I am writing this copy on a venerable Radio Shack TRS-100 portable computer while flying via TWA from St. Louis to Albuquerque, the very fact of doing so having reminded me of what I wanted to write about in this month's column: hardware reliability. J. Gordon Holt touched on this subject in last June's "As We See It," but I felt it worth readdressing in light of recent events.
As explained by Ken Kessler elsewhere in this issue, the English A&R Cambridge company made their name by producing one of the UK's most successful integrated amplifiers, the 40Wpc A60. This neatly styled model was in production for a decade or so and was the basis for a large number of good-sounding but inexpensive audio systems. These days, the company, whose products in the US sell under the Arcam banner, is a major British hi-fi manufacturer, with a product line that includes integrated amplifiers, tuners, loudspeakers, cartridges, and even a CD player. A&R was, I believe, the first UK manufacturer to obtain a player-manufacturing license from Philips, and with the product under review here, has broken new territory for a supposedly "audiophile" company in having a custom LSI chip manufactured to their own requirements.
Thomas Alva Edison may have had a fully equipped laboratory, with a team of assistants slaving every day over ideas to be adopted when ripe as those of the great inventor, but the image of American ingenuity which rings true to me is of the lone tinkerer, working alone and mixing a generous dose of good ol' Yankee know-how with the sweat of his browa lot of it. These days, with the faithful PC and a hardworking CAD program at his side to do the math, the lone tinkerer seems to be thicker on the ground than ever, to judge by the humongous numbers of small companies selling high-end hi-fi components as revealed in Stereophile's readership survey (see p.5). Whether these loners will ever rise above their origins depends, among many other things, on their ideas being truly worthwhile.
"Time to write another equipment report," thought the Great Reviewer, aware that the IRS would soon require another small donation to keep the country running on track. Deftly donning his Tom Wolfe vanilla suit, he sat at the antique desk acquired on one of his many all-expenses-paid research trips to Europe, patted the bust of H.L. Mencken that invariably stood by the word processor, ensured that his level of gonzo awareness was up to par, arranged his prejudices and biases in descending order of importance, checked that the requisite check was in the mail, coined a sufficient number of Maileresque factoids appropriate to the occasion, and dashed off 3000 words of pungently witty, passionately argued, convincingly objective, and deeply felt prose.
"When you read...that an electronic recording has 'excellent' sound it does not mean you can use that record as a system evaluation tool," wrote J. Gordon Holt in October's "As We See It." Yet, if you are a regular reader of Stereophile, you will be aware that the magazine's equipment reviewers do make use of a considerable number and variety of recordings, including many which would appear to be totally electronic, to reach value judgments about hi-fi components.
The last time I was in England, I happened to be rummaging through some boxes in my mother's garage, boxes containing photographs, my old school books, concert programs, diaries, postcardsall the bric-a-brac you collect throughout your life that you'll never have a need for and can never discard. If anything, such rubbish is perhaps the nearest thing to roots that anyone can have these days. Among the boxes was an amplifier that had been an everyday companion of mine for many years, the vintage Vox AC100 I had used to amplify my Fender bass when on the road.
From time to time in this column, I have alluded to what appears to be a loss of direction in high-end audio. It's not that the state of the audio art has stopped advancing; the technology is improving in many ways, as is obvious every time we listen to a new preamplifier or cartridge or loudspeaker that has better this, that, or the other thing than anything which has come before. The problem is that these improvements don't really seem to be getting us anywhere. And I believe the reason for this is that the audio community no longer agrees about where audio is supposed to be going in the first place.
If I had to pick one amplifier designer as having had the greatest continuing influence on the high-end market, as much as I admire John Curl, Audio Research's Bill Johnson, and Krell's Dan D'Agostino, the name of David Hafler inexorably springs to mind. Not because he challenged the very frontiers of hi-fi sound, but because he combined a fertile, creative mind (footnote 1) with a need to bring good sound to as wide an audience as possible, both by making his products relatively inexpensive and by making them available as kits. (The Major Armstrong Foundation apparently agrees with methey presented David with their "Man of High Fidelity" award at the summer 1988 CES.) It remains to be seen if the Hafler company will continue in this tradition, now that David has sold it to Rockford-Fosgate. But there is no doubt that many audiophiles were first made aware of the possibilities of high-end sound by Hafler products in the late '70s, and by Dynaco in the '60s.
"Who Stole The Bass?" asked Anthony H. Cordesman, writing about minimonitors in the April/May 1987 Stereophile (Vol.10 No.3). And for the designer of a box loudspeaker, the fundamental design decision, at any price level, is how much bass extension to aim for. It will always be possible to design a speaker with extension down to 20Hz, but will the result be musically and commercially successful? Will the designer end up with a speaker hypertrophied in that one area at the expense of every other? Will, indeed, the result be feasible technically? For example, for a given cabinet volume, gains in low-frequency extension have to be balanced against corresponding drops in sensitivity, and it is quite possible that to go for 20Hz extension will result in a 60dB/W/m sensitivity, equating with a speaker that only plays extremely quietly, and thus of no use to anyone.