Nowhere to Go?

Our mail, in recent months, has brought a number of comments (some of them printed in this issue) from professional audio men who decry the fact that developments in the audio field seem to have come to a screeching halt.

There would seem to be some justification for believing this, too. There hasn't been a new kind of loudspeaker, amplifier, pickup, or tuner for the past five years or so. The professional engineering journals, once loaded with juicy articles about research and developments in music reproduction, are now devoted largely to public-address techniques and new methods for the "creation" of electronic music.

An employee of a major record company asserts that "good" recordings don't sell. Many recording studios refuse to use microphones with truly linear low-end response because they make the sound too "muddy." And The Stereophile has to depend almost entirely on subjective reporting of components because "specifications don't tell the whole story."

This certainly doesn't look as if we already know everything that is to be learned about high fidelity. Yet an audio columnist from one of the professional journals told us that he and his associates had run out of things to research! If any field needs more answers than it has now, it's the audio field.

Why don't specifications tell the whole story? Why do "good" recordings sound less hi-fi to many people than lousy recordings? Why does a mike have to have its low end rolled off in order to sound natural? Are we conditioning listeners to accept low-fi as the standard of comparison? Or do people really prefer a low-fi reproduction to the real thing?

What's the matter with measurements, anyway? Are we misinterpreting them? Using the wrong ones? Overlooking some that are just as important as the ones we now use?

Why does a transistor amplifier seem to make a dynamic speaker put out deeper, tighter bass than a tube amplifier that measures exactly the same? Why should the most stringent pickup tests still fail to tell us half as much about the pickup's sound as a brief listening test?

Experts argue and speculate endlessly about these things, just as they do about narrow versus broad amplifier bandwidth, large versus small loudspeakers, and the importance of phase shift in reproduced sound. But why speculate? Why doesn't someone who has no vested interest in the outcome dig into these matters and try to come up with some fairly conclusive answers?

Anyone who can blandly say there's nowhere else to go in audio is simply overlooking the obvious fact that any unanswered question is an invitation to someone to seek an answer. And there are certainly plenty of unanswered questions in audio. Just pick a question, any question, out of the hat, and chances are it'll be one that there isn't a clearcut answer for. And if that isn't a challenge for any normally curious audio devotee, he's in the wrong field.—J. Gordon Holt

dalethorn's picture

I wonder if there any tech-savvy audiophiles doing research in quantum science applications. Seems to me that audiophiles who are aware of the complexities of sound in 3D-plus-time should be good candidates for quantum research, since a good imagination is important there.

Archimago's picture

But more importantly is to have at least some kind of *hypothesis* that can be tested.

What hypothesis is there that would link quantum theory with audio reproduction such that we can then imagine ways to understand and ultimately benefit from the understanding? (Not withstanding snake oil sales people who have already marketed items said to have quantum powers.)

Since this article in 1966, so much has progressed already in recording, distribution, and playback. But much of this has happened broadly as part of digital media rather than specifically to satisfy audio quality. While I hope new technologies can improve performance of key equipment like speakers especially, the underlying physics in terms of understanding the properties of sound wave have not changed and there is no indication that it needs to.

Who knows, maybe one day neuroscience can help up enjoy music more or provide some kind of "delivery method" that's even more realistic. While quantum mechanisms may be invoked to understand neural and cognitive processing (no clear evidence of this either BTW), I wouldn't be holding my breath to think that these principles would show up in products in my lifetime!

dalethorn's picture

Which is why I specified imagination.

spacehound's picture

I am sure that in "quantum science" there are roughly the same percentage of "tech savvy audiophiles" as a any other scientfic/technical field.

You have not fallen into the dog-poop pseudo science emitted by Synergistic Research and and others, have you?

dalethorn's picture

Your several comments suggest that you want to lead people, but you lack the imagination to provide them an interesting challenge.

