The Revolution That Never Was

Not too many years ago, high-fidelity movement was being hailed from all quarters (and many halves) as a revolution. In the sense that it took the country storm, and made billions of dollars for many entrepreneurs during heyday, it was indeed a revolution. But now the public has grown tired of high fidelity and is turning other electronic diversions—video, video games, and computering. And what, as of this summer of 1982, do we have to show for the high-fidelity revolution?

What we have to show in 1982 is:

• TV news broadcasts where roughly a third of the film clips sound as if the announcer was talking through a wadded wet handkerchief.

• Amplified rock groups who seem to feel that nirvana is reached by turning the treble all the way off and the bass all the way up.

• Public-announce systems in drive-in restaurants and public-transportation terminals that are unable to announce anything because of 273% harmonic distortion and total lack of high end.

• Drive-in movie theaters whose little squawk boxes would be no worse than they were 20 years ago if the owners had replaced the worn-out tubes and rubbing voice-coils since then.

• "Background-music" systems in restaurants and stores that remain resolutely foreground because of excessive volume and unbelievably cruddy high end.

• "Blockbuster" movies broadcast during TV prime time with total volume compression, muffled high end, and more distortion than we are accustomed to hearing over telephone.

• Cheap phonographs that have exchanged the "rich" (muffled) high end of pre-hi-fi for the irksome screech of post-hi-fi.

• Yet another generation record buyers that smears fingerprints and grape jelly all over their discs, leaves them lying naked on the floor, and complains about how noisy records are.

It sometimes appears as if that so-called high-fidelity revolution came and went without leaving so much as a trace of its influence on the Great Unwashed. In fact, it has left some traces. It has left artifacts—primitive electromechanical devices with a motor and a pivoted dingus and a row of little glass bottles, which arcaheologists may never be able to figure out 1000 years from now. It has made available a level of sonic quality, from records and equipment, that was not available at any cost 30 (or even 10) years ago. It has also spawned a new breed of audiophile: one who spends thousands of dollars in pursuit of a wet-dream of perfect sound but who has never heard live music.

But the only place where high fidelity has really left its mark is in the movie business. Dolby-A noise reduction and magnetic soundtracks changed movie music from incidental to staggering. The public was, as usual, blissfully unaware of the reason they found films like Apocalypse Now and Star Wars so hair-raising, but the young breed of producers knew very well that it had as much to do with the awesome sound as the on-screen spectacle. In most parts of the country, and largely as a result of those two films, theater sound is so much better now than it was 20 years ago that even a Hollywood pragmatist like Louis B. Mayer would have been forced to utter the word "quality" with a straight face.

But the public has never demanded better sound, because the public is not conscious of the quality of sound. Most people, in fact, don't seem to be conscious of the quality of anything. Scratch J.Q. Public, ask him what "quality" is, and he'll tell you it's something that won't fall apart before the warranty runs out, or is something rich people buy. Your average person is uncomfortable with the whole idea of a difference in degree. He finds it much easier to cope with differences of kind. Thus, high-fidelity-the-better-sound became in his mind hi-fi-the-new-thing. JQP did not buy a high-fidelity phonograph, he bought a hifi—something he saw as being as different from a low-fi as a car was different from a horse. It was the prevalence of this simplism which caused the initial split between audiophilia and hi-fi: When manufacturers needed something more expensive to sell, merely better sound didn't interest JQP. It wasn't differentin a way that he could feel, touch or smell. He wanted more features—multicolored panel lights, pushbuttons, rocker switches, and more varieties of tone control with which to bugger up the sound.

So as far as the general public was concerned, the high-fidelity movement was probably a lost cause from the start. It was simply a fad, and went over for all of the wrong reasons: status—all the rich people have it!; snob appeal—all the cultured people have it!; and the herd instinct—verybody else is getting it!

But without real understanding of what it was all about—better sound, rather than different sound—it was inevitable that the mass market would lose interest when there were no more new channels to promote. To them, the sound of music on the hi-fi and the intelliqibility of a voice on the PA system were about as related as apples and T-squares.

So the news announcer is muffled, the record collection gathers scratches, and the 10-year-old stereo makes pleasant background noises for the cocktail guests. High fidelity? Who cares? We may, but the world at large just doesn't give a damn. Remember that next time you hear a rubbing voice-coil in a public place. Look at the faces of the people around you. Do they hear it? What do you think?