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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 4
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The Twentieth Century and the Birth of Audio Technology: Some thoughts on where we’ve been and where we might be going, Part 2
by John Pearsall

 

Dedication

I would like to dedicate this two part article on the "Audio Century" to my friend and long time colleague, David G. Morris. On March 23rd, 1999, David had a fatal coronary and left behind his many friends in the audio and train club communities. David was my friend for over 31 years and his early death at age 54 has left a large void in my life. A dedicated audio enthusiast, in David’s 2000 sq. ft. house were three audio systems plus a video surround system. Having logged three decades in his audio hobby, he was also a regular at the Oregon Triode Society meetings in the early 90’s. His insightful observations and the discussions we had through the years have influenced this pair of articles in very positive ways.

I still reach for the phone to tell him the latest news because he was there for so many years.

Now he isn’t.

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Gunfight in Chicago: Mercury Records calls it "Living Presence."

It’s Quantum leap time! When Mercury Records of Chicago and their resident recording genius, Bob Fine, aided by his disc cutting whiz, George Piros, launched their "Living Presence" series LPs. LP collectors around the world ‘bout messed their drawers!

The year was 1953, notable for the end of the Korean war, was a seemingly average year in audio innovation. Wham! Out of the blue! The Chicago Symphony with resident conductor Raphael Kubelik shocked a conservative LP industry clean out of their comfort zone. The event was their justly famous Mousorgsky/Ravel: "Pictures at an Exhibition." The LP was big. It was bold. It packed a visceral punch to the gut! During the "Great Gates at Kiev" section, seasoned record listeners became glassy eyed and mumbled.

From their first "Living Presence" LP release, Mercury’s results became widely reported by record reviewers across around the world. With just one release, Mercury Records scooped the entire industry and achieved big sound with clarity, wide dynamics and a dramatic "you-are-there" quality. "Living Presence" LPs grabbed the audiophile community by its short and curlies and, predictably, Pictures became an instant best seller and an audio demonstration favorite.

What was so different about this release? First, a striking directness and simplicity. One Telefunken U-47 condenser mike was placed in front of and above the orchestra, just forward of the podium. An optimized mike pre-amp was fed into Bob Fine’s modified Ampex 30 IPS tape console running the best mastering tape formulation money could buy and critically biasing the heads to the tape. With minimal editing, the session tape was mastered for LP pressing by the redoubtable George Piros. Using the highest cutting levels he could get by with, Piros found several ways to get cutting levels up and distortion products down. His use of something called "variable groove spacing", proved especially useful in reducing distortion prone inner groove problems. In addition, all details of the cutting process were re-analyzed. The in-house tweaked cutting head boasted a heated cutting stylus and was driven with a custom-designed McIntosh Labs cutting amplifier which allowed higher drive current to the cutting head with lower distortion. Predictably, the variable pitch cutter drive, combined with superb lathes and specially formulated cutting lacquers yielded magnificent results. Mercury’s "Living Presence" rewrote the LP’s history. In slack-jawed surprise and some degree of envy, American RCA and British Decca accepted Mercury’s success as a direct challenge. In 1953 and 1954, the best and the brightest in the world-wide record industry were determined to produce some of the greatest mono LPs in history. And they did.

A Golden Age had already begun and most of us didn't realize it!

