High Fidelity at the Crossroads Page 4

But . . . There's a catch to it. We have observed, unhappily, for many years that a substantial proportion of self-proclaimed audio perfectionists, who profess to be seeking audio accuracy and consider themselves qualified to judge it, have rarely if ever heard live, unamplified music. These are the people who can Ooh and Aah over a system's incredible imaging, bass tautness, and transient response, while remaining oblivious to the fact that it makes a soprano sound like a contralto and an oboe like an English horn. To them, the greatest asset of a digital playback—its ability to render musical timbres accurately—will be no asset at all. They will judge digital audio according to their preconceived misconceptions of what hi-fi ought to be, and if it doesn't measure up, it will prove to them that all of their skepticism about sampling rate, quantization, and phase shift was justified. So, that's their misfortune? Not so; it may be ours.

The musically deaf is no rare bird. Statistically, he constitutes an overwhelming majority of the so-called "serious audiophile" fraternity. His influence in terms of the dollars he spends and the proselytizing he does to further his views is significant. As the "audio expert" in his community, he can influence others who are interested in audio but less secure in their judgment of what they hear. And it is he who can determine the immediate future of digital audio, by his acceptance or rejection thereof.

As of now, it is anybody's guess which way his whimsy will lead him. But the prognosis does not look very good. There's been a lot of favorable comment published about the promise of digital, but it has nearly all appeared in the mass-circulation hi-fi magazines, whose motives for promoting anything new are, to put it mildly, suspect. This puts the serious audiophile on the defensive at the outset. If those tin-eared clods say digital is good, there's gotta be something the matter with it. Thus, the perfectionist doesn't want digital to be as good as it's cracked up to be. And if he doesn't want to be convinced, it's going to be rather hard to convince him.

So here we are, standing at the crossroads. With approval, digital could lead us closer to ultimate perfection. With disapproval, it could be rejected by the very people whose support is necessary for its ultimate public acceptance.

How can we assure that digital audio will succeed where it needs to in order to survive: in the marketplace? Musically-oriented audiophiles can do their part, by trying to educate their less-perceptive bretheren in the niceties of proper tonal-structure reproduction. But the brunt of that selling job is going to have to be borne by the only "authorities" that most audiophiles trust: the underground magazines. The disoriented audiophile needs to be told which side his sonics are buttered on, and the undergrounders are in the best position to do this.

Asking for such unanimity from the underground press may seem like asking Billy Graham to endorse sin, but the fact is that most of the disagreements between the underground audio magazines have been over trivia rather than fundamentals. We have stated our case on the subject of digital. Some of the other magazines may disagree in detail, but it seems to us that they cannot possibly disagree on the fundamental issue: That digital offers greater accuracy through virtually all of the audio range than any other record/playback medium. And it is that point which needs to be hammered home, to the point of tedium if necessary, in order to give the new medium the chance it needs to forward the cause of musical fidelity.

This, then, is a call to arms—an invitation to all of our brethren in underground publishing to bury the hatchet for the time being (or at least, hide the thing behind our backs) and present a unified front in favor of digital audio. We will all stand to benefit from its acceptance as the new state of the art—all of us, that is, who are as genuinely interested in truly musical sound reproduction as we profess to be. We have guided the industry in pretty much the right direction thus far. Now, at the crossroads, we have the option of directing it even closer to the goal of accurate musical reproduction, or of demonstrating to it that fidelity isn't really what "serious audiophiles" want after all. The choice is ours.