Absolute Values

I recently came across a 1998 report, "Explaining the Computer Productivity Paradox," by Kevin Stiroh and Robert H. McGuckin III, that discussed the apparent fact that the widespread use of computers has not resulted in any significant increase in worker productivity. This is indeed a paradox, as my experience in the magazine business has left me with the opposite impression. We all do more, with less, than at any earlier time.

When I joined the English magazine Hi-Fi News, almost 26 years ago as you read these words, I was the junior member of an editorial and production staff of eight, in addition to two full-time typesetters, and two specialists to process the advertising halftone plates (footnote 1). A current issue of Stereophile publishes, on average, 25% more editorial content than a late-1970s issue of HFN, yet it is produced with a full-time production-editorial staff of five people, with the help of two contractors for copy-editing and design. Being generous and counting these two as equivalent to one full-time person gives the modern magazine a staff count exactly half that of the non-computerized magazine of a quarter-century ago.

In the 21st century, writers still write, editors still edit, and designers still design—though the tools used have evolved beyond what could have been imagined in the mid-20th century. It is the typesetters and layout and paste-up people, even the secretaries and stenographers, who no longer exist. But a magazine still needs someone to organize logistics, maintain databases, arrange the shipping of review samples, fact-check the prices and availability of the components being reviewed, arrange for photography, and—most important—make sure that invoices from writers, photographers, and contractors are processed for payment in a timely manner.

In the Stereophile office, Stephen Mejias does all those things (and many more). So when Stephen mentioned to me back in March, when we began production on this issue, that the Wavac SH-833 monoblock amplifier that Michael Fremer was reviewing cost $350,000/pair, I asked him if he was sure. I mean, decimal points can get obscured; extra zeros can creep in. "Yup," came the laconic reply, "350k. But you do get two amplifiers for that money."

To get an idea of Stephen's sense of humor, it was he who, when Sam Tellig told him that he didn't have a piece of Musical Fidelity gear to review for our June issue, said, "Why don't you write about one of Antony Michaelson's wristwatches?" Very funny, Stephen—here's a can of gasoline for you to go put out some fires. Turn to "Letters" (pp.9-11) to read the latest excoriation we've received from readers who feel our magazine covers too much gear from the English manufacturer even without having read Sam's timepiece paean.

Talking about readers' letters, there's a steaming epistle from Jeff Smith on p.9, in which he castigates us for ignoring the needs of audiophiles with real-world disposable income. "Despite protests from me and others," he thunders, "Stereophile (barring a change in its leadership) will continue to primarily review insanely high-priced equipment while rarely reviewing the affordable." Apparently Mr. Smith is not impressed with Bob Reina's four-year odyssey through the world of sub-$1000 loudspeakers, John Marks' journey of discovery that has uncovered such gems as the $1500 Sugden A21a integrated amplifier last November and the $975 Benchmark DAC1 digital processor a year back, Mikey Fremer's ongoing unearthing of high-value LP playback equipment, and Sam Tellig's wetting his pants when he uncovers something offering better sound than it has any right to for the price—such as the Audio Analogue Primo amplifier and CD player ($799 each), with which he prefaced his review of the Musical Fidelity wristwatch in May.

But then, just as I was getting comfortable in the thought that I could justifiably respond to Mr. Smith that the coverage glass is half full rather than half empty, along came Michael Fremer, who, when asked by the affable Jim Ricketts of TMH if he'd like to review the world's most expensive amplifier, answered "Yes." Yes, Mikey does say in the introduction to his review (p.73) that he first laughed "at the ludicrousness of the situation." But then he said "Yes," or at least, "Why the hell not?"

My reply would have been "Why the hell yes?" What possibly needs to be said about an amplifier that costs as much as a house? That weighs half a ton? That perhaps only 10 people in the world will buy?

I fully admit that J. Gordon Holt's vision, when he founded Stereophile, was that such factors as a product's price were subservient to its sound quality. As we have said in the introduction to every "Recommended Components" listing in the four decades since, "The ratings given components...are based entirely on performance—ie, accuracy of reproduction." And yes, Mikey was knocked out by the Wavac's sound (though Mikey's and my positive opinions of its sound require some bending of the concept of "accuracy"). But, pace Gordon Holt and with apologies to Mikey, who did a great job of characterizing the amplifier's performance, with the Wavac the issue of price cannot be laid aside.

A few days after I had driven 550 lbs of one Wavac channel back to Michael's after a depressing couple of days measuring the beast, I attended the East Coast debut of Wilson Audio's Alexandra X2 loudspeaker at Manhattan retailer Innovative Audio. Set up with Naim CDS Mk.3 and Linn Unidisk players, a Nagra V hard-disk recorder feeding a Mark Levinson No.360S DAC, Spectral amplification, and MIT cables, the Alexandras produced a sound in Showroom No.3 that, while not without some room-related problems, was to die for: awesomely unforced dynamic range, a superbly transparent view into the recorded soundstage, and palpably real images of voices and instruments hanging in the air in front of the listeners.

Wilson's Peter McGrath played a variety of recordings of equally diverse, mostly unfamiliar types of music, and, just as would happen with live music, the medium got out of the way of the message. Whether it was unaccompanied Russian folk songs, Handel opera, "And So Do I" from Christy Moore's This Is the Day CD, a rehearsal tape of a work for orchestra and prepared tapes by Edgard Varèse, or Pinchas Zukerman performing the Bruch Violin Concerto, the music communicated in a way I have rarely heard from reproduced sound.

The kicker for me was that, for the price of a pair of Wavacs, you could buy the Wilson-Spectral-MIT-Naim system and have enough cash left over for a Mercedes-Benz SL500. Now that's value!

Footnote 1: I am counting only the staff required to get a magazine's content to the printer's pre-press staff. To the best of my knowledge, what pre-press people do comes under the category of "And Then A Miracle Happens."