The Weakest Link

When the Record Industry Association of America adopted its standard disc playback equalization curve in 1954, hi-fi enthusiasts heaved a sigh of relief and bade fond farewell to years of confusion, doubt and virtual pandemonium. Before the RIAA curve there were six "standard" curves in use, and since nobody seemed to know who was using what, getting flat response from a disc was often more a matter of luck than anything else. The adoption of the RIAA standard playback curve heralded an end to all this.

If record manufacturers had endeavored to install the best available playback equipment, and made their records for use on this equipment, there might be little to choose today between a stereo disc and an original tape. But when hi-fi ceased to be a pursuit of quality and became a pursuit of the Merry Megabuck, the RIAA curve became just another obstacle between the product and the consumer's wallet.

The whole trouble was that J. Q. Public's polished mahogany boombox had never heard of the RIAA curve. Cut a disc to sound natural when RIAA-equalized, and it sounded muffled and distorted to the average record buyer. So, one manufacturer tried making a few minor "corrections" in the sound of his discs, and by Golly, they did sound better on JQP's console. Another manufacturer quickly followed suit, and the race was on.

Hi-fi enthusiasts and critics with good equipment noticed the change, but most of them naively confused more highs with better highs, so the record makers figured they had carte blanche to go hog-wild. They solved JQP's distortion and turntable rumble problems by compressing dynamics until some LPs and stereo discs had less volume range on them than many 78-rpm shellacs. They minimized groove-jumping by filtering out all deep bass, and brought out the "presence" by whacking up the treble, adding a 5kHz response peak, or moving their microphones right in on top of the instruments.

By 1959, the gimmicking of discs had reached such proportions that no tone control could begin to cope with these sonic horrors, so component buyers started choosing "sweet-sounding"—ie, rolled-off—speakers and pick-ups, in an effort to tame the screaming treble. Early LP discs, that actually had been cut to the RIAA curve, now sounded dull and sodden, thus giving rise to the reassuring myth that modern recordings are better than ever before.

Today there are some encouraging signs of a return to sanity, but to pretend that the average stereo disc is made to sound best when reproduced on the best equipment is to practice self-deception. Most record manufacturers still keep a sharp eye on the limitations of the average console phonograph, boosting here, attenuating there, and generally making a mockery of their claims of "highest fidelity" and their recommendations that owners of high-fidelity systems should "equalize to the RIAA curve."

If they all did the same things to their discs, or specified on the jackets what they had done, it might be possible to design equalizers to offset the effects of this messing around. But the nature of the manipulations is always a "trade secret"—most manufacturers won't admit that they do it all—which means that the poor slob of a hi-fi listener is right back where he started, only more so, because now there are no standard curves at all. There's only the RIAA curve, which hardly anybody uses any more.

In short, the relatively few record buyers who are really interested in getting good sound are being sold down the river in order to cater to the imagined needs of the vast, tin-eared public that can't tell good sound when it hears it, and cares less. Until the record manufacturers start giving us the kind of sound they could if they cared to, no amount of expenditure on "perfect" playback equipment is going to make modern discs sound any better than mediocre. There are too few audio perfectionists to have any effect on the sales of recordings, but we can write letters to record companies and the mass-circulation hi-fi magazines, and we can tell less-knowledgeable record buyers what's going on.

Until we can pressure the record companies into thinking in terms of top audio quality again, high fidelity's weakest link will remain the first link in the chain.—J. Gordon Holt

dalethorn's picture

U.S. pressings of most LP's were horrible, in the 1970's at least. So I got most of the ones I wanted to keep from outlets that sold British, German, and Japanese pressings. For pop music LP's, I bought from the Kent Community Store near Kent State Univ. And they were $2.50 USD there in the early-mid 1970's.

Even though things are better in some respects today, there's an occasional flub. I bought the Beethoven 9th symphony by Vladimir Ashkenazy directing the NHK orchestra (circa 2006?) - a pricy Japanese import SACD, and the sound is dull. No matter the volume, the upper highs are just gone. My other versions of the 9th all sound different from each other, yet they sound musically natural. I wish I could get a better copy of the NHK recording, which is on the Octavia Records Exton label.

tonykaz's picture

Ain't it the truth!
In the 1980s, as Owner of Esoteric Audio Salon, we had huge difficulties finding Demo Vinyl. The best were Sheffield & Reference Recordings. Some European stuff was very good but the Music was niche ( outfits like Linn Recordings ).
In the 1970s we got good stuff from Warner ( Rondstat, Steely Dan ) a few hits but mostly miss.
Today, I collect Classical. I own scads of Rossini ( for example ) and can quickly go thru em using iTunes. Recording quality varies, as it always did, but I can locate the best easily and quickly. Another benefit is these digital versions don't seem to have any RIAA or low filtering, I can hear things like stage thumpings ( from chair movements and foot tapping) and background sounds that my vinyl systems never resolved. I ain't never go'in back to vinyl.
Digital re-releases of Opera and Chamber Music are very listenable where they never sounded worthy on vinyl, a nice bonus.
Geez, I was on a three year rampage of Cartridge up-grading (1982-5) ! Now, I've only bought two DACs in 5 years. I am considering buying a Chord DAC but I'm not feeling a burning need, like I would've in my Vinyl Era.
Vinyl ain't dead yet, it may never die!, I even know of a few folks keeping 78s alive and Mono Vinyl too, but it's dead for me. And I'm the most important person I know of. ( you might be No.2 )
I can buy any old CD, scratches and all, my iMac will try to rebuild thru damage, mostly successfully.
Going back to vinyl would seem like going back to the "Q" or Folsom, ( my dark days of Bank Robbing ).
Beats-all are the Movie Industry Soundtracks and the Live Orchestra Recordings ( like my local Detroit Symphony Orchestra ) , Leonard Slatkin says the Movie People spare no expense getting things "right" !

Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

My Slatkin/St Louis recording of Barber compositions is one of my favorites, from a very decent CD, on EMI I believe. I buy odds and ends from iTunes, and in the process I can compare the different copies from different albums they have, and the differences in the same exact recording are astounding. But when it's a serious like, I get the CD and do a verified rip.

AlexMetalFi's picture

Gordon, welcome to my world!

There needs to be a more concerted effort by the audiophile press to recognize that it is at the recording/production and pressing stage where most fidelity is made - not formats, not sampling rates, not codecs.

Bob Levin's picture

Dynagroove wasn't landing sideways in the public ear until a year later. The worst was yet to come!
Skewed dynamics didn't die upon the arrival of the compact disk. If anything they got far worse. Spotlighting in orchestral recording is still going on. Give a listen to the Mozart wind concertos on Linn CKD 273 with Janiczec and the Scottish Chamber Orch. Maybe some people enjoy the sound of keys clacking on a Bassoon. I dont! Those little interferences go unheard if you sit in the sweet spot of a good concert hall.
On the other hand, I don't mind the occasional tick or pop on a spinning piece of black plastic. I can hear through it and enjoy the music in the same way I tolerate the rustling of concert programmes or a random sneeze.