An Amusement Park for the Mind

"An amusement park for the mind." That was how, some years ago, one engineer described the Audio Engineering Society's biannual conventions, which alternate between European and American venues. The 111th convention, subtitled "Advancing the Art of Sound," was held at the cavernous Jacob Javits Center on Manhattan's west side in early December. (It had originally been scheduled to take place last September, but was postponed for the obvious reason.)

AES Conventions are Janus-faced. The show's primary source of revenue comes from manufacturers of pro-audio gear, who pay to display their wares to professional recordists. But the "amusement park for the mind" aspect comes from the paper presentations and workshops that take place throughout the show, where academics, designers, and practicing engineers debate issues at the forefront of audio development.

The big topics generating heat at last December's workshops were, as might have been expected, SACD, DVD-A, surround sound, the MP3 phenomenon, and the efforts of the record industry to hobble their output with watermarking and CD-playback restrictions—all topics we've been covering in depth in the magazine's "Industry Update" section and in our online news.

In my January 2002 column, I mentioned my despair at audiophiles' need for sound quality being ignored by the record industry. However, in the midst of a heated Sunday-morning AES debate on the merits of Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio, I was struck by something renowned engineer George Massenburg said. Piracy aside, the threat to record-company profits comes from the pernicious spread of lossy compressed files, which is why the industry is so keen to watermark their output with an audio signal high enough in level to survive MP3 encoding. But, as Massenburg said, "the sonic compromises due to watermarking, etc., are nothing compared to the compromises [mastering engineers] have to make on 'commercial' recordings."

I wrote about this trend to make CDs sound ever louder by compressing the heck out of their dynamic range in December 1999. Since then, the situation has become, if anything, worse. But if MP3s inherently sound like shit—as Neil Young's producer, Elliot Mazer, said at the same workshop in response to Jim Anderson's comment that he likes to get goosebumps when he listens to music (footnote 1), "Has anyone gotten goosebumps from an MP3 file?"—then reducing the sound quality of CDs to match that of MP3s hardly seems the way to persuade the Napster Generation to buy music rather than download it.

Bandwidth will probably never be sufficient to allow practical downloads of 24/96 or DSD files, so perhaps we'll see a stampede among the Big Five record companies to maximize sound quality, not only on DVD-A and SACD but also on CD, to persuade their erstwhile customers to get back in the buying habit! You saw it here first.

In the meantime, pro-audio dealer Len Moskowitz points out in this issue's "Letters" how easy it is for those with a DVD-burner-equipped PC to make their own hi-rez discs. But this does raise the question of why, except for Classic and Chesky, record companies haven't used the existing DVD-Video format to release unrestricted and unwatermarked two-channel 24/96 recordings—and, perhaps more significant, why audiophiles not interested in surround sound haven't latched onto this hi-rez format. All you need is a suitable DVD-V player—Technics, Panasonic, Pioneer—to feed a high-end D/A processor with the 24/96 data.

As I also mentioned in this space last month, 2002 is Stereophile's 40th-anniversary year, and, as part of our ongoing anniversary celebrations, I'm making many historical articles available online. There are now more than 500 articles and reviews from those 40 years available free of charge in Stereophile's website archives. You'll find all 44 of Jonathan Scull's "Fine Tunes" columns on inexpensive system tweaking, for example, and to complement this issue's "Records To Die For," you can find the previous 11 years' worth of "R2D4."

Perhaps not appreciated by surfers is that many of the review reprints on our website are actually portmanteau pieces that gather in one place all of Stereophile's coverage of a particular component, in some cases adding tests and commentary that, for one reason or another, didn't appear in the print magazine. For example, if you click on the link for what is ostensibly J. Gordon Holt's March 1977 review of the BBC LS3/5A speaker, you'll also find JGH's Follow-Up from Vol.4 No.1, Dick Olsher's 1984 report on the Spendor version of this classic minimonitor, my 1989 comparisons of old and new Rogers '3/5as, a full review of the Harbeth version from 1993, and previously unpublished measurements of the final, biwirable, mid-'90s LS3/5a from KEF. It's a similar story with the Web reprint of our review of RadioShack's CD-3400 portable CD player, to which I've added informative jitter measurements that weren't possible in 1994, when the review originally appeared.

There's also gold to be found in our reprints of feature stories. In "We Did It!," J. Gordon Holt's "As We See It" from the April 1978 issue (Vol.4 No.2), for example, you can read Gordon modestly taking credit for having invented high-end audio. In "Sellout!?," which combines JGH's "As We See It" essays from Vol.3 Nos.2 and 11, you can read discussions of why Stereophile would be accepting first dealer, then manufacturer advertising.

For the record, the first dealers to advertise in the magazine, all in the Spring/Summer 1973 issue (Vol.3 No.3), were Jonas Miller of Beverly Hills, California; Music & Sound of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania; Paoli High Fidelity Consultants of Paoli, PA; and Paul Heath Audio, then of Rochester, New York. The first manufacturer ads, all appearing in Vol.4 No.1 (December 1977), the issue that celebrated our first 15 years of publication, were from AGI, Audionics of Oregon, db Systems (correspondence from db's David Hadaway appears in this issue's "Letters"), Dynaco, H&H International (then importer of Jim Rogers Loudspeakers), Infinity, and M&K. Of those charter advertisers, Paul Heath Audio, db, Infinity, and M&K are still in existence, though only Infinity is still a regular advertiser.

But this seems a perfect opportunity to say "Thank you" to all the companies and retailers who have advertised in Stereophile since 1973. As I wrote in this space last September, we decide on the size of an issue of Stereophile by matching each page of paid advertising with a page of editorial matter. (The magazine's new owner, Primedia, has confirmed that it will continue this 50:50 balance for the foreseeable future.) So while there is no connection between the presence of advertising and the content of our editorial pages, without advertising there wouldn't be any editorial pages!

Footnote 1: Responsible for engineering Patricia Barber's superb Companion and Modern Cool CDs, Jim reinforces his reputation with Terence Blanchard's Let's Get Lost (Sony Classical SK89607, now also on SACD).