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.
"Digital is superior," proclaims Mr. Alberto Arebalos in February's "Letters." I'm glad that's settled. Still, I'm typing this ten feet from a wall lined with LPs, Don Patterson's Satisfaction! is spinning on the old Systemdek turntable, and my usually cold, drafty Chicago apartment seems like a summer night at the Green Mill Jazz Club. But I agree: digital is superior. What's wrong with me?
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.
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.
I walked through my local Best Buy recently and didn't see one stereo receiver. Boomboxes, table radios, surround-sound gear, and computer speakers were everywhere. But the hi-fi staple of the 1960s and '70s—the plain-vanilla two-channel receiver—was not to be seen. Even if one or two were lurking there, the fact remains that high-quality two-channel audio is now so disconnected from consumer electronics that it's hardly at the "high end" of anything at all. It's a world unto itself.
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.
Call me naÏve, but I thought the Hi-Fi Wars were merely in-house squabbles. Yes, meter-carrying objectivists and wide-eyed subjectivists can carry on worse than Republicans and Democrats in Congress. But I always figured that once someone cues up Dark Side of the Moon or Kind of Blue, the partisanship subsides as we revel in our common passion for music and sound. C'mon, everybody—group hug! Okay, I exaggerate.
Mary is a scientist living in a distant galaxy. She and her fellow humanoids are just like us, but their knowledge is highly advanced. It's so advanced, they've solved the most daunting problem in science—understanding the brain and mind. They know everything scientifically possible to know about the brain's neurons, its architecture, and how consciousness, ideas, feelings, and memories occur. Perception and sensation are understood, too. Mary knows exactly how light and sound waves become colorful visions and beautiful melodies. On her planet, aspiring neurobiologists are out of luck. There's nothing more to aspire to.
Call me sentimental, but I'm sad to see turntables disappear. They were my original calling. Back in 1973 or so, when a kid from my neighborhood insisted that I see his brother-in-law's "fantastic stereo," I was entranced by a huge Pioneer receiver and walnut AR3a speakers. But most alluring by far was the Marantz turntable. Its brushed stainless-steel controls and gleaming, chromed tonearm made it look like some delicate and expensive scientific instrument. Compared to the all-in-one plastic unit I played my Partridge Family records on, the mere sight of it put me on the audiophile path. (And I mean just the sight of it. We weren't allowed to touch.) Eventually, his brother-in-law played a record for me—Gordon Lightfoot's Endless Wire. Since that day, I can chart the passage of my life according to the turntables I've owned—if it's VPI, this must be Chicago.