While the LP-vs-CD debate continues unabated among high-end audiophiles, the rest of the world has already closed the book on the venerable LP. All but a few specialized classical record companies (footnote 1)(and some weird magazines) have ceased releasing new LPs, few record stores sell them any more, and consumers who wouldn't be caught dead owning something that wasn't trendy have long ago dumped their LP collections for cents on the pound.
1950: "The ultimate in disc recording is to make the reproduced sound as near as possible to the original..." (The founder of Audio magazine, C.G. McProud, in "Recording Characteristics," Audio Engineering, January 1950, reprinted in The 2nd Audio Anthology, p.67, Radio Magazines, 1954.)
Lars recently received a device that looks and works like a $25 digital alarm clock and is said to subtly improve the overall sound of one's system. It's the ElectroTec EP-C, from a company called Coherence Industries.
In the Fall of 1989, Stereophile magazine released its first recording, of Gary Woodward and Brooks Smith playing flute sonatas by Prokofiev and Reinecke, and a work by American composer Griffes that gave the LP its title: Poem (footnote 1). The full story was published in the September 1989 issue (p.66). We wanted to offer our readers an LP of acoustic music made with the minimum of electronics and processing—the sounds of the instruments would be as true to reality as possible. The images of the instruments were also captured with a purist microphone technique so that, with even a halfway decent system, a true soundstage would be created between and behind the loudspeakers when the recording was played back.
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..."
Beginning with this issue, Stereophile readers will notice that more of the subjective equipment reviews are augmented with technical reports describing certain aspects of the component's measured performance. Although test data have lately been increasingly included in reviews, Stereophile has recently made a major commitment to providing readers with relevant measurements of products under review. We have just finished building an audio test laboratory featuring the Audio Precision System One, a sophisticated, computer-based audio test measurement system.
"Test We Must," cried High Fidelity's erstwhile editor, Michael Riggs, in a January 1989 leader article condemning the growth of subjective testing. (See the sidebar for Peter Mitchell's obituary of HF magazine, now effectively merged with Stereo Review.) With the exception of loudspeakers, where it is still necessary to listen, he wrote, "laboratory testing (properly done) can tell us pretty much everything we need to know about the performance of a typical piece of electronics...We know what the important characteristics are, how to measure them, and how to interpret the results."
I have been reading a lot of late. Whether it is due to the reduced appeal of recorded music owing to the ever-decreasing shelves of LPs in our local specialty record store (the owner explains that he still wants to sell LPs; it's the record companies that make it increasingly harder for him to do so with punitive returns policies and deaf ears to back orders), or the fact that it's Spring, I don't know. But the fact remains that I have recently found myself devouring a shelf-full of titles sometimes only vaguely related—horrors!—to high fidelity. Stuart Chase's The Tyranny of Words, for example, first published in 1938 and a finer examination of what came to be called semantics you wouldn't want to find, should be essential reading for anyone involved in writing articles that are still intended to communicate some meaning.
"Tax proposed to fund Public TV, radio," read the newspaper headline. The Working Group for Public Broadcasting, described as a "private study group," was proposing to free public broadcasting "from improper political and commercial influences" by replacing its $228 million in congressional appropriations and $70 million or so in corporate funding with $600 million to be raised from a new sales tax on electronic equipment. The article went on to say that the proposal was being sent to the congressional panels concerned with communications (ie, the commerce committees), where it could become the basis for a new Public Broadcasting Act.
"Time to write another equipment report," thought the Great Reviewer, aware that the IRS would soon require another small donation to keep the country running on track. Deftly donning his Tom Wolfe vanilla suit, he sat at the antique desk acquired on one of his many all-expenses-paid research trips to Europe, patted the bust of H.L. Mencken that invariably stood by the word processor, ensured that his level of gonzo awareness was up to par, arranged his prejudices and biases in descending order of importance, checked that the requisite check was in the mail, coined a sufficient number of Maileresque factoids appropriate to the occasion, and dashed off 3000 words of pungently witty, passionately argued, convincingly objective, and deeply felt prose.
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.
From time to time in this column, I have alluded to what appears to be a loss of direction in high-end audio. It's not that the state of the audio art has stopped advancing; the technology is improving in many ways, as is obvious every time we listen to a new preamplifier or cartridge or loudspeaker that has better this, that, or the other thing than anything which has come before. The problem is that these improvements don't really seem to be getting us anywhere. And I believe the reason for this is that the audio community no longer agrees about where audio is supposed to be going in the first place.
If I had to pick one amplifier designer as having had the greatest continuing influence on the high-end market, as much as I admire John Curl, Audio Research's Bill Johnson, and Krell's Dan D'Agostino, the name of David Hafler inexorably springs to mind. Not because he challenged the very frontiers of hi-fi sound, but because he combined a fertile, creative mind (footnote 1) with a need to bring good sound to as wide an audience as possible, both by making his products relatively inexpensive and by making them available as kits. (The Major Armstrong Foundation apparently agrees with methey presented David with their "Man of High Fidelity" award at the summer 1988 CES.) It remains to be seen if the Hafler company will continue in this tradition, now that David has sold it to Rockford-Fosgate. But there is no doubt that many audiophiles were first made aware of the possibilities of high-end sound by Hafler products in the late '70s, and by Dynaco in the '60s.
"Who Stole The Bass?" asked Anthony H. Cordesman, writing about minimonitors in the April/May 1987 Stereophile (Vol.10 No.3). And for the designer of a box loudspeaker, the fundamental design decision, at any price level, is how much bass extension to aim for. It will always be possible to design a speaker with extension down to 20Hz, but will the result be musically and commercially successful? Will the designer end up with a speaker hypertrophied in that one area at the expense of every other? Will, indeed, the result be feasible technically? For example, for a given cabinet volume, gains in low-frequency extension have to be balanced against corresponding drops in sensitivity, and it is quite possible that to go for 20Hz extension will result in a 60dB/W/m sensitivity, equating with a speaker that only plays extremely quietly, and thus of no use to anyone.
A couple months back, a question from a dealer set me back in my chair: "Are you guys really going to put out Stereophile on a monthly basis?" I was surprisedwhen he put the question, we were just starting production work on the issue you hold in your hands, the twelfth to hit the stands since we started publishing monthly. Beginning with Vol.10 No.5 in August 1987, a Stereophile has gone in the mail every month, pretty much on time despite having gone through the trauma of changing printers last December on one issue's notice.