Blind loudspeaker listening tests are hard work, not least because usually, most of the models being auditioned fail to light any musical sparks. But back in the spring of 1991, when a small group of Stereophile writers were doing blind tests for a group speaker review, one speaker did light up smiles on the listeners' faces, including my own. (We don't talk during our blind tests, but it's more difficult to keep body language in check.) Once the results were in, we learned that the speaker that got the music right in that test was the diminutive ES11 from Epos in England (footnote 1).
There has been much argument in audiophile circles about whether an LP or a CD is a more faithful representation of a master tape. Although we recorded Robert Silverman's thrilling performance of the Liszt B-Minor Piano Sonata for CD release, we also had in mind to issue an LP. As the source for both would be the same, the question we can answer is: Will an LP cut straight from a 20-bit master tape via a Class A 20-bit DAC sound closer than a CD noise-shaped to 16 bits from the same 20-bit original?
When I first started buying records at the end of the 1950s, I had this vision of the typical recording engineer: A sound wizard wearing a white lab coat rather than a cloak festooned with Zodiacal symbols. He (it was always a "he," of course) would spare no effort, no expense to create a disc (LPs and 45s were all we had) that offered the highest possible sound quality. At that time I also believed that Elvis going into the Army meant the end of rock'n'roll, that my teachers knew everything, that politicians were honest, that socialism was the best form of government, and that talent and hard work were all you needed to be a success. Those ideas crashed and burned as I grew up, of course, but other than the long-discarded white coats, each new record I bought strengthened rather than weakened my image of the recording engineer.
A musical highlight for us at Stereophile in 1995 was the opportunity to record several concerts at the world-famous Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. The result was a Stereophile CD, Festival (STPH007-2), which features the original chamber version of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, Darius Milhaud's jazz-inspired La création du monde, and the premiere recording of the 1995 Festival commission, Tomiko Kohjiba's The Transmigration of the Soul (see Stereophile, January 1996, Vol.19 No.1, p.132). We were pleased, therefore, to be asked back by the Festival in 1996. Once again we have produced a CD of live recordings, Serenade (STPH009-2), which features chamber works by Mozart, Brahms, and Dvorák.
You would have thought the hardware companies who trumpeted at the January 2006 Consumer Electronics Show that their video DVD players would be in US retailers' showrooms by September 1996 would have learned an important lesson from the bungled DAT launch almost 10 years ago: Without first getting complete agreement of the software industry on substantive issues, it's foolish to announce a firm launch date for a new medium. September came and went without DVD discs or players being available in US stores. In fact, all that happened was that the bottom fell out of sales of 12" laserdiscs and laserdisc players.
If there is a component category that causes the "objectivists" in the audio community to splutter uncontrollably over their cups of herbal tea, it is the high-end CD transport. For in their "bits is bits" world, all a transport is required to do is recover the digital data from a disc—much like a grown-up cousin of your computer's $25 floppy-disk drive. The thought of paying up to $10,000 for something so humble—and, in their eyes, unnecessary—typifies what these blinkered folks regard as the insanity of the High End.
Loudspeaker manufacturer Boston Acoustics made its name—and its fortune—building high-performance but low-cost speakers. Indeed, I recently set up a modest system for my mother-in-law that was based on Boston's classic A-40—a two-way design that sold for just $160/pair back in 1986—and was very pleasantly surprised at the quality these little speakers offered. Back in the early '90s, however, the Massachusetts-based company announced that they were taking a step into the High End with a new loudspeaker line, the Lynnfields (see Thomas J. Norton's interview with Boston's Andy Kotsatos elsewhere in this issue). These were designed by expatriate British engineer Phil Jones, previously responsible for the impressive Acoustic Energy speakers.
In recent months, Stereophile's "Letters" column has been filled with complaints about the equipment we choose to review. "Too rich for my pocketbook" is the universal sentiment. This puzzles me, considering that Stereophile does review many "affordable" components. In part, I think this reaction is due to the high profile invariably associated with very expensive gear. Although we did put both speakers on our cover, one review of a Wilson Grand SLAMM or a JMlab Grand Utopia seems to outweigh 10 reviews of more realistically priced products. Our writers love to cover the cutting edge of audio—witness Martin Colloms's report from HI-FI '96 in this issue—because progress is more easily made when a designer is freed from budget constraints. But without the Grand SLAMM or Utopia, would Wilson have been able to produce the $9000/pair WITT, or JMlab the $900/pair Micron Carat, to name two high-value, high-performance designs recently reviewed in the magazine?
Conventional wisdom has it that large Japanese corporations are insular. But when it comes to audio, Sony bucks the conventional wisdom as much as it does in pretty much everything it does. In Europe, the company has long had an excellent reputation for producing loudspeakers using local design talent, so I wasn't surprised to see Sony launching a line of American-designed and -made speakers at Stereophile's 1994 High-End Hi-Fi Show in Miami. Stereophile writer Barry Willis came away from that Show raving about the Sonys: "What we heard was gorgeous, absolutely beautiful: rich, warm, and deep, with a seductive midrange, a shimmering, delicate, grain-free top-end, and a soundstage to die for," he wrote about the sound of the three-way SS-M7 in Miami (footnote 1), 1 concluding that "WATT/Puppy performance is now available at Vandersteen prices in an American-made loudspeaker sporting a Japanese badge."
One of the characteristic traits, I have found, that defines the loudspeaker designer is that they are loners—they seem to avoid one another's company as if on purpose. But if ever you sit down with a designer, all you need to do to open him up is to ask him what he feels to be important in loudspeaker performance.