Audiophiles once took it as given that LPs sounded better than CDs—end of discussion. Things are no longer so cut-and-dried. In my seven years as a contributing editor to Stereophile, I've seen an enormous improvement in the quality of digital software and playback-delivery systems. The early-1980s recording and remastering anomalies that made listening to early digital recordings so fatiguing are largely things of the past, though advocates of massive compression, jacked-up gain, and compensatory EQ ("Sounds-better-on-cheap-radios," they dully chant) continue to sully the waters of natural resolution.
Although audiophiles may muster little enthusiasm for the home-theater-driven audio marketplace of the 21st century, its prerequisites have inspired manufacturers to cram as wide a range of flexible programming features into as highly resolved a set of performance packages as possible. Thus we're now witnessing a new generation of exceptionally musical electronics with high-end performance targeted at two-channel enthusiasts, but all primped and prepped for integration into an expanded audio-video rig.
Ideally, through the medium of a synergistically balanced set of high-resolution components, we seek to re-create an acoustic event with a palpable sense of realism—as in timbre, dynamics, room cues, and dimensionality. Have I ever experienced a system commensurate with the experience of sitting 12th-row-center at Carnegie Hall for Boulez conducting Stravinsky? Close, but...
The women in my family and extended circle of friends are generally captivated by good sound, but are often appalled by the brutish, monolithic packaging that passes for "styling" in high-end gear. "Not in my living room," is the refrain, often played in a minor key.
You might recall that ditty from childhood about the little engine that could (I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...). It's an apt metaphor for high-end audio. In traversing the aural sepulchers of last winter's Consumer Electronics Show and the summer's HI-FI Show, I routinely encountered one divine sound system after another. Yet while I never tire of transcendent sonics, eventually I become inured to the procession of celestial, cost-no-object speakers. It's like having a white-light experience, then returning to the gritty reality of life on earth, where for most of us cost is not merely the object, but the determining factor in finding an optimal balance among audio components.
People come to high-end audio with different needs and expectations—some fairly reasoned, some slightly more highfalutin. Some listeners want to get as close as possible to an immersion experience, be it of a live performance or of some more idealized studio ecstasy. Others are enraptured by the status and sex appeal of big, hot-rod components, and simply dig gear—much as they might dig the visceral rush of a high-performance car. Still others compulsively upgrade their equipment in search of some unattainable perfection. But no matter the initial motivation, all roads eventually lead back to a love of music.
In the ongoing audiophile debate over the relative merits of solid-state vs tube amplification, compelling cases can be made for the overall musicality of both methods. And while there's a lot to be said for the dynamic headroom, bass focus, clarity, frequency extension, and silent performance of solid-state gear, it's funny how much you can come to miss the aural verities of tube electronics after a prolonged absence.
Over the past two decades, enough advances in the high-end audio industry have trickled down to aspiring audiophiles that we now enjoy a level of high-value, high-resolution performance that would have seemed unattainable even just a few years ago. Still, immersion in a profound musical experience remains an ephemeral goal to potential converts, given the level of expertise that seems necessary to assemble a truly audiophile set of separates.
Musical arguments in favor of separate components are compelling and well-documented. But there's also something musical to be said about reducing the number of power sources, keeping signal paths short and direct, and hard-wiring connections between components rather than employing multiple sets of interconnects. So while a designer must inevitably confront certain tradeoffs, the explosive growth and popularity of single-box products in the past few years contradicts the received wisdom passed down by some of the more sniffy audiophiles: that such unduly proletarian products are terminally compromised in terms of absolute levels of music reproduction.