Home Theaters, Music Systems, & the Live Experience

As easy as it is to communicate electronically, some things are still better done in person. At too-infrequent intervals, I visit Stereophile's writers, listen to their systems, and basically get them to show'n'tell the components they're reviewing. In this way, if they describe what I'm hearing, I have the confidence to publish their review, even if its findings run counter to accepted wisdom.

In late October, I managed to squeeze a lightning trip East into my schedule. One purpose of my trip was to attend a press reception in Manhattan's refurbished, cathedral-like Grand Central Terminal to celebrate Acoustic Research's 40th anniversary—yes, it was in 1954 that Edgar Villchur founded that company to demonstrate that the springiness of the air in a sealed box should carry the primary responsibility for controlling a woofer's motion.

If any reminder was needed that nothing ever stays the same, this party did the job. I had also attended AR's 25th anniversary reception in June 1979, and was a little taken aback to find that, with the exception of a couple of the more gray-pated members of the press (like myself), almost no one who had been at the 1979 event was at the '94 party—or, in the case of Acoustic Research, even still with the company (footnote 1).

It used to be said that if a company didn't reinvent itself every decade, it would fail. While this century's pace of change has always been fast, the last decade has seen an exponential acceleration. Now, with Nelson Mandela brought back home to Soweto as South Africa's President, a brain-fodder company, Microsoft, outperforming blue-chip hardware manufacturers IBM and Boeing, a tribe of Native Americans in Connecticut outgrossing such a star of the industrial-military complex as Electric Boat, and the Soviet Union revealed as an empty, under-performing sham of a superpower, anyone who doesn't at least try to reinvent themselves every year is going to end up buried with the remains of the Berlin Wall.

The audio industry has had to face the challenge of Home Theater. In the last couple of years, the "marriage between audio and video" has reached critical mass, exploding in a wealth of sales for audio retailers and a flurry in the ranks of audio writers and editors, as we try to decide whether Home Theater properly belongs in the world of audio or if it's something new.

While Stereophile has always covered the audio side of Home Theater, we felt that this magazine should stick to its primary focus—music in the home—and that our coverage of Home Theater should be in its own publication. Hence the appearance this month of the Stereophile Guide to Home Theater. Edited by Lawrence B. Johnson and featuring Stereophile's cast of characters reviewing a total of 37 audio and video components, the 220–page Guide includes all the information you'll need to put together a Home Theater system that excels in both sound and vision. The Stereophile Guide to Home Theater costs $6.95, and is available at your specialist audio retailer. Enjoy (footnote 2).

The main purpose of my East Coast trip, however, was to listen to Jonathan Scull's and Lewis Lipnick's systems. Jonathan's bare-furnished, rather reverberant SoHo loft is the home of Jadis-powered Avalon Ascents, positioned so that he and his French wife Kathleen sit close, in the nearfield. The sound was quite lean but vividly palpable. Every change to the source components was easily heard. I listened to the differences made by different record weights and different digital datalinks, but, despite the detailed presentation, the system's balance wasn't at all "ruthlessly revealing." Instead, it reached out and enveloped me. To say my brief visit chez Scull was musically satisfying would be an understatement.

With the exception of the Forsell Air Bearing CD transport, Lewis Lipnick's complete Cello-based system, residing in his basement, is very different from Jonathan's. Though sounding just as detailed, its balance was much warmer and big in the bass, with the music set back behind the speakers. However, once I became accustomed to the mellow tonal balance and the room acoustics, I enjoyed immensely the recordings Lew played for me. Again, I was enveloped by the music.

Which system sounded most like live music? While I was in Washington, I went to hear Lewis's band: the National Symphony. The program, directed to perfection by conductor Marin Alsop, was a mixture of the traditional—Tchaikovsky 5, Schumann Cello Concerto—and the new: Joseph Schwantner's kaleidoscopic (and serial) A Sudden Rainbow.

The concert didn't sound like either Jonathan's or Lewis's system; it didn't even sound like my own. And the dry Kennedy Center acoustic wasn't as enveloping as any of the systems were—it didn't even sound like live music in auditoriums with which I'm more familiar. But the one area where reproduced sound isn't even close to live, even in the Kennedy Center, is in the highs. The rolled-off–sounding Cello system was perhaps the closest in terms of treble proportion, but, in terms of quality, there isn't an audio system in the world that doesn't sound artificial.

Is it all speakers? Digital? The ubiquitous microphone? Whatever, perhaps it's time to look at reinventing the concept of reproduced sound.—John Atkinson

Footnote 1: Though Edgar Villchur and Henry Kloss attended the 1994 reception, both had left AR before 1979. Since December 1989, Acoustic Research has been part of International Jensen; its marketing and engineering offices were relocated to the NHT headquarters in Benicia, California in January 1994. (NHT was co-founded by AR alumnus Ken Kantor, who at the time of writing is now Vice President of Technology for Jensen's Specialty Audio Group.) As of 2007, AR is a brand owned by Recoton; NHT remains in Benicia.

Footnote 2: Stereophile Guide to Home Theater ceased publication as a print magazine following its 10th anniversary in 2004. As of 2007, it is well-established as an on-line publication: UltimateAVmag.com.