"I don't like Mondays!" sang Bob Geldof some years back, and I'm beginning to hate Mondays too. No, not for the obvious reason. You see, Monday is "hate-mail" day. Every day I get letters from Stereophile's readers. But for some reason known only to the mavens (or should that be Clavens?) of the US Postal Service, the ones pointing out my stupidity, dishonesty, and sheer incompetence as a human being arrive on Mondays.
For example: "Bits are bits, and it is therefore dishonest for Stereophile's writers to continue to insist that they can hear any differences between CD players or digital processors!" recently wrote an angry reader, canceling his subscription. (They always tell me they're going to cancel their subscription.) "Yeah, right!" thought I, having just sat through a comparative audition of, would you believe, digital data interconnects in Robert Harley's listening room. Some of the differences I heard were not trivial. They might even be audible in a blind listening test.
"No pain; no gain." Thus goes the June 1991 offering from the Cliché-of-the-Month Club(800) MOT-JUSTa saying that seems particularly appropriate for audiophiles with aspirations. High-performance loudspeakers fall into two categories. First are those exasperating thoroughbreds requiring endless Tender Loving Care and fussy attention to system detail to work at all. Take the Avalon Eclipse or the Infinity IRS Beta, for example: when everything is just fine, you put on record after record, trying to get through as much music as possible before the system goes off song again. On the other hand, speakers like the Vandersteens, Magnepans, B&W 801 Matrix, and KEF R107/2 appear to sound excellent even as you unpack them, before you've even put them in what you think might be the optimum positions in your listening room.
The question is: Are such unfussy designs really high-end? I mean, if they were truly high-performance speakers, shouldn't the owner have to suffer even just a little to reach musical nirvana? "A little pain; some sonic gain!" goes that other familiar saying.
You all know where you stand on this vitally important question. Me, I prefer to sit and construct the following graphical analogy. Draw a vertical axis and mark it "Absolute Performance." (The units are "gb," footnote 1) Now draw a horizontal axis and label it "Setup." (The units are "dU" for "deci-Ungers," footnote 2) Okay, sketch out an inverted V-shape. This curve, something like an engine's torque vs RPM curve, represents the manner in which a system's or component's performance changes according to how it is set up.
The name Joseph Grado is certainly not new to the transducer field, but the HP 1 is his first entry into the headphone market. The HP 1s are billed as "Professional Recording Monitor Headphones," and Grado is clearly targeting professional recording engineers and equipment designers in need of an accurate monitoring tool. Joe's designs, whether they be phono cartridges or tonearms, have never been ho-hum also-rans when compared to their competition. His products have invariably shown unique design ingenuity, often radically departing from accepted practice. His Signature Tonearm (the last such product he made, now discontinued), which I still use as a reference, is a case in point. The HP 1 headphones are no exception, being rather unusual in design, physical appearance, and construction.
This must be the month I drew the right straw to review "loudspeakers with three-letter initials." Elsewhere in this issue I describe my experiences with a pair of JBLs. Everyone knows that JBL stands for "James B. Lansing," founder of that company. You do, don't you? But PSB? If you've been paying attention here, you probably remember that JGH reviewed one of their loudspeakers back in May 1988. If you haven't, well, listen up. PSB is named after Paul Barton and his wife Sue, who formed Canada-based PSB in 1971. (Paul is still their chief designer.) The company was unknown in the US until just a few years ago, and still has a lower profile here than, well, certainly that other three-letter company. But not for lack of trying. They have at least 10 models—at last count.
"Boy, that's flat!" I whistled. I was looking at a quasi-anechoic TDS response Avalon Acoustics' Charles Hansen had produced for his latest brainchild, the two-way Eclipse loudspeaker that he was setting up in my listening room.
What did you on your wedding night? I know what I did. All three times. But Casey McKee? He spent his wedding night at the end of October installing the new Lingo power supply on his Linn LP12. I know. I was there.
"My vision for the future is one where all manufacturers sell their products directly to the end user. In this way, even the audiophiles in Dead Horse, Alaska can have access to all the audio manufacturing community has to offer." Thus wrote loudspeaker designer David Fokos in a letter introducing his new company Icon Acoustics to the press at Stereophile's High End Hi-Fi show in San Mateo, CA last April (footnote 1). Mr. Fokos, a Cornell graduate who for some years worked for Conrad-Johnson Design and designed that company's well-regarded Synthesis and Sonographe loudspeaker models, feels very strongly that the traditional retailing setup is inefficient when it comes to exposing audiophiles to a wide enough choice of product, particularly when it comes to loudspeakers. With 300 speaker manufacturers listed in the Audio directory issue but even a major retailer restricted to probably six brands, even big-city audiophiles will only be able to audition a fraction of the total number of brands. "Our industry is suffering from product saturation of its retail distribution network."
Jitter is not what digital sound quality induces in the listener; rather it is the instability in the clock signal that controls exactly when the analog waveform is sampled in the original A/D conversion, or when the digital word input into a DAC results in an analog voltage being produced at the chip's output. "So what?" is the response of digital advocates, "As long as a digital one is recognized as a one and a digital zero as a zero, then how can there be any difference in sound?" goes their argument, normally culminating in a fervently expressed "Bits is bits!"
"Desperation is the Mother of Invention." Isn't that how the proverb goes? Certainly it applied ten years ago in the case of the Philips engineers working on the development of the Compact Disc system. Given a specification that had included a 14-bit data word length, they had duly developed a 14-bit DAC chip, the TDA1540, only then to be informed that the CD standard decided upon after Sony joined forces with the Dutch company would involve 16-bit data words. (Thank goodness!)