As We See It

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Jim Austin  |  Feb 15, 2024  |  7 comments
A different kind of stream: Route 140 Wrentham at Pendleton Road Eagle Brook; image by Ernst Halberstadt, 29 March 1973, Wikimedia Commons

I recently received a letter (not yet published) suggesting a need for a glossary of newer hi-fi terms. Some audiophiles raised on physical media, it seems, are perplexed by descriptions of the new streaming landscape. Just yesterday, all we had to worry about was DACs and transports. Today we have servers, streamers, players, streaming DACs, and all that. That immediately struck me as a good idea, allied with a second reason: To avoid confusion, it makes sense for the industry to standardize the nomenclature. When we see the word "streamer," for example, we should all be thinking about the same thing.

So, here's a brief glossary of streaming-related devices.

Jim Austin  |  Jan 17, 2024  |  97 comments
Morten Lindberg of Norwegian music label 2L.

On this page in Stereophile's December 2023 issue, contributing editor (and mastering engineer) Tom Fine and I described a press event at which Apple Corps (the Beatles umbrella corporation) presented the news about the (at the time) forthcoming new Beatles single and the forthcoming "remixed" reissues of the "Red" and "Blue" Beatles compilations. Tom attended the event—which, notably, was held at Dolby headquarters here in New York City, reflecting, apparently, Apple Corps' interest in Dolby Atmos. At the event, demos were presented in the Atmos format only—no stereo.

A key point of that column was that Apple Corps, at least—and who knows how many others in the music industry—are abandoning high-quality Atmos in favor of that streamed by Apple Music. Tom and I criticized this development in no uncertain terms, concluding that if Apple's lossy-compressed version of Dolby Atmos is what we're being offered, "we should hope for its demise."

Jim Austin  |  Dec 12, 2023  |  39 comments
In the midst of his December 2023 Gramophone Dreams column, Herb Reichert presented the results of an experiment. He was listening to the most recent version of Zu Audio's Denon DL-103, installed on his new-old Lenco. He hooked it up to the moving coil input of his SunValley SV-EQ1616D phono preamp, which apparently is intended for use with low-output MC cartridges since it loads them down with a 50 ohm shunt resistor—a heavy load for all but the lowest-impedance MCs. The rough rule of thumb for loading an MC cartridge, as many readers are aware, is that the load resistance should exceed the cartridge's internal impedance by about a factor of 10.
Jim Austin, Tom Fine  |  Nov 16, 2023  |  30 comments
On September 27, 2023, executives from Apple Corps and Universal Music Group held a press event at the Dolby Theater in Manhattan. The event included Dolby Atmos demos of forthcoming Beatles releases. It included some big news—although the biggest news wasn't obvious at first.
Jim Austin  |  Oct 10, 2023  |  9 comments
Martin Colloms, pictured on HiFiCritic magazine's website.

A few months ago, the hi-fi world learned that Audio Research, perhaps the most storied hi-fi brand in US history (McIntosh would be the other choice), had a new owner. The company had overextended itself, then filed for "Assignment for the Benefit of Creditors"—somewhat like Chapter 11 bankruptcy but different. The company was then acquired by a group led by a Canadian, Valerio Cora of Acora Acoustics. In the September issue's Industry Update, I wrote, "Audio Research, that great American hi-fi company, is now Canadian."

Not long after the issue came out, I received a note from Dave Gordon of Audio Research Corporation. With typical good humor, Dave suggested that my characterization was not correct—that ARC is not in fact Canadian. Why? Because Audio Research's parent company is based in ... Delaware?

Jim Austin  |  Sep 11, 2023  |  16 comments
It's an error commonly made in evaluating hi-fi–system performance: the failure to listen differentially. Differential as in compared to something else. "Something else" could be a different recording on the same system or (especially this) the same recording on a different system. The question is, what are you comparing it to? The point is: Do you really know what that recording sounds like?
Jim Austin  |  Aug 15, 2023  |  16 comments
In the excellent My Back Pages essay that closes this issue, Londoner Phil Brett writes, "I bought my first albums in my teens for £2 then sold them off years later for 50p each."

Why did he sell his records? "[I]n those days, most vinyl had the thickness of a butterfly wing without the quality. As I grew older, I went through—ahem—several relationships hence several changes of residence. The hassle of carting boxes of records around grew wearisome; CDs were so much lighter, and often, they sounded better."

Phil predicted Stereophile readers would be horrified by what he did those many years ago. Maybe so—but for many, the horror will arise from regret—at the memory of doing the same thing themselves back in the day. As I did.

