High Fidelity at the Crossroads Page 3

Most of the people buying the Magnavox players are, of course, buying them for the video capability. But once the word gets around that their purchase has bestowed on them a state-of-the art audio source, increasing numbers of people are going to start demanding audio program material. As of now, there is practically none. There are no prerecorded cassettes for Sony's PCM-l, and only two musical recordings for the Magnavox system—ballet scores to accompany the video productions. That situation is not likely to last for long. If there is a demand for digital audio software it will be met—and probably at lower prices than we now pay for "audiophile" LPs. A "MagnaVision" recording of non-premium audio/video fare can now be purchased for under $10 per disc—for up to two hours of play, with a stereo audio track. This is half the price of some audiophile LPs.

And there is no reason why an audio-only digital disc could not sell as cheaply as the audio/video disc. And while the audiophile LP may reproduce as accurately from less than 1% of the "perfectionist" phono systems in use, the digital one will outdo it by a ridiculous margin from 100% of the digital players made for it. And the difference will not, in most cases, be at all subtle. Purists may quibble over whether the digital sound might be improved by high-end extension out to 45kHz or beyond (although recent research has confirmed our contention that sonic improvements due to ultrasonic bandwidth extensions have simply been a result of improved ability to cope with disc mistracking transients that were never in the original program material). But it is in that all-important range between 15 and 30kHz where digital will wipe out most mechanical-disc playbacks.

If audio perfectionists can be persuaded that, like it or not, that digital sound is the accurate sound, they will embrace the new medium almost overnight. If that happens, the impact on the whole consumer audio field will be immense, for the current "state of the art" invariably sets the standards by which lesser components are judged. With a universal reference standard for program source, phono cartridges, amps, and preamps that don't replicate that sound will soon fall by the wayside. A whale of a lot of currently-popular cartridges will bite the dust.

The demands of our playback electronics will be much less stringent than they are now, due to the lack of mistracking transients. Of course, we will still have the usual problems of microphone choice and usage, but we won't be able to blame the effects of miking faults on the phono equipment anymore. On the other hand, those of us who enjoy messing around with phono equipment may find that a lot of fun has gone out of audio, and that the only field still susceptible to creative diddling will be that of the amplifier/loudspeaker combination. The compensation here will be the knowledge that, if the system doesn't sound right, we'll have a pretty good idea where the problems do not lie: With the program source.

Audio buyers who care at all will expect cassette recorders to sound at least similar to digital playbacks. Equalization and tape biasing will have to become much tighter than they are now. And the underground magazines will have much less to disagree about than they now do. If Joe Blow audiophile has a digital playback unit and the same ancillary equipment as his favorite tester, he will be in a much better position to compare what he hears with that the tester hears. There will be far less opportunity for hype-type bullshit in audio testing, and a rapidly-diminishing demand for testers who can't really hear all that well but claim to be hearing differences that aren't there at all.

The result of this would be the most drastic move toward unification of effort that the audio field has ever witnessed. And the result of that would be our first glimpse of the Holy Grail at the end of the rainbow: Truly realistic reproduction of music would be within our grasp at last.