Audio Conflicts: Home Theater & The High-End Put-Down

Have you noticed how developed the art of the high-end put-down has become?

"I have a high-end system; you listen to mid-fi!"

"You're still listening to old-fashioned single-ended tubes?"

"Listening to rock music on a high-end system is like hauling trash in a BMW."

"Audiophiles who still listen to classical music are museum-music–loving old farts."

"You're just a disillusioned subjectivist; my opinions are totally objective."

And the deadliest of all: "I'm a music-lover; you're only interested in hardware."

Like all put-downs, these reveal more about the speaker than the person spoken to. Yes, there will always be those who own expensive systems but only a few albums. I also recently read in the Albuquerque Journal about a man who owned a quarter of a million LPs but who played them on $250 K-Mart player. But these are extremes. In this issue's "Letters," Jerry Snead asks us not to forget the music. I believe that most audiophiles do combine an interest in hardware with a healthy love for music. Scratch any technoholic and you'll get a passionate discussion of their favorite music.

Now a new put-down has emerged: "You still listen to stereo?"

This month's "Letters" carries a lot of discussion of J. Gordon Holt's March article, "Space...the Final Frontier," in which he persuasively argued that Home Theater makes stereo systems obsolete. Most of the correspondents agree with Gordon, yet I would bet that nearly all audiophiles will continue to enjoy stereo recordings for some time to come.

I've gone the surround-sound route. I had a complete SQ/QS quadraphonic system in the 1970s, ending up with a Sansui Variomatrix decoder (an ancestor of Dolby's Pro-Logic system). I replaced the full-blown quad system with the kind of Hafler difference-speaker setup described by Justin Graves in "Letters," and even tried the AudioPulse ambience synthesizer mentioned by Gary Croner. Yes, I could get an enjoyable sense of envelopment from all of these kludged surround systems, but none of them worked well enough for enough of the time to justify their expense and complexity (footnote 1). By 1980, I had realized that devoting the same resources to better two-channel playback gave a more satisfyingly musical result. I don't think adding more information to imperfect stereo playback is the best way to correct stereo's theoretical flaws. Only when the sonic transparency offered by the best high-end components filters down to products everyone can afford will it be time to talk about filling in the full sphere of ambience that existed at the original event.

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. American society has become used to being entertained, first and foremost, by images. Because Home Theater means that high-end dealers can attach high-end audio to something with which the mass market is already comfortable—TV—it attracts new consumers into their stores.

Home Theater sales have correspondingly become an important fraction of high-end dealers' business. Nevertheless, the installed base of surround-sound systems remains small—less than 5% of potential households, I understand. More importantly, although Dolby has pretty much set a multi-channel standard with their 5.1-channel, AC-3 data-reduced, Dolby Digital system, and Philips is rumored to be working on a CD standard for carrying four discrete channels, there is still no agreed-upon medium for surround-sound, music-only recordings. Yes, some companies are releasing Dolby-surround–encoded CDs—but I regard such matrixed recordings as being a stop-gap, looking back to the failed quadraphonic systems rather than forward to the all-digital, discrete-channel future.

Until such software becomes widely available, discussion of stereo's demise is premature. Ken Furst, of the Home Theater Industry Association, said at the Academy for the Advancement of High-End Audio's one-day conference in April that the audio industry "has a habit of eating its young." The announcement of new technologies kills sales of current, supposedly obsolete components, yet the ballyhooed replacement may not be available for some time. When "perfect sound forever" was announced in 1979, for example, the intervening four years until CD's formal 1983 launch featured the worst recession in audio history.

It's important, therefore, that Home Theater and surround-sound not be regarded as being opposed to the stereo experience, or even the mono one. To be successful, Home Theater and surround-sound must complement the older music formats, not be incompatible with them—"And," not "Or."

Sometimes, we high-end technocrats get too analytical—so much so that we forget that sound reproduction is fundamentally about having fun! Using a Soundblaster card in my PC, driven by the excellent Doctor T.'s music-scoring software, I have been getting about as much enjoyment from "recorded" music as I can remember. As Keith Yates once said in Stereophile (footnote 2), "If the appellation 'high end' describes a musical result, not a code of behavior, then we won't be abandoning the high end, we'll be elevating it."—John Atkinson

Footnote 1: The one surround-system in those far-off, pre-CD days that offered the chance of actually working was Ambisonics. I heard one very impressive discrete Ambisonics demonstration, and many mostly disappointing matrixed Ambisonics demonstrations. The system no longer has a profile in the marketplace, though its protagonists remain loyal and vocal.

Footnote 2: "Audio Minimalism," Vol.11 No.11, p.64.