Wouldn't you just know it. As soon as I decide on a formal regime of measurements to accompany Stereophile's loudspeaker reviews—see Vol.12 No.10, October 1989, p.166—along comes some hot new technology that changes everything. Robert Harley reported in last month's "Industry Update" column how impressed he and I were with the new MLSSA measurement system from DRA Laboratories.
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."