Sometimes you can’t realize what you have until some time has passed. That’s the case with the Golden Age, but there’s another reason. We didn’t have the playback sophistication to fully realize how damned good those early mono and stereo LPs had become. On the studio engineering side, microphones became increasingly sophisticated. RCA produced most of their superb dynamic mikes in their own New Jersey labs, including a couple of classic ribbon designs that are still admired 50 years later. And from war-ravaged Europe, Austria’s AKG and Germany’s Telefunken emerged stronger than they’d been in the thirties, even while recovering from the recent unpleasantness in Europe. By the late forties, they had prototyped and manufactured several advanced condenser microphone designs utilizing re-designed diaphragm capsules and improved low-noise tube preamplifiers. Many of our legendary recording engineers of the 50’s, on both sides of the Atlantic, used German, Austrian and Danish condenser mikes almost exclusively. Stereo LP cutting heads kept getting better and better. With heated cutting stylii, groove formation on lacquer masters was smoother and quieter, yielding better plated mothers and quieter stampers. Improving steam heated LP presses became more sophisticated and vinyl pressing formulations better. As mastering lathes underwent further mechanical improvements, cutting amplifiers continued to get special attention. For the first time, high-powered, low-distortion amplifiers were specifically matched to the drive coils of the best cutting heads. As I mentioned earlier, the magnificent Mercury-commissioned McIntosh Labs 200 watt tube amplifier, driving their hot-rod Westrex cutting heads, set the bar higher than ever before.

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Alas, phono cartridges, arms and turntable systems still lagged far behind. I found out the hard way. In ‘55 and ‘56, I could buy a Mercury LP and take it home only to discover that my modest, middle-range turntable sometimes couldn’t play the loud passages all the way through without serious mis-tracking. Early arm and cartridge combinations tended to jump right out of the groove or, worse yet, they might plow right through it leaving vinyl shavings in their wake. The nagging question remained. Turntables vs. the LPs was touch and go for much of the first 15 years of the LP medium. LP’s were consistently stayed ahead of the turntable’s ability to play them. Cartridge? Arm? Platter? Suspension? Chicken or the egg? Egg or the Chicken? Omelet?

The Second Epoch of the "Rusty Ribbon": Mein Gott! There’s two of everything!

Without much fanfare, almost a test marketing thing, stereophonic taping of many Mercury and RCA recording sessions began in 1954. At first only the symphonic recordings were taped in stereo, but then it became standard procedure for all studio work. I’m sure this was a result of stereophonic sound at the movies and they’re probably related. In 1953, multi-channel stereo and Cinemascope spectaculars poured out of Hollywood studios and into our theaters, followed by the special Cinerama showings with six channel sound in major cities. By 1955, British and European record companies got the word, too. Stereo was coming and was ready to kick in the barn door!

Several companies, large and small, began releasing stereo recordings on 7 1/2 IPS, 1/4" half-track tape for the home listener by 1956. Since Ampex Corporation produced the best 1/2" and 1" studio tape machines on the planet, they became the defacto industry standard. Later, Ampex produced a line of small, rugged, semi-pro 1/4" tape machines for the well-heeled home user and commercial A/V markets. Though quite expensive, the Ampex 600 series proved to be the best sounding, most reliable units for half-track stereo playback in the home. RCA and Mercury open reel tapes were the first major label offerings. Masterfully microphoned and real time duplicated on high quality slave machines from an early generation duping master, the extra effort was worth it. A typical 1956 RCA or Mercury 7 1/2" half-track tape possessed the best dynamics available with no serious overload problems, a total absence of LP related tracking problems, spacious airy detailing and all the heady excitement my 16 year old ears could handle. While half-track stereo tapes and stereo playback decks were too expensive for the average buyer, RCA and Mercury produced them anyway as industry calling cards, a low sales volume prestige product to prove what they could do. I’d have mortgaged the farm to have a good stereo tape system in my last year of high school, but I didn’t own a farm, so I couldn’t mortgage it. Sigh!

Mercury, RCA, British Decca, EMI and several other labels were clearly anticipating the home market for stereo LPs just as soon as the technology became available. In the meantime, the tape medium would do very nicely in building consumer anticipation for the arrival of the LP. And by taping all the sessions in stereo, the full stereo session master was in the vault ready to go. (For a cost reference, in uninflated 1956 U.S. dollars, the typical RCA Red Seal Mono LP was $2.98 (promotional) or $3.98 regular. The RCA half-track stereo issue of the same performance was $16.95, or as little as $12.95 for a short pop program. That investment was certainly not pocket change in the fifties, because many of us made only $50 or $60 a week. The Ampex 600 series 1/4" stereo tape deck was about $600. (Ouch! $600 could buy a really good used car and a stripped Ford or Plymouth business coupe was $1400 brand new.)

