Listening #70 Page 2

So let's back up just a little: In the old-guard mags, well-educated if categorically uninteresting writers reviewed audio products in complete ignorance of the stuff's musical performance, yet they wrote about the major-label music recordings of the day with intelligence and candor. In the new-guard mags, amateur writers of varying talent reviewed products based on sound, relying overmuch on recordings that existed only for equipment-testing purposes (footnote 1), and they wrote record reviews that were superficial and ill-informed.

When did the big improvement happen? Did I miss it?

I used to have hope
I'm being a smartass: I actually know when the big improvement happened. It happened in Stereophile's September 1986 issue, which was the second one produced by then-new editor John Atkinson, who had been hired away from England's fine Hi-Fi News & Record Review. In that issue, John began a regular classical-music department called "Building a Library," wherein the magazine worked its way through the standard repertoire, comparing available recorded interpretations mostly on the basis of music—although sound was thoroughly discussed as well. The kicker: Beginning with Christopher Breunig, John Atkinson assigned the pieces to professional writers. Where does he get those ideas?

I remember the Breunig article well, because it was devoted to my favorite violin concerto: Berg's Andenken eines Engels. Breunig's piece expanded my understanding and enjoyment of Berg's music—not to mention my record collection. What more can one ask from good music journalism? Subsequent pieces had the same effect, especially the ones by Barbara Jahn and Richard Lehnert, our present-day copy editor, who served as Stereophile's music editor from 1987 to 1996. Richard's ability to communicate a depth of understanding of Wagner's music in particular exceeds that of anyone else I know.

By 1986, my record-buying habits were back on track: I once again bought stereo recordings based more on their musical worth than their sound. Incidentally, by 1997 I had shaken off yet another fetishistic layer of high-end skin, and I started buying mono recordings. And in 2008 I really loosened up and started buying 78s. I appear to be on an 11-year cycle: In 2019, I suppose my favorite recording will be an Edison wax cylinder of Arthur Collins' "The Preacher and the Bear."

In 1986 I had hope; in 2008 I can only wonder what went wrong. The audio reviewing community is no longer on civil terms with the rest of the world. We have, in fact, ceased communicating altogether, partly because most Western consumers no longer care about the things we review, and partly because, among the audio enthusiasts who remain, a good many think that audio magazines aren't worth the bother.

I don't know why that is. I do know we're not blessed with an abundance of time in which to chart a course correction.

Should we try harder to appeal to young people, and to bring them into the hobby? Maybe. But whenever I think about people my age trying to buddy-up with people in their teens, I think about that episode of The Andy Griffith Show where Opie starts a band, and Andy tries to come up with a good name for them. ("How about The Young Swingers?") Reaching out to the young is a lot like bird-watching: They seem to know when you're trying too hard. And, yes, I know how hopelessly middle-aged that simile makes me sound.

Another observation: There are people, God bless them, whose love of domestic audio burns so brightly that they're willing to jump any hurdle to keep the flame going, 24/7; thus do even the weakest runts of the audio-journalism litter find enough readers to survive, howsoever thinly. Yet for every audio enthusiast who follows the press with such ardor, there are ten who couldn't care less—and I daresay the hurdle that puts off the greatest number of potential readers is the magazines' truly awful tendency toward pomposity.

I don't just mean the sadness of seeing adult males use words such as 'tis , 'twas , and methinks in public, although that certainly adds to the problem. Rather, it's the edicts, the pronouncements, the tea-pinky proclamations that reinforce an unfortunate equation in the minds of normal people: Audiophilia = Twinkyland. Great new product? It can't be considered high end (say it the way William F. Buckley might have said the word Mayflower) until the right critic says so. Great new music? Better you should memorize the vocabulary of sounds the gurus have invented for you to listen for. Hello sophistication, goodbye delight.

