High Fidelity at the Crossroads Page 2

We have, however, started to hear some reactions to the Magnavox system from people who have auditioned it, and the reactions have been very contradictory, in a manner which precisely fulfils a prediction we made about a year ago. At that time, we allowed as how a lot of audiophiles were going to be unhappy with digital audio in their home because it would upset that delicate balance whereby loudspeaker colorations were being offset by complementary colorations in the phono system. And that is exactly why many audiophiles are not altogether ecstatic about Magnavox's digital sound. If they had been reading Stereophile, and relying on our judgment, they wouldn't be so surprised at what digital audio is going to do to their precious systems.

For reasons we still cannot comprehend, Stereophile still seems to be the only underground audio magazine that uses open-reel tapes (originals as well as good copies) as its standard for judging all other program sources. Without that frame of reference, one can only guess what kind of sound should be coming from any given combination of of cartridge, tonearm, and preamplifier. Lacking that frame of reference, many subjective testers have been leading themselves further and further astray from the very "accuracy" they so sanctimoniously espouse (footnote 1).

Abetted by a few persuasive theorists, they have favored certain kinds of products (moving-coil cartridges, for a good example) because they just had to be superior, and then adjusted their preferences for other devices such as loudspeakers to imbue the end result—the emergent sound—with a semblance of musicality. But when they were waxing ecstatic over the latest multi-hundred-dollar moving-coil cartridge, we were warning our readers that, in comparison with the sound of tape (which is, after all, what most discs are made from), it sounded sucked-out in the brightness range and tipped up at the top.

Many audiophiles elected to trust the GESRs and, following their advice, assembled systems in which an excessively bright speaker system with a dull high end was being neatly compensated for by that cartridge with the brightness suckout and the high-end rise. It sounded lovely, but that musical balance was illusory. And all it took to shatter that illusion was a program Source more accurate than that cartridge.

The skepticism with which perfectionists greet anything new has prompted some criticism of certain aspects of the sound from digitally mastered LPs. And there have been questions raised on theoretical grounds about the new digital audio technology—questions concerning phase shift, inadequate quantizing, and too low a sampling frequency. At least one manufacturer of digital equipment—a switching amplifier that laid an egg in the marketplace—told us that it had used a 2MHz sampling rate and felt even that to have been too low. But these objections, it strikes us, are no more germaine to the issue at hand than that of belt- versus direct-drive in turntables. The bottom line, as they say, is not how something is done but how well it performs its intended function. And the fact of the matter is that digital recording performs its function better than any previous recording system.

Also irrelevant here is whether or not one likes the sound of a digital playback. The sole function of any recording system is to reproduce what is fed to it. If it can do that, we can ask no more of it.

If, when it does that, it doesn't sound "good" to a listener, then he should reconsider either his associated componentry, his taste in reproduced sound, or both. That is our advice to audiophiles who don't like what they hear from the new digital systems.

As of now, there is a complete lack of standardization for digital audio. No two systems in use are mutually compatible. And even though the industry is working toward standardization, the present chaotic situation promises to get worse before it gets better. (JVC has just introduced a videodisc system that is incompatible with Magnavox's, and RCA is preparing to unveil yet another uniquely incompatible videodisc system.) But the past may give us a clue as to which of the new systems will become the standard one. And the past has shown us that, unless there is a real, practical shortcoming to a new audio system, as was the case with RCA's 45-rpm doughnut disc (which offered no more playing time than a 78), the first system to gain public acceptance has always been adopted as the "standard" format.

Both the Sony PCM-1 and the Magnavox system meet the requirements for playing time and audio quality, and while the PCM-1'S high price and current short supply mitigate against its acceptance now, the Magnavox players are selling like the proverbial hotcakes at $700 each. And if that sounds high, consider what audiophiles have been paying for their cartridges, tonearms, turntables and preamps. (With digital, we will still need a pream~p's high-level section. The front end will only be for playing those oldfashioned, noisy, distorted, mechanical LPs.)

Footnote 1: One writer has dubbed them GESRs, which stands for Golden-Eared Subjective Reviewers and is pronounced "Guessers." Interestingly, that writer [J. Peter Moncrieff of International Audio Review] evidently doesn't use tape as a reference source either.