By 1956, stereo half-track tape was available from several other companies, too. The best of the late entries was Capitol. I still remember Capitol’s demo tape called "This Is Stereo." Their impressive opening track was a steam locomotive train coming into a station, complete with squealing brakes as it moved from right to left across the sound stage. Capitol in the 50’s was a rich resource supplying jazz, pop and classical performers like Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Stan Kenton, Jonah Jones and many others. (Some of their best have been issued as audiophile CDs on EMI’s re-mastered vault series.) Capitol’s engineering was excellent and their best half-track tapes were on par with RCA and Mercury. Prior to 1958 and the stereo LP, tape was the only multi-channel sound source available to the consumer except for a few rare dual-banded LPs produced by Emory Cook’s record company for dual-channel playback using an exceedingly rare two-headed Livingston tonearm. ( A rather klutzy affair, the arm had two heads, two cartridges, two parallel tracks and short playing times. It looked like a two-headed snake.)

The long sought single-groove stereo LP was still in frantic and highly secretive development. Intensive R&D continued in the labs at Western Electric, RCA, Fairchild Instruments and Ortophon to develop a single-groove stereo disc cutting system. Several cutting techniques were considered in the U.S., the U.K. and Europe, but when the choice was finally made, the Westrex 45/45 cutting system won the contest. Like any far reaching technical standard that’s adopted, Westrex’ cutter was a mixture of technical strengths, relatively few shortcomings, fair mono compatibility and many political realities. Looking back from this vantage point in the Fall of 2002 to the Fall of 1958, 44 years ago, I think the Westrex 45/45 system has served us rather well, far better than I would have predicted.

The Vinyl LP: Chapter Two (this time in stereo)

Ask any audiophile who’s been around for a few decades, "What’s the watershed year for the modern sound era?" The usual answer will be 1958. Late1958 was the earliest that a questing Hi-Fi person could find more than three stereo LPs and a stereo phono cartridge and turntable to play them. I was stationed at Navy school commands in Norman, OK and Memphis, TN in 1958 and 1959. One was a college town with a good, small audio store and the other was a good sized city with several audio stores. There was practically no stereo phono hardware available and the largest record stores had few stereo LP titles. Early stereo LP playback was pretty crude and vintage 1958 stereo phono cartridges were generally dreadful, quickie adaptations of old mono designs. And almost none of the turntable engineers had even thought of the mechanical needs peculiar to a Westrex 45/45 LP.

Designers had largely ignored the vertical rumble axis in the uncritical days of the laterally cut mono LP. Vertical rumble was virtually a non-issue. Stereo LPs, needing both lateral and vertical stylus motion, forced a total rethinking of all platter and bearing mechanics for the playback of stereo LP records. In 1958 through 1960, the old-fashioned, commercial grade, brute force radio station designs were still dominating the high end of turntable choices. These, and a few belt drive designs, were the best we had in early stereo LP days. They usually had big motors, precision idler wheels and massive platters on reasonably good bearings. They were a bitch to isolate and, of course, if you go bored while baby-sitting, they could rotate a small child until he upchucked. And the studio Rek-O-Kut monsters could achieve full rotation speed in a half-revolution, more like drag racing that record playing. Additionally, when not playing LPs, the heavy studio turntables of 1958 vintage made dandy potting wheels. Just remove the arm and bring on the wet clay. But, seriously, the older rim-drive studio table had to carry the freight until newer, quieter and isolated belt drive designs became good enough.

