Where We Are & How We Got Here Page 3

As with tweeters, there has been no dramatic breakthrough in woofer design during the last quarter century, but there has been plenty of evolutionary refinement. Improvements in available materials and in our understanding of LF reproduction and propagation have yielded many speaker systems of reasonable size which produce as deep and detailed a low end as used to be possible only with behemoth designs. And trickle-down has been at work here too. Some small, inexpensive systems (such as the Celestion SL-600) now produce a level of low-end quality, if not quantity, which would have been unimaginable just ten years ago, let alone 25!

Soundstage reproduction
Soundstaging, the Johnny-come-lately of high-end desiderata, assumed importance to the audio perfectionist only after all the other things he demanded from a system had been accomplished well enough by most systems that he came to take them pretty much for granted.

Many audiophiles had been noticing for some years that some stereo speakers reproduced depth better than others, and provided a wider spatial panorama than others without loss of center fill, but it wasn't until the late 1970s that loudspeaker designers realized that soundstage presentation was an important consideration in the design of a loudspeaker. By the early '80s, soundstaging had assumed such importance to perfectionists that, for many of them, it became the first criterion by which stereo reproduction of music was judged. (Personally, I cannot agree with such worshipping of the cathedral instead of God.) The result of this is that, today, we just assume that any high-end speaker system worth our attention is going to have superb soundstaging capability.

Audiophiles bitten by the bug relatively recently take pretty much for granted the fact that very good, if not always superb, recordings are available from a sizeable number of recording companies. In fact, it is easy for even us old-timers to forget that, a mere 15 years ago, there was practically no "perfectionist audio" recording industry. At any given time, there may have been three or four tiny firms releasing one or two discs a year, but they came and went with depressing regularity. (Who remembers Cook, Audio Fidelity or Command Records?) Meanwhile, the durable major record companies continued to crank out their sonic abominations, scoffing that the "audiophile market" was too small to bother with.

Look at the situation today. Perfectionist record companies like Telarc, Sheffield Lab, Reference Recordings, GRP, and DMP prosper as never before, multimiking and heavy-handed equalization are strictly out, and even RCA and CBS are trying to relearn their lost art of minimal miking and the hands-off approach to classical recording. For the first time, the major record companies are paying attention to the wants of the perfectionist audiophile.

While we can easily argue that it was only a matter of time before the idiots in their corporate ivory towers came to their senses, the simple fact is that this revolution was brought about almost singlehandedly by Compact Disc. That bête noire of many perfectionists brought the mass of record buyers closer to the sound of original master tapes than they had ever gotten before, and they did not like what they heard. Even the mainstream audio publications had the temerity to suggest that something was seriously wrong with previously accepted recording practices, and started pointing to the audiophile record companies as examples of how things ought to be done.

This was no longer a matter of concern only to the audiophile minority; it became a cause célèbre for the entire consumer audio industry, and the big record companies at last began to pay attention. It would seem that, from now until the foreseeable future, we can only look forward to vastly improved recordings from all record companies.

So where do we go from here?
I don't see any technological revolutions waiting in the wings (although the laser LP player from Finial Technology may prove worthy of that title, but too late to delay the demise of the LP). And I am beginning to suspect that the best existing components may be approaching the limit of perfectibility. Direct stimulation of the brain's auditory centers is still pie in the sky, and as long as we are forced to use loudspeakers for sound reproduction, I believe we are not going to advance much farther than we are now until the industry realizes that acoustical space cannot be convincingly reproduced from two loudspeakers.

In short, it is my conviction that surround-sound is a technology whose time has come. If ambience is worth reproducing, it is worth reproducing properly, the way we hear it in real life: from all directions, not just from the front. There are those who argue that, just because a real space cannot as yet be reproduced convincingly, there is no point in trying to do it at all—an absurd attitude! Had we approached stereo that way, back when it couldn't be done "convincingly," how much progress would it have made during the past 25 years?