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Positive Feedback ISSUE 2
august/september 2002


A Response to "The Creative Art of Recorded Music–Translation, Transduction, and Transformation, by Rick Gardner and David Robinson"
by Lynn T. Olson


The steep downward spiral of audio during the Eighties can be laid at three doors: PCM digital replacing quality analog, the ascent of the "accuracy" metaphor in the audio review lexicon, and the malign influence of a de facto duopoly in audio review magazines. These three factors fed on each other—the poor quality of early PCM was ascribed to supposedly greater "accuracy," as if live music had any resemblance to CD sound, and the hegemony of the Big Two magazines limited the terms of discussion.

The entire false "accurate versus euphonic" argument was predicated on the assumption that CDs and transistors were somehow more "accurate" than analog sources and vacuum tubes. This was a false and completely unwarranted assumption, based partly on a "new-is-better" theory and partly on lower THD figures for transistors and PCM. A critical analysis of this assumption appeared in the Japanese and French audio press, but the power of the duopolistic American audio press prevented it from seeing the light of day until the early Nineties. It took the early internet and "alternative" magazines like Glass Audio, Positive Feedback, Sound Practices, VALVE, and Vacuum Tube Valley to seriously challenge the Big Two on their home turf.

The alternative magazines challenged both the Big Two and the mainstream high end industry of the early Nineties. This led to a bitter counterattack from the established magazines and the industry leaders. The most dangerous notion of all was that dedicated homebuilders could graduate beyond the cheap-cheap-cheap mentality of previous decades and create works of art, products that offered sonics not attainable at any price in the mainstream market. The concept of artistic audio craft was taken for granted in Japanese magazines, but proved profoundly unsettling for commercial manufacturers, reviewers, and dealers in the USA. This was the real motive force behind the SET wars of the Nineties—the technology became a symbol, but economics provided the real source of emotion and polarization. If the alternative magazines hadn't challenged the economic basis of the American high end industry, the concepts of the SET community would have been much less controversial.

The SET/mainstream war didn't really end until home theater and the Japanese recession of the Nineties hollowed out the American high end industry. Prestige 1000-watt amplifiers and 300-lb., $50,000 speakers still appear at CES with the regularity of spring flowers, but these are symbolic offerings to the handful of Big Two reviewers who haven't started writing about home theater. The striking thing about the American mainstream is its intellectual stagnation over the last twenty years. Where are the new amplifying devices? Where is the breakthrough speaker technology? Where are the new circuits? For that matter, who's even talking about circuits instead of proprietary, encapsulated smoke-and-mirrors?

By contrast, the SET folks (along with the closet p/p triode enthusiasts) are digging up circuits and devices over an eighty-year span of technology, and having a heck of lot of fun doing so. It's all up for grabs—mesh-plate triodes, battery-heated filaments, mid-Thirties Western Electric circuits, and much more. Are these arcana audible? You bet! It turns out there were scores of brilliant innovations that fell by the wayside over the decades.

Now we can apply sophisticated computer modeling and advanced measurement techniques that were undreamed of when the old-time ideas were first tried. We can apply new and old at the same time. Who would have thought in 1990 that some of the best sound of the new millennium would turn out to be Sony DSD amplified by all-directly-heated-triode electronics? Why not? If triodes are the most linear devices made, why fight it? Some things were created in almost ideal form from the outset, while other took much, much longer to get satisfactory results. It's a sobering thought that the Rice & Kellogg transducer may need a full century to see its full potential, while triodes reached near perfection by the mid-Twenties. What we saw after that was more power, more efficiency, less heat, etc., etc., but never better linearity.

Audio enthusiasts have much more freedom of choice than ten years ago. Audio may not attract venture capitalists (remember them?), but the rest of us are free to discover a satisfying artistic expression. North American audio is maturing from a consumer-driven hobby and becoming a craft. If there was a message from the 2001 VSAC, it is surely that.