I feel privileged to have followed the remarkable evolution of digital processors over the past four-and-a-half years. Since my first digital review—a survey of three modified CD players back in August 1989—I've been fascinated by the developments that have inexorably improved the quality of digitally reproduced music.
Steve McCormack has carved out an unusual niche for himself in high-end audio. While working as a hi-fi salesman, Steve successfully modified an amplifier for a customer and promptly decided that there was a market for improving the sonic performance of other companies' products. Thus The Mod Squad was born, a company Steve and long-time partner Joyce Dudney Fleming established to offer high-end modification services.
Editor's Note: This article is now only available as an Audio Engineering Society preprint, under the title "The Role of Critical Listening in Evaluating Audio Equipment Quality," preprint number 3176. The price is $4.00 for AES members, and $5.00 for non-members; it can be ordered (currently on paper only, not as a downloadable pdf) by entering the number in the appropriate field on the preprint search page at the AES website.
At a CES press breakfast in Las Vegas last January, a member of the "all amplifiers (and digital sources!) sound the same" school of audio journalism made an interesting assertion. He argued that if our society were studied by extraterrestrials, they would find an unhealthy obsession with the re-creation of experience at the expense of experience itself. This speculation was a vehicle to support his position that buying good hi-fi is a waste of money; for the same financial outlay, one can attend hundreds, even thousands of live performances. Moreover, this anti-high-end writer suggested that ETs would consider our quest for better music reproduction a bizarre folly when the real thing is so readily available (footnote 1).
Cary Audio Design founder Dennis Had is largely responsible for popularizing single-ended amplifiers in America. Since appearing on the scene in 1989, Cary Audio Design has forged its own niche in the high-end audio industry. I spoke with Dennis Had about how he got started building amplifiers, and why he's so committed to single-ended triode designs.
As I walked through Stereophile's Taipei High-End Hi-Fi show (see the full report next month), I was startled to see four ladies in their 50s carrying Stereophile bags full of brochures. They'd just left a demonstration of Martin-Logan CLSes driven by Aragon electronics and were talking animatedly among themselves as they busily made their way to the next exhibit room. My surprise was repeated throughout the show as I saw an amazingly diverse group of people who had enough interest in high-end audio to get themselves to the Taipei Hilton and pay the show's admission price. Young couples, old couples, entire families, and women were all there to see and hear high-end audio. This was in sharp contrast to the narrow demographic group seen at US and European hi-fi shows: predominantly young to middle-aged males to whom audio is a hobby.
It seems to me that it should be possible to make a perfectly jitter-free CD transport without resorting to elaborate, expensive mechanical structures. This idealized transport would ignore all mechanical considerations of disc playbackvibration damping and isolation, for exampleand simply put a jitter-free electrical driver at the transport output. If such a circuit could be made, it wouldn't care about how bad the signal recovered from the disc was (provided the recovered data were error-free). The circuit would just output a perfect, jitter-free S/PDIF signal. The result would be the sound quality of the $8500 Mark Levinson No.31 Reference CD transport in $200 machines. Such a scheme would provide an electrical solution to what has been considered largely a mechanical problem.
But back in the real world there's no doubt that attention to mechanical aspects of transport design affects sound quality. Examples abound: listening to Nakamichi's 1000 CD transport with its Acoustic Isolation door open and closed; playing the Mark Levinson No.31 with the top open; and putting any transport on isolation platforms or feet are only a few of the dozens of experiences I have had that suggest that mechanical design is of utmost importance.