Adequate environmental isolation (isolation from room feedback) was still a couple years away. While playing a stereo record on an early turntable, one could scarcely walk across the floor without pumping the woofers into overload. But, wait! An elegant solution arrived from an unexpected source. A well known loudspeaker engineer provided the answer with the sneaky 1961 introduction of an odd, homely, wiggling, floating, un-glamorous, but utterly simple miracle. It was the ubiquitous, much imitated AR turntable from Acoustic Research founder and chief engineer Edgar Villchur, introduced at $48.00 U.S., with dust cover, but cartridge extra. The AR turntable showed anyone with sufficient imagination how to isolate a turntable. The secret that had escaped most other designers was the unified platter/bearing/arm platform. Then drive the platter on good bearings with a flexible belt from a synchronous clock-style motor and two-step pulley. The unified T-Frame moving system was floated on damped, ultra low resonance springs, allowing the AR player to ignore anything up to 5.6 on the Richter Scale. And check this out! Most belt drive tables today, some 40 years later, still use the basics of Ed Villchur’s design. They’re just built a whole lot better and cost more than $48.00.

(Note: Pickering/Stanton produced an American design in the early 60s that floated the platter mass on opposing magnetic fields. It didn’t isolate room disturbances very well because the platter floated while the arm didn’t. They conquered some bearing noise, but exacerbated room bounce. Ooops!)

Incidentally, since stereo demanded two speakers in our music systems, it was fortunate for small listening rooms that AR’s co-founder, the aforementioned Mr. Villchur developed and patented his groundbreaking acoustic suspension speaker in 1954, called the AR-1. It gave us small size and the damnedest bass you ever heard from any speaker of that time, much less a compact one. The highs and mids were pretty dull, but the bass response could really put a smile on your face and rid the lawn of moles.

Though not quite ready for prime time, stereo music arrived on LP. Stereo tape, in the stores since 1955, was still the best sounding medium we had available by a wide margin. As the stereo LP became available in greater numbers, the record companies learned how to make them better and turntable engineers burned some serious midnight oil. By 1958 and 1959, the recording schedules the major labels bulged with the 20th century’s biggest artists re-recording most of their mono repertory in genuine stereo. The Golden Era had arrived, though I’m not sure we knew what to do with it. The stereo LP hit its stride and recording technology became mature enough that the studio engineers stopped straining for ping pong, novelty nonsense and focused on depth, detail and localization. In the stereo turntable arena, the hardware race was at full gallop. Turntable, tonearm and cartridge manufacturers were finally engaged with a new mission. The stereo LP proved a very demanding medium and the discerning consumer wanted better LP playback equipment.

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Starting in 1962, phono cartridges took a giant step forward when Danish Ortophon and American Shure put enormous effort into a detailed analysis of stylus behavior in the record groove under dynamic extremes. Using a highway metaphor for groove tracking, the engineers paid attention to that area "where the rubber meets the road." By 1964, the payoff from the cartridge makers’ detailed research was astounding. Cartridges began to trace the best of the LPs without undue buzz and breakup! Other engineering teams contributed, too, Joe Grado, Fairchild Instruments and Stanton/Pickering, but it was Shure and Ortophon that formalized tracking performance criteria and quantified the crucial factors of groove tracing. Both companies studied the effects of stylus tip shape, cantilever mass, cantilever compliance, better magnetic generating systems and the effects of adopting a standardized vertical tracking angle (VTA). Their work found its way into premium phono cartridges in1964/65 including greatly reduced moving mass numbers, standardized VTA and elliptical stylus tips. Thirty five years ago, when most of the groove tracing parameters became known, the record listener could finally appreciate how good the stereo LP had become. I’m an stubborn fan of vinyl and I still can’t believe how well they work. Being a relatively crude electro-mechanical medium for the storage of music, the excellence of the modern LP is one of the miracles of the audio century. LPs can be a pain in the ass and their playback has been likened to "dragging a polished boulder through a vinyl canyon", but, Damn! don’t they sound good? Like the curious case of the Bumble Bee, a prime aerodynamic improbability from an engineering viewpoint, the LP operates in its own realm of improbability. And somehow they both manage to fly! And I’ll bet you never thought of the LP and the Bumble Bee as soul-mates.

Some Corrosion visits the Golden Age: 1960–1963
On today’s Oprah: Where did you buy this ring? It turned my finger green.