I figure we've painted too much of this town
That's also, by the way, why I shun, shirk, and altogether loathe the idea of owning and exalting a reference system. Obviously, one can't listen without a system, or make qualitative judgments without a reference. But the term itself stinks of buffoonish puffery—like referring to one's breakfast nook as Music Room No.3—and the underlying concept, as accepted in recent years by audiophiles and reviewers alike, has more to do with materialism than music. From the moment I first heard the expression, I knew that a reference system is something I'd never care to have—like shingles, or dementia.

On a related note, I'm also apprehensive—grateful, I suppose, but nevertheless uneasy—whenever readers associate me or my work for this magazine with a single specific product or brand. Not only do I prefer not to contribute to any one company's sales efforts, howsoever unwittingly, I'd also like to prevent the disappointment that seems to arise whenever I jump from one regiment to another. Product brands whose loyal followers have in the past expressed such dismay—usually but not always good-naturedly—include Linn (for my ceasing to rely exclusively on the LP12 turntable), Naim (especially when, for some nutty reason, I sold my ages-old 32.5 preamp and 110 amp), Audio Note (the Kit One amp has an especially enthusiastic following, not unreasonably), and, most recently, Quad (although I still listen to my rebuilt ESLs a great deal of the time, and my wife has threatened me with an especially gruesome sort of bodily harm if I ever sell them, one involving nails, a tree stump, and partial nudity).

Which brings me to the ultimate subject of this month's column: In recent years I winnowed my collection of Lowther drivers down to one pair, and now I've sold even those. I doubt if I'll use Lowthers again in my . . . er, in that hi-fi I listen to all the time.

Lest temptation give way to cynical conclusions—"I'll bet the lower-treble peak finally got to him"—allow me to set the record straight: The lower-treble peak finally got to me. That and the lack of bass.

And it's a shame, really, because Lowthers do many things brilliantly well. Only a Quad electrostatic panel is faster. Only a Tannoy dual-concentric driver has a greater sense of percussive impact. Only a horn is more sensitive. And few things are as fiddly. That last observation may sound like an insult, but it isn't: To some, the manly bragging rights that come with having to disassemble, clean, and realign your speaker drivers at least once a year are priceless.

But things got a little too priceless last week, when I decided to let go of my Lowther PM2A Ticonal drivers. I'd wanted to check their condition before offering the drivers on eBay, so I sliced open the cartons, undid the packing, and found that one of the drivers had gone out of alignment since the last time I'd used it, apparently while sitting still. Out of spite, I guess.

That was no small deal. The difference in thickness between the voice-coil assembly of a typical Lowther driver and the gap into which it must fit is less than 1/32". To complicate matters, the combined coil and coil former on every Lowther I've seen has been less than perfectly round—we can clone sheep, but we apparently can't make a short paper tube without a raised seam—and the whole shebang must be disassembled in order to remove even a single speck of dirt, the presence of which is both common and readily audible.

Difficult as that is, reassembly is even harder: Once painstakingly arrived at, the perfect realignment of the parts is usually spoiled by the simple act of tightening the three well-concealed and magnetically reactive bolts that hold together the standard Lowther driver. The seasoned Lowther mechanic, knowing that this is an exercise in trial and error, repeats disassembly and reassembly a number of times, blind, until he or she gets it right by accident.

So it was for me. As usual, I gave names to the bolts—Bastard 1, Bastard 2, and You Little Whore—but this time I added something else: I vowed, out loud, not to do it again. Someone else can have my fun, thank you very much.

The Lowther drivers are gone, but not the cabinets: I'm keeping them for now, for a variety of reasons: 1) I built them. 2) I painted them (footnote 2)—and they're beautiful. 3) At 80 lbs apiece and standing nearly 4' tall, the cabinets would be difficult to ship, and I have no interest in making cartons or crates for them. 4) They work. Maybe I'll try using them with some other driver, or maybe I'll make a liar out of myself and go back to using Lowthers some day. I've done crazier things.

Footnote 1: That, or "To give your system a good workout!" Um . . . yeah, sure. If that's what you bought it for, go ahead and knock yourself out.

Footnote 2: In bayberry green paint from the Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company of Groton, Massachusetts.