It is inarguable that the quality of magnetically recorded sound has improved immeasurably in the last 101 years. 101 years? Yes, according to a fascinating account in the May 1988 issue of the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, it was in 1888 that the Cincinnatti-based engineer Oberlin Smith experimented with recording information on steel wire by drawing it across the corner of an electromagnet around which a coil had been wound. Smith only carried out experiments without producing a practical recording system, and it wasn't until 1898 that the Dane, Valdemar Poulsen, was granted a German patent for a "Method for the reception of news, signals, and the like."
One of the things that fascinates me about the field of box loudspeaker design is how few original talents there are capable of designing a model from first principles. Yes, armed with the Thiele-Small papers on bass alignment, an understanding of filter theory, and a working knowledge of the OEM drive-unit field, almost anyone can, and has, come up with one commercially and sonically successful design—given a fair degree of luck. And the teams of well-trained engineers at companies like KEF, B&W, and Celestion have shown that they can produce a steady stream of affordable boxes with a high ratio of performance for the dollar. But for an individual to create more than just one good box speaker requires a modicum of genius, and genius is thin on the ground.
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.