Corporate Disaster #1

Half-track, real-time stereo tapes, the best consumer sound available, disappeared from the retail shelves in 1960. Over night! Closed-out! Eighty-sixed! Forever. Dame Agatha’s spinster sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, would describe it as, "Murder Most Foul!" The 1/4" quarter track playback standard was forced on all loyal tape customers without so much as a "By your leave." Industry flacks assured us in honeyed tones that 4-track tapes were somehow superior! (Maybe because you didn’t have to rewind the suckers. You could just turn them over and you were on the other side like an LP. See? Damn! - How did I miss that?)

Clearly, the accounting department made this artistic/quality judgment for us. With the advent of automated speedy quarter-track duplicators (At 4x to 8x playing speed), the fix was in. The immediate result was seriously lackluster highs, impaired dynamics, adjacent track and interlayer print-through and pre-echo problems. This corporate decision compromised everything we loved about our half-track tapes. Then they threw another one at us. The long playing tape standard was introduced and became Quarter track at 3 3/4 IPS! Instead of using multiple reels as they had done, they doubled the playing time per reel and put a whole opera on one tape? Progress? No. Tapes became inferior to the LP releases overnight. (The disappointment with a quarter track 3 3/4" release was not unlike finding a scarce VHS movie only to discover it was duped at EP in some backroom operation in the bayou country.) The open reel tape adventure is my first brush with regressive technology decisions hatched by the bean counters.

The real tragedy? The seeds of open reel tape’s eventual death were planted in 1960. With typical tail-wagging corporate eagerness, record companies lowered their technical standards in the name of profits and the fate of high-quality recorded tape was sealed. Open reel for the consumer was gravely ill and in serious decline by 1970. It was totally dead in 1976 with the exception of a New York company called Barclay-Crocker, who produced quality 7 1/2 IPS Dolby B dupes well into the 80s. To their credit, Ampex’ tape division tried an 11th hour revival of open reel tape in 1974/75 with the introduction of 7 1/2 IPS Dolby B dupes with greatly improved Q.C., but it was too late. Though the late Ampex releases required a Dolby B decoder, their tapes sounded damned good. But, by then, nobody gave a rat’s ass. In remembering Freddie Mercury’s great song, we observe, "Another one bites the dust!"

Corporate Disaster #2

In the world of classical music LPs, RCA’s top producer, John Pfeifer, and his star recording engineer, Lewis Layton, became Lewis Layton, became the absolute gods of the collector’s universe. The Golden Age of the LP was defined by them. Along with Bob Fine at Mercury and Kenneth Wilkerson at British Decca, the vinyl collecting audiophile still burns incense at the altar dedicated to their collective genius. They could do no wrong.

Then, out of nowhere—SPLATTT!! YUCHHH!

Over at RCA, a sizable chunk of fecal matter hit the fan blades!

The era of Dynagroove had arrived.

(Pause here for suitable fanfare from the herald trumpets!)

RCA’s corporate wet dream and boardroom brain-fart nearly eliminated RCA Red Seal LPs from any serious audiophile/collector’s buying list. From unequaled "Shaded Dog" Red Seal splendor to "Dynagrunt" decimation in one sickening leap. RCA’s Record Division executives, in their collective wisdom (or hubris?), thought it possible to do the democratic thing and extend audiophile performance to thousands of indifferent record chewing consoles throughout the land.... Improved performance for everyone! .... But, that brings up the question: How Goddam democratic do we have to be? In truth, they had encountered millions of record players out there that couldn’t track a pristine RCA "Red Seal" LP in all its 1960s glory. Dynagroove was born to insure egalitarian record playing on any machine, anywhere, anytime. Never mind what it took away from the audiophile!

By means of a pre-sensing analog computer system inserted in the mastering chain, the computer anticipated cutting demands of an upcoming passage. Voila! By smoothing out cutting extremes and modifying the frequency balances on peak passages, the typical home player mis-tracked only once in a while. However, as soon as RCA signed their pact with the Devil, the remarkably lifelike vitality of their LPs went out the window before the ink was dry. Progress, again? I don’t think I can take it.

