Best Wishes for the New Year

I'm sitting here in front of the trusty Toshiba 286 laptop on December 31, 1992, stuck with apparently incurable writer's block; in a couple of hours, we will be taking off en famille for the latest of Larry Archibald's legendary New Year's Eve parties. I wish I had something to write about for this month's "As We See It" essay; I wish...I know, there are a number of things I really wish for right now, yet I don't believe there is a component out there that can give me what I want.

• I would like to hear a loudspeaker that is tonally accurate, goes as low in the bass as is appropriate for even the most thunderous organ recording, reproduces a soundstage that is as detailed yet as subtly natural as the real thing, captures the rhythms of live music without sounding either lead-footed or lightweight, and plays at loud levels without any sense of strain. Yet, as Corey Greenberg implies in his review of the Eminent Technology LFT-VIII in this issue, this is never the case.

You can get conventional dynamic speakers that boogie, you can get panel loudspeakers that reproduce the intricacies and subtleties of a recorded soundstage, but you can't get panel loudspeakers that rock'n'roll. You can get box loudspeakers that measure flat and sound neutral, yet singularly fail to convince you that there is a window opened up at the end of your listening room into the concert hall. You can get a pair of loudspeakers that are tonally deliciously real, and give you a vivid view into the recorded soundstage, yet can only do these things at levels so low in comparison with the real thing that you think you're observing the music through the wrong end of a telescope. You can get speakers that are absolutely accurate to the tonal colors of real instruments, yet seem to omit whatever it is that allows the music to communicate fully—or even at all.

And God—yours, mine, whoever she is—preserve us from loudspeakers that pervasively boom, buzz, roar, scream, screech, squawk, fizz, spit, and sizzle, destroying the music by replacing the real sounds they don't stand a chance of reproducing accurately with ones more reminiscent of a poorly adjusted synthesizer.

• Loudspeakers, of course, are impotent without being hung on the end of a power amplifier, and the role of an amplifier is simply defined: to take the small voltage signal put out by preamplifiers and/or source components and convert them into the beefy current signals desired by speakers without imposing any character on them. If you read electrical engineering textbooks, you're left with the impression that the audio amplifier is a well-understood, lowly sort of beast compared with radio-frequency circuits. Yet the audio amplifier is unique in having to cover a more-than-three-decade or 10-octave bandwidth, while simultaneously having a dynamic range capability of greater than 120dB. By comparison, an RF amplifier, which covers perhaps one octave or less with a dynamic range of 60dB, has an easy task.

I don't care if it uses tubes, bipolar transistors, MOSFETs, or IGBTs, or whether it runs in class-A, -B, -D, -G, or -Z. All I want is an amplifier that performs its simple task in an accurate, musically honest manner. I can't think, however, of an amplifier which can do this without crapping out at high levels, or obscuring low-level detail, or flattening the soundstage so that it has about as much depth as one of the characters on "The Simpsons," or changing the balance of the speaker with a too-high output impedance, or adding a metallic, high-frequency sheen to the music that some call "accuracy" and I call "fatiguing," or losing control of the speaker's bass so that it booms, or gripping it so tight that the music loses its natural bloom, or doing something, whatever it is, that destroys the music's sense of pace.

In a letter in this issue, Mark Swierczek states that the ability of a component to convey the emotional content of the recorded music is irrelevant because "the quality of a device designed to convey information must be assessed using parameters that measure the accuracy of the information conveyed." Yet I have experienced components that seem to distance the listener from the music, even, in one or two cases, making the performance sound slower, less inspired, as described in a letter this month by John Hodge. The technical reason for this lack of communication must lie in a component's ability to pass on the fine dynamic structure of the electrical signal unchanged, something that is very hard to measure—but don't tell me it doesn't exist, Mr. Swierczek. With tonal accuracy becoming very much more common than it used to be, this aspect of performance is taking an increasingly critical role in equipment evaluation.

• The preamplifier is the heart of any system: every source signal passes through it, it has to provide all the source switching flexibility, control of signal level, and the ability to drive an arbitrary length of perhaps severely reactive interconnect cable. Yet compare any preamplifier (set to unity gain) with a length of wire and you will find that it has its own sonic character which interferes with the music to a greater or lesser extent. It seems there is an inverse relationship with the number of functions a preamplifier performs and the accuracy with which it passes on the music unscathed.

My wish is simple: Give me a full-function preamplifier that affects the music as little as a piece of wire. Oh, and design it to have a sensible amount of gain, not the 20+dB or so that means the volume control has to be set at 9 o'clock or lower.

• Wire, of course, has the easiest task of all. In the case of an interconnect, it simply passes the voltage signal present at its input plug to the component at its output end; in the case of a speaker cable, it has to do this and carry the appropriately large current demanded by the loudspeaker load. Why is it that interconnects and speaker cables have sufficient sonic characters of their own that none actually meets this paradigm? I have heard plenty of good cables, but even the best still sound different from one another, meaning that perfection must be a goodly way away from what is currently possible.

• The source of choice for many audiophiles is still the analog disc—indeed, this issue's focus on the LP is no coincidence. But let's say you're committed to CD. In a sense, the music is defined by the silence between the notes, the latter only acting as a framework or scaffold. Yet digital replay seems to get the relevance of the musical silences more wrong than analog, despite its having a lower noise floor.

What I want is a CD replay system that sounds as smooth and natural as the best analog but without dulling the edge of the music's message, gets the filigree presentation of detail typical of live sound correct without it sounding like there is a series of resonances in the mid to upper treble, and produces a soundstage with a sweep and perspective that puts the listener in contact with the musicians at the original event. Oh, and if this system does exist, I'd like to be able to afford it. Even when you can get components that get at least halfway toward the twin goals of accuracy and musical communication, why do they invariably cost an arm an leg?

Well, that's all I want in 1993. I sure hope the High End can deliver it to me.