iPad Daze

"Reviewed in the box!" is what Stereophile's founder, the late J. Gordon Holt, used to call it. You might think you're reading a review, but the realization slowly dawns that there's nothing in the text that could not have been gleaned from the manufacturer's brochure, nothing to indicate that the writer had even opened the box the product came in. When I read a review in another publication or online, I judge it by doing what I recommend Stereophile's readers do when they read this magazine: I look for the nugget I didn't already know, the facet I wasn't expecting, the concluding jewel I couldn't have predicted without ever having tried the component myself. Sadly, all too often too many of what are promoted as "reviews" on the Web are merely descriptions.

To give an example, when I reviewed the bargain-priced Xonar Essence STX soundcard in the January Stereophile, I found that, using its own driver, this card had a problem playing back audio files with a sample rate greater than 48kHz (see January, p.77). The manufacturer has since rewritten the card's software, and I will be publishing a Follow-Up. But as far as I could see, not one of the many "reviews" of this soundcard published on the Web mentioned this problem.

Yes, on the Web everyone has a voice, but Sturgeon's Law applies to the Web as much as it does to every other walk of life: 90% of what is said is crap. (Actually, the late science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon said crud, but crap works better.)

Sturgeon's Law applies to the world of music, of course. More music is being made—and, thanks to the Apple iPod, listened to—by more people than at any time in history, yet most of that music is crap. It remains a rare event to find an album as beautifully crafted as Jeff Beck's Emotion & Commotion, which we chose to be this issue's "Recording of the Month" (see p.113). Jeff Beck has been crafting his music for getting on 50 years now, about the same length of time this magazine has been in existence; it remains to be seen if Lady Gaga or audio webzines have a similar staying power.

I write these words on April 3, the day Apple has launched the iPad. This event may have no immediate relevance to high-end audio, but it was eagerly greeted in the world of magazine publishing. Just as the iTunes store reinvented the retailing of recorded music and the monochrome Kindle seems to be reinventing the publishing of books, the iPad's use as a full-color, close-to-full-size reader may well reinvent the world of magazine distribution. I am pleased, therefore, to announce that, within days of the iPad's launch, Stereophile was available in an iPad edition, courtesy of the publisher of our downloadable edition, Zinio.

Questions, however, are begged: Why, in a world of the Web, does content still need to bundled into something resembling a magazine? And if everything is available in the "cloud," why does anyone need information crystallized in the form of a physical object at all? And if the Web offers everything for free, why should anyone have to pay for the same information?

There are answers to these questions. First, as 90% of what you find on the Web is crap, a magazine acts as both agglomerator and gatekeeper. A magazine, whether physical or virtual, guarantees its readers that someone other than the writer and his mother has been through the text, questioned the author, worked out the ambiguities, and ensured that the product wasn't "reviewed in the box." Second, that process, and the fact that something inevitably becomes greater than the sum of its parts, creates an identity for a publication that attracts those of like mind. A community is created that feeds on the shared passion in a way that the individual parts could never do. No audiophile need be an island, even if his listening room, like mine, has only one chair.

And third, free information tends to be worth exactly what you've paid for it. The information you get free is not the same information you get from a magazine like Stereophile. Those who do something for a long time get better at it, and this magazine's writers have been reviewing audio components for a long time indeed. Sam Tellig and Larry Greenhill made their Stereophile debuts in 1984; Michael Fremer, John Marks, Robert Baird, Fred Kaplan, and Art Dudley also made their debuts around that time, though not in this magazine. Wes Phillips, Bobs Reina and Deutsch, Brian Damkroger, Jon Iverson, and Kalman Rubinson first appeared in Stereophile in the 1990s. I started writing about audio equipment 34 years ago. And even the new kids on our block, Stephen Mejias and Erick Lichte, both in their early 30s, have been involved in music making since they were fresh out of the egg. That experience, that institutional memory, is what you pay for each month.

Not that the Web is unimportant. It might not offer the print-magazine experience, but it excels at two things. The first is the instant, the now, the today. We have migrated almost all of our coverage of audio shows to www.stereophile.com. Stereophile's writers reported live (or nearly so) from Axpona, in Jacksonville, Florida, and from Salon Son et Image, in Montreal, both of which took place in the weeks leading up to the iPad launch. While the paper magazine's "Letters" column remains lively, much of the discussion and feedback has moved to online forums, including our own, and to the comments sections of our blogs.

The second and equally important value of the Web is as an archive. Weekly since December 1998, Stereophile.com's self-proclaimed Web Monkey, Jon Iverson, and I have posted to its free online archive three to five reviews and articles from the magazine. As of this month, there are available: every "As We See It" essay going back to the beginning of 1982, when J. Gordon Holt relinquished Stereophile's publishing reins, as well as several from before then; pretty much every technical feature published since I became Stereophile's editor 24 years ago this month; every "Recording of the Month" going back to January 1990; every "Records To Die For" compilation since the first one, 20 years ago; and every column by Art Dudley, Kalman Rubinson, John Marks, and Jonathan Scull.

And then there are the equipment reports, almost every one of which includes a comprehensive set of measurements. Currently online are reviews of 463 loudspeakers both floorstanding and stand-mounted; 209 power amplifiers, both solid-state and tubed; 175 preamplifiers of all kinds; 86 integrated amplifiers; plus CD players, LP turntables, headphones, accessories of all kinds, etc.—going all the way back to the magazine's founding, in 1962.

Our online archive is a gold mine of considered opinion. No other audio publication has anything like it.—John Atkinson