"Uhh! What is it?" I was being prodded on the arm. Admittedly it was gentle, almost polite prodding, but prodding it still was, a rude disturbance of the cocoon I had woven around myself in seat 31J of the American Airlines MD-11 winging its way across the North Atlantic. I pushed Pause on the Discman, insensitively not waiting for an opportune cadence in the Brahms Piano Quintet that had been my erstwhile virtual reality.
"What's that noise?" Bob Harley and I looked at each other in puzzlement. We thought we'd debugged the heck out of the recording setup, but there, audible in the headphones above the sound of Robert Silverman softly stroking the piano keys in the second Scherzo of Schumann's "Concerto Without Orchestra" sonata, was an intermittent crackling sound. It was almost as if the God of Vinyl was making sure there would be sufficient surface noise on our live recording to endow it with the Official Seal of Audiophile Approval. Bob tiptoed out of the vestry where we'd set up our temporary control room and peeked through a window into the church, where a rapt audience was sitting as appropriately quiet as church mice.
More than 20 years ago, when the turntable was considered a perfectly neutral component in the playback chain, Ivor Tiefenbrun single-handedly demonstrated to the world that the turntable was not only an important part of a hi-fi system, but perhaps the most important part. That radical idea was the basis for the legendary Linn Sondek LP12 turntable, the product that launched Linn, and which is still in production 22 years later.
During a recent visit to Canada's National Research Council, I noticed stuck to the wall of the prototype IEC listening room a page of results from one of Floyd Toole's seminal papers on the blind testing of loudspeakers. The scoring system was the one that Floyd developed, and that we adopted for Stereophile's continuing series of blind tests. "0" represents the worst sound that could possibly exist, "10" the perfection of live sound—a telephone, for example, rates a "2." The speakers in Floyd's test pretty much covered the range of possible performance, yet their normalized scoring spread, from the worst to the best, was just 1.9 points.
In this space last January, I enthused about the sound of linear 20-bit digital recordings which, I felt, preserve the quality of a live microphone feed. "I have heard the future of audio—and it's digital!" I proclaimed, which led at least a couple of readers to assume I had gone deaf. Putting to one side the question of my hearing acuity, 20-bit technology has been rapidly adopted in the professional world as the standard for mastering. The remaining debate concerns how to best preserve what those 20 bits offer once they've been squeezed down to the 16 that CD can store. Sony's Super Bit Mapping algorithm and Harmonia Mundi Acustica's redithering device have been joined by new black boxes from Apogee Electronics, Lexicon, and Meridian; it appears likely that, in next to no time at all, all CD releases will be offering close to 20-bit resolution—at least in the upper midrange, where the ear is most sensitive.
Stereophile Consulting technical editor Robert Harley and I were walking down Brooklyn's Flatbush Avenue trying to remember where we'd parked our rental car. We were in town for the Fall 1993 Audio Engineering Society Convention, and had just had dinner with record reviewer Beth Jacques.
Two recent listening experiences of mine echoed the overblown praise Jon Landau lavished upon Bruce Springsteen after he heard The Wild, the Innocent & the E-Street Shuffle. But all hype aside, Landau was right: Springsteen was the future of rock'n'roll—or at least what passed for the future of traditional rock in those pre-MTV, pre-techno, pre-house, pre-gangsta, pre-rap, pre-hip-hop, pre-grunge, pre-Mariah Carey, pre-Garth Brooks, pre-sampling, pre-digital days. And I believe that, Landau-like, I too will be right. I have heard the future of audio, and it is digital—digital technology has finally surpassed the sound quality of analog.
I recently scoured my shelves and came up with the following list of must-read books for stereophiles, all of which are in print and should be available from specialist bookshops or from the suppliers mentioned in the text. Books marked with an asterisk (*), though too technical for the general reader, will be found rewarding by those who have a good grasp of mathematics and who want to delve deep. Reading the books in the first "general" section of the list will enable readers to understand just about everything that appears in Stereophile, but all the books listed contain between their covers untold treasures.