Jim Austin  |  Jul 19, 2023  |  37 comments
Not long after I moved to New York City, in anticipation of some summer-holiday meal, I went out into the city searching for lambchops. The closest butcher shop I found, Harlem Shambles (thank you, Google Maps), was at roughly my latitude but across Morningside Park in a gentrified section of Harlem. I walked over and entered a large area occupied by a refrigerated glass case of the sort common in butcher shops. The case, though, was nearly empty—just a few cuts of meat, filling perhaps 5% of the available space. Adding to the vibe of neglect was that none of the half-dozen or so skinny young men with spiffy hats and immaculate facial hair (no hairnets on the beards) were greeting customers—or customer, since I was the only one.
Herb Reichert  |  Jun 19, 2023  |  5 comments
The Stereophile crew at AXPONA 2023, minus Herb Reichert (L–R): Jason Victor Serinus, Rogier van Bakel, Michael Trei, Jim Austin, Ken Micallef. Photo by David James Bellecci-Serinus.

At AXPONA 2023, I saw teenage besties cruising rooms together. I saw fashion-conscious 20-somethings listening in sweet spots, and young parents with younger children. Yeah, there were a few gray boomers like me, but only a couple were wearing Hawaiian shirts. AXPONA 2023 vibed like a tribal conference at a sacred pilgrimage site, and I've never enjoyed an audio show this much before.

Jim Austin  |  May 16, 2023  |  6 comments
This, Stereophile's June 2023 issue, is the 50th I've produced as editor. That seems like a lot—yet the four-plus years it took have flown by; it seems impossible that I've done this 50 times already. Still, the main thing it makes me think is how inexperienced I remain: It will take another 28 years to match JA1's record. That's unlikely to happen: I'm not sure when I'll retire, but I hope it will be before I turn 87. What have I learned? I've learned a lot about producing this magazine, and I've gained a lot of detailed knowledge, especially about specific hi-fi components. I've gained some broader knowledge, too, including a deeper appreciation for the crucial importance of the time domain in hi-fi—of the fact that music happens in the time domain and we experience it there. In the very best systems, that fact is respected and exploited.
Jim Austin  |  Apr 11, 2023  |  4 comments
This month's music feature, by Mike Mettler, is an interview with John Doe, best known as cofounder, in 1977, of the legendary punk band X. During X's long recording career, Doe's urgent voice has offset the starkly contrasting voice of co–lead vocalist (and songwriting partner) Exene Cervenka, who was Doe's girlfriend before she joined the band; it's one of the most recognizable sounds in punk. Over 45 years, X has continued to record (sparingly) and to evolve, from the literate punk of Los Angeles—to me one of the great albums ever, in any genre—through Wild Gift, which leans toward country, to Under the Big Black Sun, which went in several directions at once: rockabilly, funk, folk, pop, and beyond.
Jim Austin  |  Mar 16, 2023  |  14 comments
At the beginning of the 2022 novel Checkout 19, by Claire-Louise Bennett, I encountered some ideas that resonate in interesting ways with my recent experience of recorded music. . .

I've been bringing home too many records from the record store, or too many CDs from the CD shop, for decades—so many that it's difficult to focus on just one, to listen to it again and again, to give it the attention it deserves. In the era of streaming—of having a sizeable fraction of the history of recorded music at your fingertips for $10–$20/month—the temptation is especially acute. It's too easy to move among favorite bits of our favorite music—especially when, as is too often true of audiophiles, we're so eager to hear how a favorite moment in this or that piece of music sounds on our system, now that we've added in that new component.

Jim Austin  |  Feb 14, 2023  |  22 comments
There has been much discussion lately about ChatGPT, the machine-learning– based chatbot from OpenAI. Some experts say it will soon make human writers obsolete. Will that include human hi-fi reviewers?

I decided to engage ChatGPT in an exploratory conversation; think of it as a sort of job interview.

Jim Austin  |  Jan 17, 2023  |  9 comments
Since writing about Manhattan's renovated Geffen Hall in this space in our January issue, I've attended two concerts there. I thought I'd report back. The first of the two performances—the hall's "Grand Gala" concert, though they didn't invite me to the fancy dinner afterward—included works by young Puerto Rico–born composer Angélica Negrón (You Are the Prelude) and Ludwig van Beethoven (Symphony No.9). The second included works by Stravinsky (Symphonies of Wind Instruments), Bartók (Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra, with Daniil Trifonov and Sergei Babayan), and Sibelius (Symphony No.7).
Jim Austin  |  Dec 20, 2022  |  11 comments
What do New York's Lincoln Center and the typical Stereophile reader have in common? Both have recently made large investments to achieve sonic excellence.

I doubt that very many Stereophile readers have spent as much as Lincoln Center did on the renovation of Geffen Hall: $550 million. But then few audiophiles' systems are supported by the likes of David Geffen, a $100 million contributor to the Geffen Hall project, or Joseph and Clara Wu Tsai, who gave $50 million.