Where Did We Go Wrong?

Editor's Introduction: Thirty years ago this month, in September 1962, J. Gordon Holt, lately Technical Editor of High Fidelity magazine, was working on the contents of the first issue of his brainchild The Stereophile, a magazine that would judge components on how they actually sounded. We thought it appropriate, therefore, to use the occasion of the 1992 Summer Consumer Electronics Show, held in late May in Chicago, to invite some 200 members of the international high-end industry to a dinner to celebrate the occasion. Larry Archibald dug deep into the magazine's coffers; Ralph Johnson took time off from organizing the 1993 High End Hi-Fi Show to burn up the long-distance telephone lines faxing invitations; the conversation was excellent, the food superb, and the wine even better. Which is probably why the venerable JGH took the opportunity to remind the assembled luminaries what this whole business is supposed to be about. Here follows the text of his speech. I hope you find it as stimulating reproduced in these pages as did those who heard it live.—John Atkinson

Ladies, gentlemen, and esteemed members of the press: I thank you all for helping us to celebrate our 30th anniversary, and hope you enjoyed the food and wine as much as I did. And thank you, Larry, for making all this possible.

As I look around me tonight, I see a a lot of old, familiar faces...some almost as old as mine, I might add. We old-timers remember the bright promise of what was then called "high fidelity": perfect reproduction of real, live music. We knew it was probably unattainable, like the legendary Holy Grail, but the search for it gave us a purpose and a direction—somewhere to go and something to aim for.

During the 115 years since Thomas Edison started all this, we have seen an incredible amount of technological progress. We went from acoustical to electrical, from tinfoil to aluminized polycarbonate, from mono to stereo, from direct disc to tape and back again, from 4 minutes per side to 75, and from 10dB S/N ratio to 96dB.

Every component, from microphone to loudspeaker, became smoother, cleaner, and more detailed, and all the while, manufacturers were making bold claims that their equipment sounded "just like being there."

Even today, the PR handout for members of the general public attending the 1992 Summer CES states, and I quote: "At the core of high-end audio is the pursuit of the live-music experience." The dream continues.

Or does it?

I've been getting the impression that we don't believe our own hype anymore. No one today would claim seriously that a reproducing system sounds "just like the real thing." And we're right. I've heard hundreds of classical concerts, a few stadium rock concerts, and a number of electric instruments playing in nightclubs and music stores, and I can attest that the vast majority of so-called high-end systems don't come CLOSE to reproducing those sounds.

But what's worse is that, among ourselves, we seem to have come to a tacit agreement that it's no longer necessary, or even desirable, for a home music system to sound like the real thing.

We speak in hushed and reverent tones about reproducing the ineffable beauty of music, when in fact much real music is harsh and vulgar and ugly. We design the all-important musical midrange out of our equipment in order to try—vainly, I might add—to re-create the illusion of three-dimensional space through what is essentially a two-dimensional reproducer. And whenever we hear a loudspeaker or a CD player that shows subversive signs of sounding more "alive" or "realistic" than most, we dismiss it out of hand as being too "forward" or "aggressive." As if a lot of real music isn't forward and aggressive!

Where did we go wrong?

Part of this new skepticism about reproduced realism is because we've trained ourselves to listen well—perhaps too well. We've learned how to listen into the fabric of the sound, and hear the small distortions that mean "imperfection," so our ears have become very hard to fool. Yet how often have all of us heard music from a distance at an unexpected time and been startled by it because we knew instantly it wasn't reproduced, it was LIVE? How did we know so quickly unless, in fact, the real thing sounded completely different from what we're accustomed to hearing reproduced? Because that's where we're at. Real sounds very different from reproduced.

This does not need to be so. Those of us who work in the subjective end of audio know from long experience how to "shape" the performance of a loudspeaker, for instance, to make it sound almost any way we want it to. Why, then, can we not shape it to sound more like the signal going into it? We can. The question is more a matter of "Why don't we?"

The idea that all we are trying to do is make equipment that gives the listener some sort of magical emotional response to a mystical experience called "music" is all well and good, but it isn't what High End is all about. In fact, high fidelity was originally a reaction to the gorgeously rich-sounding console "boom boxes" that dominated the home-music market during the 1940s!

I've been hearing comments recently to the effect that the old excitement has gone out of High End. "Nothing seems to be happening any more" is heard time and again here at CES. Even those eternal optimists, John Atkinson and Larry Archibald, have voiced similar sentiments. I agree. I feel the same way, but I think I know the reason.

I think it's because we've lost our direction. We have the feeling we've arrived, that we've done what we set out to do. And in a way, we have.

The High End in 1992 is a multi-million-dollar business. It has recognition, clout, even a publicity and lobbying arm. But it's an empty triumph, because we haven't accomplished what we set out to do. The playback still doesn't sound "just like the real thing."

People, let's start getting back to basics. Let's put the "re" back into "reproduction." Let's believe our own hype, and promote products that dare to sound as "alive" and "aggressive" as the music they are trying to reproduce.

It won't be easy to fool an educated listener into thinking the reproduction is real, but then none of the other technological advances during the past 115 years have come easily, either. But the pursuit of that Holy Grail of perfect sound—even temporarily, if not forever—could give us back the sense of purpose we have lost in recent years.

It might even bring back some of the old excitement.—J. Gordon Holt