Why Hi-Fi Experts Disagree

Dateline: late August 1989. The scene: my palatial office in the Stereophile Tower. Present were the magazine's official technowizard Robert Harley, Circulation Kahuna Michael Harvey, and myself. The subject under discussion was the program for the Stereophile Test CD, launched in this issue, and Bob had been dazzling Michael and myself with a description of the sophisticated signal-processing power offered by the Digidesign Sound Tools music editing system with which he had outfitted his Macintosh IIX computer. (He had to fit it with a 600-megabyte hard-disk drive!) "It'll even do edits as crossfades as well as butt joins," enthused Bob. "Let me tell you about the crossfade I once did when editing a drum solo for a CD master that lasted ten seconds..."

We had just decided that the channel-identification tracks would feature the ex-radio announcer voice of the Audio Anarchist, Sam Tellig, with its dark chocolate midrange, and Larry's Basserman dog, Ralph. "But J. Gordon Holt's speaking voice has to be on it, too." I insisted. "We're featuring a number of Gordon's purist recordings," replied Bob. Inspiration struck. "Gottit! Let's record Gordon reading one of his editorial pieces from an early issue of the magazine. We'll use as many different microphones as we can muster, and show that, at least when it comes to recorded sound, there are, in fact, many absolute sounds."

Michael agreed that it was a good idea; Bob agreed to obtain the microphones; Gordon agreed to fly down from Colorado; I started to plough through Volume I of Stereophile. I found nothing suitable in the very first issue, published back in November 1962, the very first "As We See It" column focusing on issues that were too general. But then—"Paydirt!" I cried. Vol.1 No.4, cover-dated March-April 1963, carried the opening salvo in Gordon's campaign against RCA's dreadful "Dynagroove" trick, which predistorted the signal cut into the groove walls. Though this meant the deleterious effects of cheap cartridges would to some extent be canceled, this would be at the expense of forcing owners of good cartridges to listen to extra distortion. But more importantly, the very first feature in that issue, a succinct but forceful summing-up of Gordon's philosophy of sound reproduction, could have been written today—particularly as its conclusions are illustrated by the music recordings we chose to put on the Stereophile CD. It is a measure of Gordon's greatness that this piece was written in 1963!

Gordon was happy to read an edited version for the CD; with no apologies, I reproduce almost the entire text (footnote 1) as this month's "As We See It."John Atkinson

The high-fidelity initiate, bewitched, bothered, and thoroughly confused by the staggering selection of components he must choose from, often turns to a high-fidelity expert to assist him in assembling his dream system. The expert may be a local consultant, a dealer, or a magazine that the prospective buyer trusts as a source of accurate, down-to-ear information.

If this seeker of high-fidelity truth is wise, he will consult one expert and no more. The more expert opinions he gets, the more confused he will become, because every expert opinion will be different from all other expert opinions.

About the only thing that all high-fidelity experts agree about is that high-fidelity is supposed to be realistic sound reproduction. They may even agree that Marantz amplifiers are pretty good, and that Thorens makes a passable turntable. But try to pin them down about pickups, or other amplifiers, or tuners, or particularly loudspeakers, and one expert's preference is another one's anathema.

Of course, any expert worth his salt can tell you why there is so much disagreement. The reason? Well, the other experts, although very nice guys, don't really know what they're talking about. Oh, they're pretty good technical men, mind you, but they don't really have the perceptive ear that's needed for a truly valid musical evaluation of reproduced sound.

This is the crux of the matter. Measurements can help to describe a component's performance, but the final criterion for judging reproduced fidelity has always been the ear, and when we start to fall back on subjective judgments, we always end up with a diversity of opinions.

It isn't just that "different people hear things differently." Everybody who hears is responding to a set of pressure variations in the air around him, and if these are the same in the living room as they would be in the concert hall, each listener will hear an absolutely realistic replica of the original sounds, regardless of the idiosyncrasies of his own hearing. His ears may have a few response peaks and no response at all above 4000cps, but these weirdities will affect his hearing whether he listens to the original or to the reproduction, so they shouldn't affect his evaluation of the reproduced sound. Except for one thing: The listener with non-existent hearing above 4000cps will be oblivious to any system irregularities above that frequency.

Footnote 1: Most of the final quarter of the article was an appendix to the main theme on different kinds of "expert" and much more specific to its own period. I therefore omitted it and indicated its absence with ellipses (...).—JA