High Fidelity at the Crossroads

101 years ago, the tinfoil cylinder started it all. Within 22 years, its heyday was done, and public support swung to favor the then-new wax-mastered disc. 1948 saw the switch to a slower speed and a finer groove, but the flat disc, traced by a stylus, has held sway for almost 80 years now. Even today, people with multi-speed turntables and a couple of arms (or plug-in cartridges) can reproduce from a single phono unit the earliest or the latest discs merely by the flip of two switches (for speed change and cartridge change). All that is about to come to an end.

When the disc supplanted the cylinder, it marked the end of an era in the most final manner imaginable. The new disc players could not handle cylinders, so except for those die-hards who hung onto their cylinder machines after switching to a flat platter, entire collections of previously-acquired recordings became cut off from the main stream of home-music listening. As time went on, it became increasingly difficult to obtain replacement parts for the cylinder players until, eventually, most cylinder enthusiasts threw in the sponge and converted to disc playback.

The beginning of 1979 saw the introduction of the first samples of what will finally, after 79 years of supremacy, lower the curtain on the mechanically-traced disc: The digital recording. Sony's bid is the PCM-1, a converter that allows any home videotape recorder to make recordings better than any thing previously available to the home user. Magnavox's entry is the videodisc, cutely called MagnaVision, and primarily intended for audio/visual entertainments, but also sporting a fully-encoded stereo audio track.

The Sony system is truly digital, in that the amplitude samples from the analog audio signal are converted into the digital binary code used in all modern computers. In the Magnavox system, the sampling pulses are varied in width according to signal amplitude. This is not, strictly speaking, a digital system, although the term digital is already being widely applied to any and all such non-mechanical recording systems. Right or wrong, it will probably stick.

On one of the new systems you can make your own unprecedentedly state-of-the-art recordings but you can't buy prerecorded programs for it. On the other you can play prerecorded programs but you can't roll your own.

The situation is identical to that in the late 1940s and early '50s, when the first tape recorders and the first LP discs were becoming available. You could record your own tapes but not buy prerecorded ones, and you could buy LPs but not record them. And that is essentially how the situation remained. Prerecorded tapes for open-reel recorders, though ardently favored by many collectors, never became a significant market and were subsequently abandoned by all but two small firms that are still producing them.

In the past five years, prerecorded cassettes have grown in popularity as the cassette has improved in fidelity, but most audiophiles have remained unswervingly loyal to LPs for their prerecorded programming. We may now be seeing the beginning of the end of all that. Digital audio recording promises to bring us a level of fidelity so far above that of both the mechanical disc and the analog tape recording that it cannot be ignored by anyone seeking the highest possible fidelity.

It's probably safe to say that digital audio reproduction isn't perfect. What is? But the thing that makes it such a quantum leap forward in fidelity is that, unless specific measures are taken to foul it up, its reproduction of the frequency range from 30 to 15 kHz is entirely free from the gross colorations routinely introduced by mechanical cartridge/tone-arm resonances and the equalization errors of phono and analog-tape preamplifiers.

Our evaluation of Sony's PCM-1 consumer digital system is in this issue. And while we have yet to hear what kind of audio quality Magnavox's videodiscs can deliver, the manufacturer claims it has the potential for performance comparable to the best obtainable from FM. And the best of FM is vastly better than what most of us are able to receive from the typically mediocre transmissions throughout this fair land.