Perfection: Here at Last?

Long-time Stereophile readers May be dismayed by what appears to be our unfettered satisfaction with some of the recent crop of new components. Aren't we, after all, dedicated to the pursuit of perfection? Do we really feel that some products are all that close to it? The answer to both questions is "Yes."

Certain components we have tested recently—the Sony PCM-1, the Berning TF-10 preamplifier, the Infinity HCA amplifier, the Shure V15-IV phono cartridge and its companion SME 3009 Series III tonearm—are good enough that further performance improvement to them can result only in sonic improvements so slight that they could be lost within the normal range of sample-to-sample variations of those components.

This is not really as heretical a view as it sounds. The pursuit of perfection in anything is a worthy cause, but we must also bear in mind that perfection in audio is not really a Holy Grail—an object that can, finally, be grasped and held and fondled. It is, in the truest sense, an unattainable ideal, because as soon as we think we have finally deceived our ears into perceiving reality, our ears grow more sophisticated and start to perceive the imperfections. We can only continue to approach perfection, as we can approach but never reach a distant point by progressively halving our distance from it. And inevitably there comes a point where an audio product is able to reveal everything in the program material without audibly adding or exaggerating anything that doesn't belong there. It still may not be perfect, but further improving its performance will rarely provide a sonic improvement concomitant either with the effort involved in doing so or the added cost to the buyer.

We will dutifully report and applaud such technological accomplishments as they occur, although we may find it hard to be as enthusiastic about them as we were when every component had several deficiencies of the kind which actively impair the enjoyment of music listening. To us, the real challenge now lies in the design of moderately-priced components that can approximate the performance of the state-of-the-art units.

Only in the area of loudspeaker design do we still see substantial need for improvement. For every $2000 speaker system with stupendous lows and fantastic highs there are three $200 speakers that can put those costly behemoths to shame in the reproduction of the musical middle range. We can see no earthly reason why this should continue to be the case, and this is the area, now, where we anticipate the greatest fidelity advances within the new few years.

We can no longer view commercial recordings as "the weakest link" in the audio system. The fact that most audiophiles get indifferent sound from the best discs is the fault of their choice of playback equipment, not of the recordings. Despite the availability of accurate disc-reproducing equipment, we see little hope that signal source material in the audiophile home will improve significantly until mechanical disc reproduction is superseded by digital.

The final area for improvement as of now is in the recreation of spatial information. SQ had the potential for doing this, but most record producers abused it, and truly effective decoders never became available in time to rescue SQ from oblivion. Today, most audiophiles seeking spatial effects use ambience synthesizers such as the Audiopulse and ADS. Digital recordings will be able to produce discrete 4-channel sound, and probably will.—J. Gordon Holt

dalethorn's picture

This was written 36 years ago, and while we're probably in or near that range of perfection (or negligible further improvement) with systems that are fairly expensive, it should be obvious to most audiophiles that we're far from that consistency of sound quality with systems that are affordable to an average U.S. wage earner (~$50k). Then of course, audiophiles complain long and loud about the cost of those expensive systems. Maybe if they got together and bought more units, the prices would drop.

Dr.Kamiya's picture

interesting to see what commercial recordings were not at fault, and the weakness was the playback equipment. These days even entry level hi fi offers excellent sonic performance, but good recordings are few and far in between.

dalethorn's picture

"....from the best discs" was his qualifier. And most U.S. pressings of that era were horrible.

monetschemist's picture

... fresh out of university, had a job, had an income (!!!).

And what I remember is the incredibly large number of very poor-sounding recordings. Buy a new LP, bring it home, listen to it... and bleah. More often than not, at least.

So Gordon may have been right; the best recordings may have been much worthier than the equipment on hand to play it. But there were plenty of recordings where the cymbals sounded like the lids of garbage cans and the bass was cut off about 100Hz to squeeze an extra 3 minutes onto the LP.

I think, at that time, that I assumed that "digital in the home", which was surely coming down the pike, would eliminate those limitations. And I guess it did in some ways, but it seems to me that it brought along its own learning curve; some of which has yet to be subsumed by people in the production chain who compress the living crap out of recordings for some purpose I have yet to discern.

Meanwhile - I look at my old Ariston, which was a top-shelf turntable in its day, and my VPI Classic, and I can say without question that there have been some significant improvements in engineering and sound quality in equipment since the 1970s. Just compare the platters on those two - the Ariston platter rings like a bell, but the VPI, which is an aluminum - steel assembly, is waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay less resonant. Or the Grace 707 tonearm vs. the VPI. No contest; the VPI is way less resonant; it has no bearing chatter; it offers less tracking error through its 10,5" length... etc etc.

I am sure there were some jewels back in the day, but I am equally sure that some equipment is way way way better than "back then". And the difference, I would claim, is clearly audible.

My 2¢ worth, anyway.