As strongly as I believe that the listening experience is the most reliable method of judging the quality of audio equipment, I've been biased against single-ended tube amplifiers because of their quirky measured performances. Without having heard single-ended under good conditions—much less living with an SE amplifier—I had concluded that many listeners must like them because they're euphonically colored by large amounts of low-order distortion and impedance interactions with the loudspeakers. SE amplifiers seem to be a departure from the goal of making the electronics transparent. Moreover, the range of loudspeakers suitable for SE amplifiers is so restrictive that I wondered why anyone would bother with these underpowered distortion-generators. I had fallen into a trap that I've repeatedly railed against: drawing conclusions without firsthand listening experience (footnote 1).
Choosing a loudspeaker can be difficult. Although it is easy to be seduced by a certain model's special qualities, that exceptional performance in one area is often at the expense of other important characteristics. Go with high-quality minimonitors for their spectacular soundstaging, but give up bass, dynamics, and the feeling of power that only a large, full-range system can provide. If you choose an electrostatic for its delicious midrange transparency, you may have to forgo dynamics, impact, and the ability to play loudly. Pick a full-range dynamic system for its bass and dynamics, but lose that edge of palpability and realism heard from ribbon transducers.
For many audiophiles, choosing a power amplifier is a vexing problem. Just how much must one spend to get true high-end sound and a solid build quality? How much power is really needed? And what amplifiers are suitable for driving low-impedance loudspeakers?
Time to 'fess up: How many of you actually read the "Measurements" sections of Stereophile's equipment reports and understand what's being measured, and why? I suspect that many readers skip over the technical assessment of the reviewed product and make a dash for the "Conclusion."
When the Compact Disc was first introduced nearly ten years ago, many were critical of the sound quality from this medium that promised "Perfect Sound Forever." To many sensitive listeners digital playback was a travesty that paled by comparison to even modestly priced turntable/arm/cartridge combinations. Ironically, those listeners who first praised CD sound have been forced to recant when confronted by the huge improvements in digital to analog conversion (and A/D conversion) seen in the past few years.
Not that long ago, digital audio was considered perfect if all the bits could be stored and retrieved without data errors. If the data coming off the disc were the same as what went on the disc, how could there be a sound-quality difference with the same digital/analog converter? This "bits is bits" mentality scoffs at sonic differences between CD transports, digital interfaces, and CD tweaks. Because none of these products or devices affects the pattern of ones and zeros recovered from the disc, any differences must be purely in the listener's imagination. After all, they argued, a copy of a computer program runs just as well as the original.
At a CES press breakfast in Las Vegas last January, a member of the "all amplifiers (and digital sources!) sound the same" school of audio journalism made an interesting assertion. He argued that if our society were studied by extraterrestrials, they would find an unhealthy obsession with the re-creation of experience at the expense of experience itself. This speculation was a vehicle to support his position that buying good hi-fi is a waste of money; for the same financial outlay, one can attend hundreds, even thousands of live performances. Moreover, this anti-high-end writer suggested that ETs would consider our quest for better music reproduction a bizarre folly when the real thing is so readily available (footnote 1).
In the April 1992 Stereophile, reader Hilary Paprocki expressed his belief that recording engineers are unconcerned about sound quality. Indeed, he went so far as to allege that engineers intentionally use inferior miking techniques so that they can bill clients for additional time spent trying to fix the sound. The example he used was the engineer who places a microphone directly in front of a guitar amplifier, a technique Mr. Paprocki felt captured only "4%" of the sound. Mr. Paprocki also likened recording engineers to "featherbedders."