No Smiths: Matters of Taste

"What? What??? No Smiths?" asks reader Steven J. Wilder in this issue's "Letters" (p.9), regarding my interjection in the "Honorable Mentions" sidebar of last November's "40 Essential Albums." Hey, I think The Smiths suck—okay, Mr. Wilder? Morrissey's self-absorbed adolescent whining had no place on a list that included music from such grownups as Morrison, Mitchell, and Mingus. I'm not alone in this sentiment. Jon Iverson,'s webmaster, almost stapled together the pages of Mojo magazine's April 2001 retrospective of Morrissey's and Marr's music so he could skip over it without running the risk of the veins on his forehead exploding.

I didn't go that far, and it's fair to temper my condemnation by noting that a recent trivia question gave me pause: After Elvis and the Beatles, which artist has had the most No.1 hits? To my astonishment, given that I cannot recall any of the former Mrs. Tommy Mottola's songs, the answer is Mariah Carey, with 15. Fifteen! Which goes to show that the old saw, "In matters of taste there can be no dispute"—or "De gustibus non disputandum," as the ancient Romans would have said had they been aware of Carey's or Morrissey's achievements in the world of music—is as true as it ever was.

It is, of course, the world of music that concerns us in this issue of Stereophile, featuring as it does our annual "Records To Die For." As they've done since 1991, each of the magazine's pundits offers thumbnail sketches of two recordings that they would take with them to the next world. And I am as horrified at some of their selections as I am at Mr. Wilder's love of The Smiths. I mean, how could Sam Tellig (p.65) accompany his choice of a true masterpiece of the late Romantic repertoire—Edward Elgar's first symphony—with a work by that longwinded master of note-spinning, Hector Berlioz? No wonder I had to append a mighty editorial snort (footnote 1).

But again, in matters of taste there's no disputing taste, and what to one person seems like formless noodling—see Robert's Baird's "Aural Robert" (p.130) on Christopher O'Riley's piano transcriptions of Radiohead tunes—is, to another, deeply communicative music-making (again, see "Aural Robert"). So my apologies to Berlioz, Morrissey, Mr. Wilder, Sam Tellig, Radiohead, and Christopher O'Riley. Though I will note that if you want to hear O'Riley at his virtuosic best, playing music more worthy of his talent (there I go again!), check out my recording of Mendelssohn's Sextet in D on Encore (Stereophile STPH011-2).

Also in this issue's "Letters," I publish some comments in response to Sutherland 12dAX7 and PS Audio HCA-2, in which significant shortfalls in both products' measurements had to be balanced against the reviewers' enthusiasm for their sound qualities. If that's the case, comments Jim Grant on p.9, the question I should be asking is not "Should we publish a particular graph?" but "Why bother at all?" Mykal Howatt adds that he doesn't "know or care what [the graphs] do, don't, seem to, or seem not to reveal."

Coincidentally with my receiving these and other e-mails, all expressing the same dismissive sentiment, Jon Iverson posted a "Vote" question on at the beginning of December, asking, "Stereophile review, how important are the measurements and graphs?" No less than 54% of the respondents let us know that the measurements were important, even essential, while another 22% felt they were "kind of interesting." Only 5% wished "they weren't there." Let me tell you, this came as music to my ears! Pareto's Principle kicks in big time: 20% of my work but 80% of my logistical and organizational headaches stem from the preparation of our "Measurements" Sidebars.

So if, as I said in December, "making the essential causal connection between measurement and observation is far from simple," why do I feel that publishing measurements is essential, especially since Stereophile was founded on the principle that it's the sound of a component that matters most?

The answer is the same reason I insist that my reviewers list all the recordings they listen to and all the ancillary components they use to form their review opinions: a review that isn't complete lacks a reference for the value judgments expressed; a review that lacks measured data is unsupported opinion and, as Martin Bath from the UK said in response to our website poll, "God knows there's too much of that floating around already." No, the measurements don't describe the sound. But without them, you get only half the picture.

The measurements reveal problems that may not have been picked up by the reviewer or may have been underplayed in the review's relatively short auditioning period, but that nevertheless might become significant over months or even years of listening. For example, I recently received a letter from Canadian reader Tony Fenske, who had finally had enough of his Monitor Audio Studio 6es, despite loving so much else about the speaker. I had noted a mid-treble problem in my February 1994 review, but felt that it was not generally intrusive, at least in the couple of months during which I used the speaker. But the measurements in my review clearly showed that the metal-cone woofer did have a resonant problem at 5kHz, which clearly correlates with Mr. Fenske's long-term dissatisfaction.

The measurements reveal whether or not the designer knows his craft. One look at the graphs that accompany Kal Rubinson's review of the Weiss Medea DAC in this issue (p.85) and you're left in no doubt that Daniel Weiss knows his stuff. And as with the graphs accompanying Art Dudley's review of the Final Laboratory components last month, they reveal serious issues of compatibility that the would-be purchaser needs to know about.

These are not matters of taste. S. Chapman summed it up best on the website: "While sound and individual perception are still the most important, a component that measures well is much more likely to work in a variety of systems and lead to long-term listening happiness." But, as John Myers asks in a letter in this issue, "How am I to know the bad from the good or the good from the excellent? Can you help to explain 'in English' what each graph really means?"

I will publish a series of articles starting in the late spring doing just that.

Footnote 1: Actually, as revealed by Berlioz's epic but eminently readable Memoirs..., translated and edited by David Cairns (London, Gollancz, 1969, reprinted by Dover in 1990), his most significant accomplishments were not as a composer but as a conductor, both in proselytizing the music of Beethoven to a wider, pan-European audience and in formalizing the concept of the classical concert experience.