Book Review: "The Complete Guide to High-End Audio" Page 2

Robert Harley certainly makes a good attempt. The coverage is comprehensive, accurately directed at the High End without overlooking the potential for relatively inexpensive but well-chosen and -sited audio systems to perform very nicely, thank you. The book is certainly readable, its explanatory style clear, and layout and organization of subject material are well-thought-out. While The Complete Guide is clearly not written for experts, the book, with its wealth of information, will be a welcome addition to my audio library.

The book contains 13 good chapters, and three substantial appendices which provide groundings in acoustics and the properties of sound, basic audio electronics, and technical details of digital audio. The appendices provide a good introduction to technical feature articles and the measurement sections of component reviews in magazines.

As Harley explains, the Complete Guide is a distillation of the views, ideas, and data published by many specialists in the field. His treatment is consistently evenhanded, without extreme or distorted positions—a powerful streak of common sense runs throughout the book. Harley is not afraid to make value judgments, which is just as well—the subject is so complex and multi-faceted that countless judgments need to be made at every stage.

I particularly liked Chapter 3, "Becoming a Better Listener," which includes a lucid exposition of the terms used to describe subjective sound quality—the very language of audio. [This chapter was excerpted in the July 1994 Stereophile.—Ed.]

Room acoustics are one of the most important and difficult aspects of reproduced sound. Chapter 4, "How to Get the Best Sound from Your Room," addresses many of the problems with necessary theory and sensible advice.

CD and LP replay are given balanced treatment—Chapter 9, "Turntables, Tonearms, and Cartridges: The LP Playback System," is no mere afterthought. However, I would have liked more on arm/cartridge resonance. Harley says, "Preventing the tonearm and cartridge from resonating is of utmost importance." While this is broadly correct for the entire audio range, no advice is given on how to achieve it. Cartridge and tonearm damping aren't covered, nor is there mention of silicone-fluid dampers. More advice on cartridge loading and matching would also have been helpful. Conversely, Chapter 11, "Cables and Interconnects," contains much sensible comment and an unbiased account of balanced and unbalanced lines.

I do, however, take issue with a statement in Chapter 7, "Loudspeakers," which summarily dismisses reflex speaker enclosures: "Reflex systems tend to be boomy, slow, fat, and poorly defined in the bass. They often have an annoying thumpy quality. Transient response is also poor, making kick drum sound sluggish rather than taut and fast."

Poorly designed speakers, including reflex speakers and their subgroups—passive radiator, reflex-type transmission, and quarter-wave lines—may well suffer as outlined above, but this is not necessarily the case these days. For the past decade or so, many of the industry's reference speakers have successfully used reflex bass loading—including, to name but a few: Wilson's X-1/Grand SLAMM; all of the Wilson WATTs/Puppys; Spendor's S100, SP2-2, and SP1; numerous ProAcs; B&W's 800, Silver Signature, and 801 Mk.III; Epos's ES 11; all Sonus Fabers; and a number of fine subwoofers, including the B&W PCS-8 Cinema THX, the Wilson WHOW, and the Apogee Mini-Grand.

With that off my chest, I can firmly recommend this unique, largely up-to-date book. Robert Harley has set his sights on a clearly defined target, and his aim is true.
Martin Colloms