The Weakest Link

While we will not pretend for a moment that the millennium of high fidelity has arrived, we are finally having to face up to a fact that has been staring us in the face and nudging us in the ribs increasingly rudely of late: The state of the art of sound reproduction has gotten to be pretty damned sophisticated. Perfection is just as unattainable as it was almost 100 years ago when Thomas Edison was diddling with different diaphragm materials on his phonograph because some sounded better than others.

Most of today's reproducing equipment is good enough that, while there will undoubtedly be further improvements, it is unlikely that we will ever again see dramatic breakthroughs in reproduced realism that are comparable to the introduction of electronic (or, electric, if you will) recording, stereophonic sound, or electrostatic loudspeakers. (We specifically exclude the LP disc from that list because its major contribution was compactness—vinyl discs and comparable recording equipment could have improved the sound of 78s as much if not more.)

But while home reproduction of sound was improving all these years, look what's been happening to the software we must depend on for program material to play through these super systems! Orchestras are recorded in multiple mono, with instruments "placed" by selective channel balancing. Recording studios have, almost universally, converted their mixing consoles to solid-state at a time when increasing numbers of solid-state designers are recognizing tubed components as the ones to beat (or to equal) the classical recording companies are still evaluating their efforts through amplifiers and loudspeakers that perfectionists would have scorned 10 years ago, and announce to the world at large that since a recording is a "work of art unto itself" and thus bears no relation to the live-music experience, they are no longer even striving for musical realism—ie, high fidelity. Is it any wonder then that all the money we invest in better and better reproducing equipment continues to bring us so little satisfaction in terms of sound.

In other words, while we applaud the continuing efforts of designers to come up with ever-better home hi-fi components, and intend to follow their advances with interest (reporting them herein as usual), we cannot ignore any longer the fact that it is the recordings, not the playback equipment, that are the limiting factor in the sound that we hear at home. And it is what goes on at the recording end of the audio chain that is going to occupy an increasing amount of our time and resources for the foreseeable future.

This is not to say that we will lose interest in the reproducing equipment. As we said, perfection is not yet here, and the few truly excellent-sounding recordings we can lay our hands on, like the Fulton/Ark and the Mayorga/Sheffield discs, will continue to sound better as the playback equipment improves. We'll continue to keep you informed of what's going on in the hardware field, but we are also going to mount a concerted effort to do something about the recordings of performers and works of more substantial stature, which is where the worst offenses against musical fidelity are committed.

It has in fact struck us that, even among recordings of the same company, the most abysmal crimes are committed against what the company believes to be the most potentially saleable releases. Thus, Columbia can release a magnificent recording of Mahler's First Symphony with Bruno Walter and the "Columbia Symphony Orchestra" (an Italian pickup orchestra) in one month and two positively ear-shattering recordings by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra the next month (footnote 1).

We all know by now that much of what ails commercial recordings—particularly the products of the major companies—is the result of tampering with the sound for various and sundry reasons, and it is easy to blame this on a cynical corporate disregard for quality or, worse, self-conscious toadying to the misguided tastes of the average record buyer or the magazine critics who show their scorn for "hi-fi" by trying to judge recorded quality on a $199.95 player. But any direct personal contact with the people who produce those recordings makes it immediately obvious that most of them do care, and are trying to turn out genuinely good recordings.

With them, the crux of the problem would appear to be that they are not really hearing the sound that they are putting on their discs, either because they have not taken the trouble to train their ears to function as sharply as do those of the average Stereophile subscriber, or because they are blissfully unaware that standards of home music reproduction have risen dramatically during the past 10 years.

It is no longer just the audio maniac with the $10,000 system who is complaining to those record companies about their shoddy sound, it is also the people who own FMI 80s, EPI 100s and Dyna A-25s. Yet the individual consumer who writes a complaining letter to a major record company is greeted either by a politely noncommittal "thank you for your comments" form letter or, as though he is an obvious crackpot—"After all, most of our customers like our products!"—his complaints are beyond serious consideration. We are going to try to change all that.

It may not be easy. Major record companies, like other major companies, suffer from a tremendous burden of corporate inertia. Once they start doing something in a certain way, it takes great effort on their part to change things, so they must be completely convinced that change is necessary. And despite noble proclamations about artistry and the serving of music, it is the primary function of a big recording company to make money for its stockholders. Thus, in order for us to get any positive response from these companies to our pleas for better recordings, we will first have to prove that better recordings would boost sales, and then prove to them that their recordings could be better than they are now.

What will make this all the more difficult is the fact that the record companies have ample evidence, in their files of consumer mail and record reviews, to prove that the public and the critics do like what they're doing now, and it won't be easy to convince them that critics can be wrong (as witness the buzzahs with with they greeted the first of RCA's appalling "Dynagroove" releases), and that many buyers will like what the critics say is good. But since it appears that no domestic record company has even tried to produce a no-holds-barred, ungimmicked symphonic recording during the past 15 years, there is no way of knowing how the critics and the buyers would react to such a thing were they to encounter it. We are going to try and make that happen.

To this end, we are going to start by mailing letters to the major record companies, asking for answers to some of the questions we all ask ourselves from time to time when we audition a new recording. Where we go from there will depend on whether their response indicates an interest in cooperating with us, or whether they dismiss us as insolent spokesmen for the lunatic fringe. We will publish our letters, as well as the replies, for the edification of all.

