They say that time flies on faster wings once you pass 40, something that I have found to be more true than I care to think about. Yet even considering the unfortunately subjective nature of time, it hardly seems possible that it was 10 years ago, in those golden days of the first Conrad-Johnson preamplifier, Infinity RS4.5 and Hill Plasmatronic loudspeakers, Infinity class-A and Audio Research D110B power amplifiers, that a small San Francisco company, led by a drummer and mechanical engineer who had previously worked on laser-fusion target design at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, virtually invented the high-end cable industry. I say "virtually," because Jean Hiraga in France, Robert Fulton in the US, and Saboru Egawa in Japan had laid down considerable experimental work in the mid-'70s showing that interconnects and speaker cables were hardly the passive devices conventional engineering considered them, and the highly capacitative Cobra Cable, distributed in the US by Polk and in the UK by Monitor Audio, was already destroying marginally stable power amplifiers in 1977.
In audiophile circles, it is the "Stuart"—electronics designer Bob Stuart of the Boothroyd-Stuart collaboration—who has received most recognition. The contribution of industrial designer and stylist Allen Boothroyd has gone relatively unremarked. Yet as I unpacked Meridian's D600 "Digital Active" loudspeaker, I was struck by Boothroyd's ability to make the humdrum—a rectangular box loudspeaker—seem more than just that. The man has one hell of an eye for proportion. From the first Orpheus loudspeaker of 1975, through the Celestion SL6 and 'SL600 (where AB did the industrial and package design), to this latest Meridian loudspeaker design, his brainchildren look "right," to the extent of making competing designs appear at minimum over-square and clumsy, if not downright ugly.
Why had a high-end hi-fi magazine felt the need to produce a classical LP when the thrust of real record companies in 1989 is almost exclusively toward CD and cassette? Why did the magazine's editors think they had a better chance than most experienced professional engineers in making a record with audiophile sound quality? Were they guilty of hubris in thinking that the many years between them spent practicing the profession of critic would qualify them as record producers?
Loudspeaker designers are dreamers. Something takes hold of a manthe fact that loudspeaker designers are all men must be significantand he wrestles with recalcitrant wood, arcane drive-units, and sundry coils, capacitors, and cables, to produce something which will be individual in its sound quality yet inherently more true to the original sound. An impossible task. Yet if there were to be an aristocratic subset of those dreamers, it would be those who have taken upon themselves the burden of producing electrostatic loudspeakers. For these farsighted engineers, there is no standing on the shoulders of others, there is no recourse to tried and tested combinations of other manufacturers' drive-units. Every aspect of the design, no matter how apparently insignificant, has to be created afresh from first principles. For a new electrostatic design to produce a sound at all represents a great triumph for its progenitor, let alone having it sound musical. And to produce an electrostatic loudspeaker that is also possessed of great visual beauty is indeed a bonus.
"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.