Listening #70

Stereo Review, the world's most popular audio magazine during most of its time on Earth, was a common target of derision from the hobby's so-called high-end press, not least of all from me. We criticized its nerdy, boring prose, its uniformly positive reviews, and, most of all, its shameless pimping of the notions that measurements reveal all there is to know about a component, and that all competently engineered components sound equally fine.

I began reading Stereo Review and the nearly identical High Fidelity in the 1970s, when still in my teens, and I continued to do so for another ten years. In those days I regarded my audio system as little more than an appliance for enjoying recorded music, albeit a wonderful appliance, the technology of which seldom ceased to fascinate me.

Back then I owned a pair of bookshelf loudspeakers, a stereo receiver, and an integrated turntable-tonearm combination, the latter of which hosted a succession of phono cartridges. I was delighted with my speakers, which I used for over a dozen years. I was satisfied with my receiver, and traded up only once or twice during that time. I was unsatisfied with my record player—I traded in, but not necessarily up, a number of times—and of course I bought a new phono cartridge every two years, like clockwork. That was where the action was. (I smirk my ironic smirk.)

And during those years I bought hundreds of records—mostly ones that I was certain I would like, although I took reckless, wild chances every now and again—handsomely rewarded, more often than not.

My entrée to perfectionist audio—and, more important, to perfectionist-audio magazines—occurred during one of those biennial cartridge-shopping trips: A new store opened nearby that offered Dynavector moving-coil cartridges, and I bought a high-output DV-10x. In terms of measured performance, the Dynavector was outpaced by every single cartridge I had owned before it: various Shures and Audio-Technicas, plus one each from Ortofon (nice) and Micro-Acoustics (not so nice). But the Dyna played music better than any of them. I fell in love with the way it sounded.

Anyway, I brought home something else that day: a reprint of an amplifier review that had been published in The Abso!ute Sound—the first I'd ever heard of the magazine. I was less interested in the amp than I was in the idea that someone had the spunk to write about the way it sounded. Think of it!

There were subscription details on that review reprint, so I took the plunge. The first issue I received was quite the trip: a mixed assortment of reviews—mostly well written, some very well—decorated with amateur drawings and ponderous efforts at "art" photography. Taken as a whole, the mag had a distinctive voice: something of a revelation in that field.

Soon thereafter I learned about Stereophile, and in 1984 I subscribed to that magazine as well. In those days their default writing style was a bit too black-socks-with-sandals for my tastes, and it didn't help that the cover "article" in the first issue I received was nothing more than a gassy letter to the editor. But Stereophile, too, inspired me by actually using the gear they wrote about (a commitment that predated The Abso!ute Sound's by a decade, as I later discovered). Just as Car and Driver was devoted to driving and Wine Enthusiast was devoted to hitting the sauce, those magazines were devoted to listening. Again, revelatory is not too strong a word.

I forgot Leroy Anderson
But I'll tell you what: I added far fewer records to my collection during the year immediately after I discovered the high-end audio press than I did in the year immediately before. And most of the former were junk: musically worthless things that existed only because they sounded good.

A key example is The Sheffield Track Record, named for the audiophile record label that produced it. In the mid-'80s I bought that overpriced LP because a high-end reviewer recommended it as "the best sounding rock and roll recording ever made." This I had to hear!

Calling The Sheffield Track Record "rock and roll" is like calling 101 Dalmatians a romantic comedy: It sort of is, but it mostly isn't. The four instrumental selections that make up the album sound like extended versions of the 30-second commercial "beds" that radio stations buy in bulk: bland, unmemorable tunes that worm in and out of unimaginative chord changes. Don't ever try to tell me that you listen to The Sheffield Track Record because you like the music: I just plain flat-out won't believe you. If you really liked it, there'd be something wrong with you. Something serious.

The playing, by five studio pros plus film composer James Newton Howard, is as slick and faceless as it gets. The keyboard stylings, for want of a better word, are plasticky and tasteless, and the electric guitar serves up enough overcompressed, pedal-dependent clichés for a year's worth of Chrysler pickup-truck commercials. The recording isn't even very good: lots of phony power-ballad Sturm und Drang, but not a trace of the lifelike, snare-bang dynamics one would hear in a live setting. I can't help thinking that if the people who made The Sheffield Track Record ever heard a real rock'n'roll record—Slim Harpo's "Got Love If You Want It," Etta James' "Seven Day Fool," Johnny Burnette's "Lonesome Train on a Lonesome Track," The New York Dolls' "Puss in Boots"—they'd stand on a chair and cry Eeek!

Nor was the high-end mags' questionable taste in music limited to the world of pop. After a year or two of buying and reading every alternative mag I could find, it became apparent that almost none of those writers knew a damn thing about serious music. To them, the best recording of a given symphony or opera or chamber work was the one that sounded best—artistic interpretation was an uncharted sea for those salty dogs—and even then, the resolution of spatial effects on stereo recordings was emphasized above all other aspects of sound, by a silly-wide margin. In 1984, the high-end audio press made it clear that they were interested only in music that had been recorded during the last 30 years, in stereo; anything older was regarded with contempt, indifference, and ignorance.

All of those points were recently underscored, thanks to two otherwise small and unrelated coincidences.

The first happened when I set about listening to a used LP I'd bought not long ago. A slip of paper fell from the jacket: a review of the recording at hand, apparently clipped from Stereo Review by the person who originally bought it. The review was historically informative without being pedantic or sciolistic, and the performance was discussed intelligently—well beyond the level of "This was faster than so-and-so's version" or "I didn't hear any mistakes." Sound quality was described in one word: unexceptionable, which I took to mean not bad enough to criticize. (Upon listening, I decided it was actually a quite decent-sounding stereo recording, albeit a little short on bass extension and impact.)

The other event was when I tried to read a "vintage" high-end audio review from a number of years ago, of a loudspeaker that was popularly and reasonably regarded as among the best of its day. I skimmed ahead to the listening section—no surprises awaited me in the product's technical description, I thought—and settled in to learn how well the reviewer had enjoyed his favorite music through the thing. But only one recording artist was mentioned—audiophile diva Amanda McBroom—and then only insofar as the reviewer discussed the product's stereo imaging.

Other hobbyists may reasonably differ, but a review such as that has nothing to say to me. Given the choice between Amanda McBroom and a series of test tones, I'd probably listen to the latter: It's quicker, it's easier, and it amounts to the same thing. Which is next to nothing.