We will also be investigating such things as what happens when you replace the solid-state electronics of an excellent recorder like the Revox A-77 with tube electronics patterned after the Audio Research SP3A-1, why it is that some of the most sought-after custom recording studios in the country are using tube-type electronics, and why manufacturers of professional tape recorders consider a frequency response of ±2dB to be "adequately smooth" when most of us can readily hear a broadband deviation of less than ±0.5 dB.

Who knows, maybe all discs could be as realistic as the Mayorga/Sheffield releases. We shall see what we can do about it.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 1: That was before Mahler was "pop."

Ozbob44's picture

These words ring true in the digital age some 40 years on!
My hobby for some years has been recording musical performances and spoken word. So many recordings today are complex, over-processed audio collages. In my view, true stereo recordings require 2 microphones/capsules (matched) placed in the best position in an appropriate acoustic space, with the performers appropriately balanced and set up. There are many challenges to overcome with this approach, but the replay is so life-like and uncontrived when the recordist gets it right.
Simplicity and attention to detail at every step is the key.

dalethorn's picture

It's interesting how some people will split hairs over whether amp A will tighten up the bass better than amp B, when their music collection is anything but a quality selection.

jimtavegia's picture

Who tracked what and who mastered what. I know that what ever Ted Jensen and Sterling Sound master will sound as good as it can be. The same for Steve Hoffman and some others, but it something is tracked poorly there is not much we can do about it. Audiophiles will tend to search out our favorites, but the there must be a tendency to do less if we are to really hear a true performance.

I have found that JA's recodings are a great benchmark as are recordings from John Marks Records. MOst are acoustic performances and will give you a good perspective of what YOUR system is capable of. SoundKeeper recordings can also do that, as can BlueCoastRecords. If you find that your systems give you the proper spacial cues on these, then you will know that if a recording does not give you that same sense of space, you will know it is not there to begin with.

Sometimes we just want music to make us tap our toes, but others we really want that "we are there" experience if it is possible.

calaf's picture

one wonders what these two "positively ear-shattering recordings" from Bernstein/NYPO might be? In 1975 (the same year this article was published) Bernstein/NYPO re-recorded Mahler 1st symphony. That is considered by many the best Mahler 1st ever put on disc. And it even sounds good in the 1998 mastering I am listening to as I write this...

And BTW the "Columbia Symphony Orchestra" was indeed a pickup orchestra but not an Italian one, unless you consider New York and Los Angeles as part of Italy...

Anon2's picture

I have had my share of poorly made recordings in the CD format that I tend to purchase. I have dealt with these recordings by putting them up for sale on when there is a market for them. If there is no market for these sub-par recordings, donations to the thrift store or local library are the next destination.

I laud the efforts that the author of this article makes to demand some answers from the recording industry. Fortunately, the "79 available starting at $.01" on amazon may be just as strong a message for the creators of any recordings that have gained this grim valuation based on questionable artistic or engineering merits.

My take on recordings after having been in the game for more than a few years is this. Technology has progressed. It has enabled a steady increase in the quality of recorded music for the most part. However, technology, whether in the 1950s or in 2015, is only as good as the recording engineer who manages and molds the technology to an artistically sound end. Over-compressed, over-engineered modern recordings exist alongside the dry-sounding pianos and screeching violins with a sheen of 50-year old varnish. Bad recordings stand as testimonials to recording sessions that just did not work out (or that were intentionally embellished for some mysterious effect that was sought by the creators of these recordings).

The lost time, opportunity cost, and inconvenience of poorly engineered music are among the biggest disappointments of the music-listening public, and for the hi fi enthusiast in particular. Fortunately, the readers of a publication like Stereophile are likely to be among the most astute in knowing how to select, purchase, and keep recordings and musical interpretations of merit.

I know I have gotten better at selecting recordings over the years. As a result I have become a more critical--and less frequent--purchaser of music. As I have grown more discerning and demanding, I question purchases of music that I make. If there are doubts about a recording and the quality of its engineering, I don't buy it.

I understand, and agree, with writer of this article. A poor recording can make or break a system. A good recording can stretch the performance of a modest hi fi system. A bad recording will be mercilessly exposed for what it is on a true high-end system (which makes me wonder why some exhibitors at shows insist on some truly awful recordings, but that's another debate for another day).

In the classical realm for CDs, where I have made the bulk of my purchases, I have found that the options for those looking for great recordings have improved over the years despite all. The newer recordings of the major labels have gotten steadily better in the digital format (though many could still be better). Older analogue recordings that have stood the test of time remain in my collection and are played on my system, some 50 years after their date of recording.

SACDs have become an interesting alternative for the classical listener. There is a steady though perhaps not overwhelming amount of new recordings. However, what comes out is of high and increasing quality. Smaller, mainly European labels, put out very good recordings in the SACD format. Highly talented, though perhaps lesser-known artists, provide strong interpretations in many well-engineered recordings in the SACD format.

But the great interpretations remain, their reputations intact, even after a half century or more of the stereo format. Thoughtfully recorded and engineered recordings, be they a 2015 SACD of a European chamber orchestra or soloist, or a 1950s Mercury Living Presence or RCA Living Stereo (or even the odd Bruno Walter, Columbia SO, Hollywood American Legion hall) are definitive and highly enjoyable. They are available for the discerning listener. The donations bins of thrift stores, local libraries, or the $.01 used CD listing on amazon is for the rest.