I Say It's Television...

"When it comes to video, most audiophiles are insufferable snobs."—J. Gordon Holt, 1984

"If your magazine doesn't give coverage to video products, it's finished." If I heard one high-end audio personality at the recent Las Vegas Winter CES tell me that Stereophile should start devoting more space to video and home theater, I heard fifty.

And with good reason: Although the "marriage of audio and video" has been a much-touted factoid in the past, the last two years have breathed life into it. The statistics may show that audio separates purchases are falling (footnote 1), but audio retailers are being kept alive by sales of high-ticket "home theater" systems. Reflecting this new reality, many audio companies at the WCES pragmatically demonstrated their products with video; in fact, loudspeaker manufacturers Infinity and KEF only showed their speaker ranges in full surround-sound, home-theater contexts.

Even a "purist" company like Wilson Audio used a Lexicon CP-3 surround-sound processor and a high-end video system to show two music video extracts and the rolling ball episode from Raiders of the Lost Ark. According to David Wilson, the dealers who came to his room who were primarily into video and home theater products were impressed by hearing video sound over real high-end speakers; the audio dealers who came were impressed by what video could add to a system capable of producing high-end sound quality.

The advent of home theater is generally regarded as being good for the High End, whose low profile among non-audiophiles is a constant source for concern for its constituents. With now two complete generations who have grown up with one or more TVs in every home, American society has become used to being entertained by images first and foremost, sound coming a distant second. Because home theater means that high-end dealers can attach high-end audio to something with which mass-market consumers are already comfortable—television—it attracts new, non-audiophile consumers into their stores.

And when you consider that multimedia systems are about to be launched that marry audio and video with computers and computer games, with the increased potential for image and sound manipulation giving rise to all-enveloping mindscapes in the home—"Star Trek: The New Generation"'s "Holodeck" is only a short distance in the future—common sense would dictate that if it sticks to audio matters alone, Stereophile will fade into obscurity.

Perhaps not.

J. Gordon Holt has experimented with the idea of expanding the magazine's coverage to include video on a number of occasions since the late 1970s, even publishing a shortlived "Video" column. The reaction from our readers was almost universally negative, however. A 1985 letter from a James Farrell said it all: "I say it's television, and I say to hell with it!" (footnote 2), even though JGH had been careful to define TV as being "sitcoms and censorship," video as "original, uncut movies for people who don't like what's happened to theaters."

I also say it's television. I'm bothered by the disparity in fidelity of the two media: I have always found it incongruous to experience a wide, deep soundstage while the pictures supposedly tied to that sonic image are less than a quarter the size. In a 1984 "As We See It" (footnote 3), J. Gordon Holt argued that this size anomaly becomes inconsequential with a projection TV, yet I become uncomfortable experiencing large-screen NTSC video. Yes, you can project an image so that it is large enough to better match the accompanying sound, but its resolution remains limited by what was technically possible a half-century ago. You may blow the image up, but there's no more "there" there; the watcher just becomes more aware of the lines making up the low-definition image. Yes, there are now computerized line doublers (footnote 4) and true High Definition TV is, as ever, just around the corner. But by comparison, audio—even digital audio (see "As We See It," November 1990)—has a wealth of detail that more closely approaches the complexity of reality.

It also makes me feel uncomfortable if the ultimate sound quality achievable from a system has to be compromised to accommodate the needs of video playback. In JGH's review of the Snell Home THX speaker system last December, for example, he found that speakers that are optimized for use in a video system can give an uninvolving, flat-perspectived sound when used to listen just to music.

My fundamental objection, however, is philosophical: In his 1964 book Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan developed the ideas of "cold" and "hot" media, which differ in the degree of involvement demanded from the participant. The higher its definition, the hotter the medium, and the lower the participation (Signet edition, p.36). Paradoxically, video is a "cool" medium in technical terms, yet demands little viewer participation; as with a movie, everything happens at a distance. By comparison, audio is "hot," yet the listener is free to create internal worlds of imagination in the same way the reader of a novel can be lost within the covers of the book. Video is a convergent medium—what you see is what you get—while audio is divergent in that what you get is very much more than what you hear.

I find watching classical music on video quite tedious; opera via sound alone can be much more involving. During the 11-hour drive to Las Vegas for the WCES, for example, I plugged a portable CD player into my modest car system to listen to the 1971 Karajan Meistersinger (EMI CDS 7 49683 2). I doubt that I will ever get a high from a video production of the same opera that even approaches what I experienced alone in the car, listening to the prize song at the work's climax as I drove through the sunset-illuminated moonscape of Southern Nevada.

This difference between the two media is fundamental to the success of a magazine. To judge by the relative failure of "videophile" publications compared with the installed base of equipment, people have no interest in reading about something in which they take no role other than the original purchase.

So, will Stereophile start to cover video and home theater products? Video, no. But when something needs to be said about the audio end of home theater, then we will devote space to it. As we already do.

Oh, the opening sentence of this "As We See It"? That wasn't said in Las Vegas, but was actually said to me back in 1978, when I was Deputy Editor of Hi-Fi News & Record Review in the UK and the world was debating which was better, VHS or Beta. It was bad advice for a specialist audio magazine then, and I believe it to be bad advice now.

Footnote 1: Figures released by the EIA at the 1993 WCES revealed audio separates sales to have fallen more than 13% from '91 to '92. Within the $1.6 billion worth of component sales in 1992, however, CD player sales were up by 41%. For comparison, estimated sales of audio portables in '92 were worth $2.2 billion and aftermarket in-car equipment $1.5 billion. The projection TV market was worth $727 million in 1992; while the laserdisc sector of the video market grew by 28% last year, the volume of sales is still small, at $104 million. I believe that the installed base of videodisc players in the US is around 800,000 units.

Footnote 2: "Letters," Vol.8 No.2, p.15.

Footnote 3: "The Second Sense," Vol.7 No.6, Fall 1984.

Footnote 4: See Peter Mitchell's report on line-doubler comparisons in last month's "Industry Update," February 1993, p.71.