Few people in the audio business would deny that John Curl is an audio design genius—arguably the greatest one of our generation. He designed and built the electronics for Mobile Fidelity's SuperMaster and David Wilson's (of Wilson Audio) UltraMaster tape recorders, two of the three best analog recorders in the world. (The other is Keith Johnson's home-brew unit.) He designed the JC-1 head amp and JC-2 preamplifier sold under the Mark Levinson name some years ago. He designed head amps for SOTA, Michaelson & Austin (TVA), and has done consulting work for more high-end companies than you can shake a stick at.
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.
Like many Stereophile readers, I have often sped home from a concert to fire up the audio system and then, to the sore vexation of my wife and guests, spent the rest of the evening plunged in the morbid contemplation of what, exactly, was missing.
Now that Sony has bought CBS's records division, and the infamous Copycode bill seems to be dying in Congress, the way may be clearing at last for the US introduction of the new Digital Audio Tape system. This has sparked renewed speculation in the industry about the impact DAT will have on existing formats, particularly the fledgling CD. Some are convinced DAT will kill CD, because of its ability to record as well as play digital recordings. Others believe DAT won't even gain a foothold in the market, for the same reason quadraphonic sound laid an egg back in the '70s: The public can't handle more than one "standard" format. I feel that both views are wrong, and thatas is usually the case with extreme viewsthe truth lies in between. I believe DAT will catch on in the marketplace, but never in a big way, and certainly not the way CD has. Here's why.
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.
Since the introduction of the original B&W 801 monitor loudspeaker in 1980, it has been adopted as a reference by several recording studios around the world, Over the past five years, I have seen 801s present in just about every recording session with which I have been artistically involved. While the original 801 monitor had its strong points, I was never satisfied with the detached and muddy-sounding bass, discontinuous driver balance, and low sensitivity. Unless this speaker was driven by an enormous solid-state power amplifier, with an elevated high-frequency response, the tubby and slow bass response often obliterated any detail in the two bottom octaves of musical material.
Following the introduction of their very expensive, tube/FET hybrid SP11 preamplifier, there were rumors that Audio Research was working on a hybrid tube/transistor preamplifier targeted to cost less than $2000. The rumors were confirmed when ARC showed a black-and-white photo of the SP9 at the 1987 Winter CES. Obviously, like all magazines, we were impatient to receive a review sample, but the first review of the SP9 actually appeared in the summer '87 issue of Peter Moncrieff's IAR Hotline. Peter's review was almost intemperately enthusiastic, comparing the SP9 positively with early samples of the SP11 and suggesting that its sound quality was considerably better than would be expected from its $1695 asking price. Naturally, we were anticipating good things when our review sample arrived in Santa Fe in late July.
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.
As the person who "invented" subjective testing, I have followed with great interest the many articles in the mainstream audio press which purport to prove that none of us can really hear all the differences we claim to hear, particularly those between amplifiers. My reaction has usually been: "Why didn't they invite me to participate? I would have heard the differences under their double-blind listening conditions." I could make that assertion with supreme confidence because I had never been involved in any such test.
1987 will mark Stereophile's 25th year of continuous (if initially sometimes sporadic) publication. And while we haven't yet decided what we're going to do in celebration, the first issue of 1987 does seem to be as good a time as any to contrast the state of the audio art when we began publication with what is routinely possible today.
Ask most professional symphony musicians for their views concerning recording sessions, and you might be greeted with seemingly nonchalant and cavalier responses. You will probably be told that although recording can be quite lucrative, it is almost always an exercise in futility. If you press further, and inquire as to why these "artists" display such negative attitudes, they would treat you to both a lecture concerning the shortcomings and gross musical distortions usually involved in the recording process, and to a tirade on the incompetence and arrogance of many recording engineers and producers. And once you have opened this can of worms, you will undoubtedly be told about the frustrations of having to deal with inaccurate and distorted representations of their art at the hands of the musically inept.
Editor's Introduction: 1987 sees Stereophile celebrating its 25th anniversary of continuous—if occasionally sporadic—publication. For an ostensibly "underground" publication to have survived so long is a tribute to the skills and enthusiasm of the magazine's founder and Editor, J. Gordon Holt. I thought it fitting, therefore, to ask a contemporary of Gordon's, Ed Dell (footnote 1), himself a respected publisher and editor, to pen an appreciation of the man who defined the world of subjective reviewing.—John Atkinson
I have a confession to make: I play contrabassoon . . . for a living. Now to many this may not seem like such a sin, but within the musical community my instrument is viewed with about as much regard as the common garden slug. This perception is not completely unjustified; often being relegated to roles depicting monsters and evil, along with the occasional digestive grunt, helps perpetuate the general disdain for the contra. However, playing the lowest (non-keyboard) instrument in the symphony orchestra gives me a somewhat different perspective on things, not unlike that of a dwarf in a crowded elevator: a view from the bottom up. It's amazing just how much pitch and harmonic coloration there is down in the subbasement. And shoring up the foundation of the wind section, as well as being the true bottom of the orchestral sonority, can be very satisfying. Although playing an instrument with a limited repertoire can sometimes be disconcerting, it also has its advantages. During rehearsals, if I'm not required for a certain work, I can go out into the house for my own private concert, or stay put in the orchestra and get a sonic thrill that makes the IRS and WAMM systems sound like tin cans.
The quest for a full-range electrostatic loudspeaker has occupied many engineers' minds for many years. The problems are manifold: large physical size (which can lead to room placement problems and poor dispersion), the difficulty of achieving high sound pressure levels, the need for a potentially sound-degrading step-up transformer, and the unsuitability for production-line manufacture. Even so, the potential rewards are so great that one can understand why loudspeaker designers keep on attempting the apparently impossible. Epoch-making models do appear at infrequent intervals, keeping the flame burning since the appearance of the original Quad in 1955: Acoustat, Sound Lab, and Beveridge in the US, Stax in Japan, Audiostatic in Holland, Quad, of course, in England, and now MartinLogan.