Happy New Audio Millennium

The January 2000 issue of Stereophile is actually the last to be published in 1999, so, at the risk of adding to your millennial fatigue (footnote 1), it is appropriate to devote much of this month's magazine to navel-gazing. Robert Baird, Chip Stern, David Patrick Stearns, and Larry Birnbaum examine the state of recorded music, while in the first of two articles, Markus Sauer questions the beliefs that underpin the audiophile world. And this "As We See It" offers an overview of what used to be called "high fidelity."

January 1, 2000 is not a date for the numerologists of the audio world to get particularly excited about. It is not the beginning of sound reproduction's second century, which took place on Christmas Eve 1977, 100 years after Thomas Edison filed his "Phonographs" patent, which was itself a few months after the Frenchman Charles Cros had written on the same subject. It is not even the beginning of stereo's second 100 years, which this writer estimates doesn't start until 2031, the centenary of the filing of the classic Alan Dower Blumlein patent in the UK. However, it is close to the 50th anniversary of high-end audio, if you define the birth as Columbia's introduction of the microgroove vinyl LP in 1948, or as—more controversially for some audiophiles—Brattain, Bardeen, and Schockley's invention of the junction transistor in 1949.

Since the first high-fidelity boom in the 1950s, which planted the seeds for this magazine's own birth in 1962, there has been a process of continual refinement in both audio hardware and software, punctuated by decade-spaced paradigm shifts: the introduction of stereo LPs and FM broadcasting in the late 1950s/early '60s; the ill-fated launch of quadraphony in the early '70s; the widespread shift from analog to digital technology in the '80s; and the introduction of perceptually coded media in the '90s. In fact, if you were to read the recent pronouncements of some of the more "conservative" audio commentators, you might be led to believe that the hi-fi goal has been reached, that playing back a recording in the home results in an experience identical to what the listener would have experienced live in the concert hall. If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you—with an extended warranty plan!

But it is unarguable that every aspect of recording and playback technology is very much better, or at least more accurate, than what was available 50 years ago. With electronics, as Tom Norton mentions in the measurements section accompanying Jonathan Scull's review of the Mark Levinson No.32 preamplifier (p.98), there are now products that measure close to perfection. The puzzle, then, is why such amplifiers and preamplifiers still sound different from one another—why differences of quality still exist.

When it comes to fundamental design, loudspeakers have changed very little. There is not much about any modern dynamic drive-unit that would come as much of a surprise to Rice and Kellogg, who invented the concept in 1927. Yet the last 10 years have seen a dramatic increase in overall speaker system sound quality, triggered by the availability of inexpensive, PC-based measuring systems. It is very rare to come across a loudspeaker these days that sounds colored in the ways that were typical in the 1970s. The only question left with respect to speaker performance is whether it is time for a new paradigm to emerge. But whether this will be the so-called "distributed-mode" loudspeaker, which is as different from a conventional speaker as a fluorescent light is from an incandescent bulb, or even for a true digital speaker, remains to be seen...and heard.

Footnote 1: I have given up explaining that the year 2000 is really the final year of the second Christian Millennium, not the first of the Third.