BradleyP's picture

Funny. On a related note, landmark stereo recordings from the 50s, like Armstrong and Fitzgerald's Porgy and Bess or Belafonte at Carnegie Hall or countless others are still at the pinnacle of stereophonic sound today. It's kind of like how the jetliner mold was set in 1959 with the 707. Today's 787 still shoots you through the air at 540 mph in a pressurized tube.

Archimago's picture

And until "disruptive technology" comes along, we simply refine our understanding and technologies. It' more about gradual evolution... Nothing wrong or abnormal about that...

dalethorn's picture

Stereo sound and products have survived against newer technologies, probably because we have two ears. Jets have survived in their current form because of ruthless price competition and a much larger customer base than before who can afford those cheap prices. There are a few breakthrough products that are created by visionary people against the wishes of their bean counters, when those people are unfortunate enough to be saddled with bean counters. Hewlett, Packard, Jobs come to mind. But the bean counters usually win.

otaku's picture

Anyone know where that picture came from? Based on the date, I can assume it was not Photoshopped!

Anon2's picture

On the good side, there is the aspirational aspect of hi-fi. Everyone (or most everyone) knows that there is some upgrade out there to improve one's system. The lack of clear guidelines on how to do this is one of the frustrations of this hobby.

"What to upgrade next?" The lack of clear answers to this, which seem to be particularly elusive in this hobby, is a detriment to this hobby. In other products, pursuits, how to improve is an answer with more clear-cut answers. The needless obfuscation of audio hurts, does not help, the hobby.

I recently found myself referring to a 1980s Linn/"Dealer sponsored" web page on the "hi-fi" hierarchy. Message boards and discussion fora on audio make 9th grade "how to pick up girls" tips look like a 777 take-off check-list by comparison. There is a lot lacking in how a person moves to the next level in this hobby.

The hobby suffers by all of the BS about what has changed and what has not changed. I wonder how many people quit in frustration. For every person fascinated by the alluring possibilities, there are how many who look to politician soundbites as a welcome relief from the self-inflicted mystery in which many adherents to this hobby indulge to excess.

The obfuscation of progress in hi-fi in some areas, may be because the change has been so incremental, while the prices have risen, not fallen, as with other consumer goods. A $900 TV from 15 years ago is a joke compared to a $199 TV that one can go out before 9 pm and buy tonight. The same applies to computers, phones, cameras, cars, a whole range of manufactured goods. Hi-Fi needs to be honest about what has truly evolved, and what has not.

Some things have evolved. Who would have thought that a Penguin Classics paperback-sized DAC could deliver such measurable improvement to a person's stereo. Recordings, even for us dead-ender CD listeners, have never been better. Yes, there are some very conscientious recording engineers paired with very dubious talent; poor sales are an understandable result. Meanwhile, there is an ever-evolving, ever-expanding array of very well recorded artists of excellence, providing new and established works. Listen to SACDs, if you are a classical listener, from Bis, Channel Classics, Pentatone, to name a few. You will find ever-evolving excellence of recordings and ensembles.

Amplification, while it has not changed perhaps too much, continues to be, from my vantage point, the one thing that really wrings the details out of any recording. Amplification has its own evolution of sorts for those of who have low quality, but know what is out there to take a system to the next level. Budgetary constraints limit this evolution for many of us.

Speakers is the one area where I have a lot of questions. There is a wide range of products, and credibility, across the product and price ranges. For speakers, my outlays are still guided towards other products, based on this "revealing" interview from 2008:

Read the first 9 paragraphs of this article. Based on the products that have come up in the 7 years since this article first appeared, I'd suspect that the "same old same old" cited from the prior 10 years to this interview, have proven to be the "same old same old" henceforth.

So my bottom line is this. Recordings have gotten much better; if you are a downloader or streamer, even better yet. Digital sources have improved, and brought heretofore expensively attained quality to the enthusiast for a very low price. Amplification has perhaps remained stable; but there is much improvement for the would-be acquirer of bigger and better. Speakers: I guess the hi-fi hierarchy still holds; optimize in front of this last link in the chain.