"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."
This review should have appeared more than a few months ago. When I reviewed Linn's Troika cartridge back in the Fall of 1987, in Vol.10 No.6, Audiophile Systems also supplied me with a sample of the Linn LK1 preamplifier and the LK2 power amplifier, which I had intended to review in the due course of things. As it transpired, however, I was less than impressed with the LK2, finding, as did Alvin Gold back in Vol.9 No.2, that while it had a somewhat laid-back balance, it also suffered a pervasive "gray" coloration, which dried out recorded ambience and obscured fine detail.
Although, historically, Asian high-performance loudspeakers have not had much impact in the US (with the possible exception of the Yamaha NS1000), it is obvious from recent events that that situation might change. Some Japanese manufacturers are determinedly attempting in 1989 to scale the high-end heights. Onkyo, for example, launched an entire range under the Precise brandname, designed by that most idiosyncratic of talented Californian engineers, Keith Johnson, while Yamaha has licensed the Swedish ACE-Bass technology to produce loudspeakers that extend amazingly low in the bass for their size. But it is Pioneer, already well-ensconced in the US pro market with their TAD (Technical Audio Devices) drive-units and monitors, who have made perhaps the biggest techno-splash with their "Elite-TZ" speakers. These feature both high-tech drive-units and a novel (if not entirely new) method of minimizing enclosure vibrations.
The TZ-9 is the top of Pioneer's new line, and costs a cool $4000/pair, placing it firmly in the high-end category. But for that outlay, the TZ-9 owner acquires a largish and quite handsome speaker, finished in a rather orange-colored oak veneer and standing some 4' high. Both tweeter and midrange units feature domes fabricated from an amorphous form of carbon termed by Pioneer "Ceramic Graphite," which is said to have 10 times the bending stiffness and two times the internal loss or self-damping of an equivalent titanium dome. The practical result should be accurate pistonic motion in each unit's passband, with a better-damped HF resonance than a metal dome. In practice, these Ceramic Graphite diaphragms can be quite brittle. Despite the presence of protective wire grilles over the mid- and high-frequency units, the first pair of TZ-9s we received had had the midrange domes shattered, due to inadequate early packaging.
John Atkinson sets the stage Nothing seems to polarize people as much as the vexed question concerning the importance of audible differences between amplifiers. If you think there are subjective differences, you're an audiophile; if you don't, you're not. And as any glance at an appropriate issue of Consumer Reports—the publication for non-audiophiles—will confirm, the established wisdom is that once the price of an amplifier or receiver crosses a certain threshold, any further improvement in sound quality becomes irrelevant, in that it puts the price up for no apparent gain. In other words, when it comes to amplification, there is such a thing as being "too" good. Yet, as a reader of this magazine, I would expect that not only have you been exposed to real subjective quality differences between amplifiers that Consumer Reports would regard as sounding identical, you have made purchasing decisions made on the basis of hearing such differences.
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.
When David Hafler sold his Hafler and Acoustat companies to in-car audio manufacturer Rockford-Fosgate a year or so back, things went quiet for a while as the new owners made arrangements to transfer production of both brands to their Arizona facility and took stock of where their new acquisitions stood in the marketplace. Then, at the 1989 CES in Las Vegas, the company made a reasonably sized splash with the first in a new range of Hafler products intended to lift the brand out of the hobbyist-oriented identity it had, perhaps inadvertently, adopted in the last few years.
Externally, the LHH1000 came as a bit of a surprise to these jaded eyes, over-familiar with plain black or brushed-aluminum boxes. Each enclosure is finished in an almost white, anodized finish, with greenish-gray endcaps (made from zinc alloy, I believe) painted with a nubbly, crackle finishan attractively utilitarian styling with shades of military-surplus radio equipment, nicely set off by subdued blue fluorescent readouts. Internally, the units are constructed to audiophile standards. The transport uses Philips's top CDM-1 mechanism, which is fabricated from diecast aluminum, compared with the plastic CDM-4 mechanism which appears in less expensive and less well-specified players. The loading tray, too, which is made from metal, has a reassuringly solid feel to it.
As fascinating as the design of high-end hardware can be, it goes without question that without musical software (or firmware, as our more computer-minded readers would have it) of an appropriately high standard, the whole business would be pointless. Stereophile's interviews have therefore often featured engineers and producers whose recorded work reveals sound quality to be a major concern. I interviewed Performance Recordings' James Boyk back in Vol.9 No.6; J. Gordon Holt spoke in Vol.10 No.3 with Doug Sax and Lincoln Mayorga, of Sheffield Lab, and with Keith Johnson of Reference Recordings, about their history-making Moscow sessions; JGH also discussed Brad Miller's and Lou Dorren's Colossus digital project in Vol.10 No.1 and Vol.11 No.4; while last month Dick Olsher interviewed Peter McGrath, responsible for some superb-sounding recordings for Harmonia Mundi USA as well as for his own Audiofon label.
As I write, it is garage-sale season here again in Santa Fe, and a recent sign near my home advertised "Over 3000 LPs, good condition, low prices." To my surprise, the seller wasn't a yuppie enamored of his new CD player but a true collector discarding the duplicates and dogs from his collection. 30 minutes later, many LPs heavier—including a mint Flanders & Swan At the Drop of a Hat (footnote 1)—and not too many dollars lighter, I returned to a great night's listening courtesy of the black vinyl disc.
Following my reports on 13 mainly inexpensive loudspeakers that have appeared in the last four issues of Stereophile, I thought I would give myself a treat this month by reviewing the latest incarnations of a model that has stood the test of time: the two-way Celestion SL600Si...This is a carefully tuned infinite-baffle design, sacrificing ultimate extension for upper-bass and lower-midrange quality. Its crossover is conventionally British in that it puts flatness of on-axis amplitude response ahead of time coherence, while everything about it, from drive-units to the cabinet itself, is flagrantly "high-tech."