There was a time, very recently in terms of human history, when high fidelity promised to free the music lover from the constraints of the concert hall and the local repertoire, allowing him to choose at his whim any orchestra in the world playing any work he desired under the baton of any conductor he preferred. "All the pleasure of concert-hall listening, in the comfort of your home," was the way one display advertisement painted this musical utopia which, only 20 years ago, seemed right around the corner.
As another Consumer Electronics Show rolls around, we are seeing some interesting and not-entirely encouraging things taking place in the audio field. The people for whom high fidelity was originally intendedso-called serious music listeners have abandoned audio almost completely, leaving the pursuit of perfect music reproduction to a group of hobbyists who have more interest in hardware than in music. This, plus the recession, has almost killed middle-fi, which is now flailing out in all directions looking for a new market. Here's how it all came to pass:
A world-renowned musician had scheduled an appearance as guest soloist with the string quartet in residence at a certain university. When he arrived he noticed a pair of microphones arrayed over the small stage and, following the wires, located a college student backstage next to a tape recorder and a pair of headphones.
Not too many years ago, high-fidelity movement was being hailed from all quarters (and many halves) as a revolution. In the sense that it took the country storm, and made billions of dollars for many entrepreneurs during heyday, it was indeed a revolution. But now the public has grown tired of high fidelity and is turning other electronic diversionsvideo, video games, and computering. And what, as of this summer of 1982, do we have to show for the high-fidelity revolution?
I always enjoy CES. Like the Big Apple, or the City of Angels, the Consumer Elecronics Show is stimulatingly frenetic and enjoyably fatiguingthings that would soon put me in the funny farm if I lived with them year 'round, but can easily cope with twice a year. In fact, attending CES is rather like visiting the city of my birth, a place whose culture is one with my own because I grew up there, and where half the pleasure lies in seeing once again those audio peoplethe Allisons, Marantzes, Frieds, Beveridges, Haflers, and Tuckerswhose durability as friends always reminds me of how rapidly time passes and how little of it we may have left.
A persistent complaint from some of our readers concerns our seeming preoccupation with exotic components. (Presumably what they mean are scarce, unusual, or hard-to-find components, because "exotic" really means "from a foreign country," and there is sure as hell nothing hard-to-find about a Panasonic receiver.) "Why," you ask, "do you devote so much space to reports on components we can't buy from our local audio discounter? Why can't we have more reports about products from the old, established, reliable companies like KLH, Harman/Kardon, Electro-Voice and Sansui, whose stuff we can listen to at a local dealer before we commit our hard-earned dollars to a purchase?" One subscriber even cancelled his subscription because of this, claiming that the unavailability of the products we review makes our reports "irrelevant." Well, he had a point, but not a very good one.
Some time ago in these pages, Anthony H. Cordesman observed rather ungraciously that the whole line of Hafler electronics "could do with reworking." This was interpreted by many readersincluding the good people at the David Hafler Companyas meaning that AHC felt the entire Hafler line to be mediocre. In fact, he does not. (He had given a Hafler product a positive review a few issues previously.) Tony's comment, however, did express a sentiment that most of us at Stereophile have shared for some time: a feeling that Hafler products had slipped from the position of sonic preeminence which they enjoyed during the 1960s and '70s to one of mere excellence in a field where only preeminence is acclaimed.
Now that Sony has bought CBS's records division, and the infamous Copycode bill seems to be dying in Congress, the way may be clearing at last for the US introduction of the new Digital Audio Tape system. This has sparked renewed speculation in the industry about the impact DAT will have on existing formats, particularly the fledgling CD. Some are convinced DAT will kill CD, because of its ability to record as well as play digital recordings. Others believe DAT won't even gain a foothold in the market, for the same reason quadraphonic sound laid an egg back in the '70s: The public can't handle more than one "standard" format. I feel that both views are wrong, and thatas is usually the case with extreme viewsthe truth lies in between. I believe DAT will catch on in the marketplace, but never in a big way, and certainly not the way CD has. Here's why.