the emotional experience we derive from music is what really matters. There, barefaced, lies the problem: who are "we"? A well-known Latin epigram affirms that in matters of taste there is no point in discussion. And a Greek epigram (coined in fact by Max Beerbohm in his Oxford novel Zuleika Dobson) suggests that "for people who like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like."
Dateline: late August 1989. The scene: my palatial office in the Stereophile Tower. Present were the magazine's official technowizard Robert Harley, Circulation Kahuna Michael Harvey, and myself. The subject under discussion was the program for the Stereophile Test CD, launched in this issue, and Bob had been dazzling Michael and myself with a description of the sophisticated signal-processing power offered by the Digidesign Sound Tools music editing system with which he had outfitted his Macintosh IIX computer. (He had to fit it with a 600-megabyte hard-disk drive!) "It'll even do edits as crossfades as well as butt joins," enthused Bob. "Let me tell you about the crossfade I once did when editing a drum solo for a CD master that lasted ten seconds..."
Five or six years ago I wrote a breezy, introductory-type piece on mid-fi "knob-surfing," winding up with a reprise on the old line that the number of the knobs, lights, and tattoos on the faceplate is often inversely proportional to the quality behind them.
During the late 1950s, when high fidelity exploded into a multimillion-dollar industry, product advertisements bragged about bringing the orchestra into your living room. Apparently, no one realized what an absurd concept it was, but there are still many people today who believe that's what audio is all about. It isn't. There is no way a real orchestra could fit into the average living room, and if it could, we would not want to be around when it played. Sound levels of 115dB are just too loud for most sane people, and that's what a full orchestral fortissimo can produce in a small room.
I'd like to expand on the "expensive electronics/inexpensive speakers" discussion begun by John Atkinson in his Levinson No.26 & No.20 reviews. "Perhaps because it acts as a bottleneck on the signal," he wrote, "the quality of an amplifier or preamplifier is far more important than that of a loudspeaker when it comes to preserving or destroying the musical values of the signal. This would appear to be heresy in the US where, to judge by the letters I receive, large, complicated, expensive loudspeaker systems are often driven by relatively inexpensive, modestly performing electronics, the rationale behind this being that, to quote one correspondent, 'It is the loudspeakers that produce the sound, therefore they are where the majority of the budget should be allocated.'"
Alright already, quit shoving. I know I don't belong here. This magazine already has a place for manufacturers---in the back, where those large egos are squeezed into small column inches so they can't hurt you. Not that I'm exactly proud of my job. On social occasions, if pressed as to my profession, I will usually admit to some honest toil such as mortician or hodcarrier. Speaker design is downright devious work. As proof, examine the specifications for the 1376 models in Audio's 1988 equipment directory. Much of this data, when compared with each described system's real-world performance, looks like Joe Isuzu wrote it on a bad day.
The electric clocks in my house keep better time than the ones I wind, yet I scarcely look at them. It is the ticking, I think, that comforts me. I like to lean my ear against these various pendulums and, back and forth, gently rock my life away.
Editor's Introduction: Stereophile's "Recommended Components" feature is, as I am sure you will have guessed, produced by a committee. The reviews are studied, the reviewers polled to verify the continued validity, the merits and demerits of specific pieces of equipment are discussed or, rather, argued over at length by JGH, JA, and LA, and out of the whole business emerges the "truth." But, as with the findings of any committee, what is presented as a consensus will have significant undertows and countercurrents of opinion; if these are very strong, a "Minority Report" is often also produced. Such has been the case this time, concerning loudspeakers.
In his April 16, 2001 website essay "Where's Our Freedom of Audio Choice?" reader Jim Tavegia railed against the ubiquitous policy of manufacturers only allowing their products to be available through selected retailers. "If I'm willing to pay the UPS costs, it should be my prerogative to buy equipment anywhere I please," he wrote. This echoes a controversy that appeared in the print magazine 15 years ago. The affair started with some innocent-looking text written by Audio Cheapskate Sam Tellig in the December 1985 Stereophile (Vol.8 No.8):
Editor's Note: In 1985 and 1986, an argumentative thread ran through Stereophile's pages, discussing the benefits or lack of double-blind testing methods in audio component reviewing, triggered by J. Gordon Holt's review of the ABX Comparator. As this debate is still raging nearly 15 years later, we present here the entire discussion that bounced back and forth between the magazine's "Letters" section and features articles. It was kicked off by a letter from C.J. Huss that appeared in Vol.8 No.5.—John Atkinson
Larry Archibald on CD: This article on Compact Discs and CD players is by Doug Sax, president of Sheffield Records and a longtime opponent of digital recording. J. Gordon Holt offers a response elsewhere in this issue, in which he advises readers to buy a Compact Disc player as soon as they can afford it. Gordon in general hails the Compact Disc as the greatest thing to hit audio since the stereophonic LP.
Editor's Note from 1992: This seminal J. Gordon Holt essay on how the art of recording natural sound became compromised in favor of unmusical artificiality for good commercial reasons was originally published in August 1964, in Vol.1 No.8. Though most people these days listen to classical music from CDs, not LPs, in the intervening decades, recording technology has not changed for the better as much as one might have hoped. Nevertheless, the days of wretched multimiking excess described by Gordon are past, and it's rare to find the music treated with the lack of respect typical of a mid-'60s Columbia session. Although some of the smaller companiesReference Recordings, Delos, Chesky, Mapleshade, Dorian, and Sheffield Lab in the US; Meridian, Nimbus, and Hyperion in the UKconsistently use honest, minimal miking, it is not unknown for the majors in the '90s to do likewise. And the use of time delay for spot microphones, pioneered by Denon in the mid-'80s, means that instruments that might tend to become obscured at orchestral climaxes can now be brought up in level without unnaturally time-smearing the sound. I still find it sad, however, that it is rare to hear the sheer dynamic range of a live ensemble successfully captured on a commercial recording.John Atkinson