RCA’s tricky mastering process quickly became known as Dynasludge. I bought their much ballyhooed initial release in early ‘63. It was the Leinsdorf / Boston Symphony recording of Mahler’s 1st Symphony in a tasteful, special edition concept cover. Nice packaging, but not a happy listening experience. Bloated, soggy, opaque. I was in school at Washington State U at the time. As the chief purchasing agent for the student union record library, I quality checked more than 100 newly acquired LPs in 1963. On several subsequent RCA releases, Dynagroove wasn’t acceptable, so I stopped buying any new RCA releases bearing the Dynagroove logo for myself or the school. I continued buying the pre-Dynagroove RCA LPs until stocks ran out. Eventually, this ill-fated process was apparently swept under the rug at RCA’s record division. Many of their later records, 1965 and after, were still marked Dynagroove, but they sounded much like the older product. ( I think they dropped the processing computer mastering.) Gradually, RCA Red Seal’s audiophile following had evaporated, though. Was it too late for RCA to get their pre-Dynagroove credibility back? My record collecting friends by late 1963 wouldn’t touch new RCA Red Seal Dynagroove with a barge pole. Through the rest of the serious LP era, even when RCA proudly rose to its former brilliance, and they often did, many record collectors ignored the product. (Tip: Many dedicated vinyl folks missed out on some stellar releases produced after the Dynagrunt fiasco. It didn’t stop me, though as I cheerfully pillaged RCA’s cut-outs for a buck a record.) It’s all in the knowin’. Yesss!

A footnote: Corporate disaster #2.5

There’s a post-Dynagroove fiasco that didn’t make the primary list of corporate brain farts. This one’s from RCA again in about 1966. It’s the great disappearing vinyl caper called Dynaflex. Perhaps we could claim that this was the first incarnation of the familiar floppy disc.

RCA press people called it a good and revolutionary thing they were doing. The new, very thin LP was touted as an aid to cooling LPs coming off the steam presses, said to yield a record less prone to warpage. In practice, what we got was an LP that sagged in our hands and was so thin that it allowed faint print-through from loud passages on the other side of the LP. Oh, I forgot to mention that it warped more easily and needed the full support of a flat platter pad in the turntable.

Let’s get real! Dynaflex was all about the high cost of prime vinyl and how to save some.

There’s a kind of hush—all over the world tonight—

His name is Ray Dolby. An experienced former Ampex engineer, Ray Dolby developed the first widely used noise reduction system for commercial recording. In 1967, Dolby Labs introduced a sophisticated multi-band noise reduction system called Dolby A. Based on a precise application of pre-emphasis/de-emphasis on record and playback, it was designed to prevent much of the cumulative noise buildup from the original session taping through subsequent studio processing steps. First utilized in 1967 by British and American classical recording teams, I still have the first American release, Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale, a small chamber work, a Faustian musical drama with spoken dialogue. The sessions were recorded by Vanguard at their New York studios using superb, hand-picked chamber musicians and a top French acting ensemble. Released as a two LP set, recorded once in French and once again in English, it still sounds incredibly fresh even in the age of DSD. Thirty-five years later, the Vanguard LPs are still probably the best Soldiers Tale ever recorded and a memorable first project for Dolby A noise reduction. Maestro Stokowski was at the helm with Stravinsky magic in his bones, and was almost 85 when this was taped.

A Little Something for the Public Airwaves: Eine Kleine Stereo Nachtmusik

FM broadcasting was the last of the non-stereo audio frontiers. By the early 60’s, the North American multiplexing standard for FM stereo became official. Once-powerful American electronics giant, Zenith, was the eventual winner of the Stereo FM Multiplex engineering competition with their compatible Mono/Stereo Multiplexing system. Not necessarily the best system technically, it allowed a third signal to ride along with the broadcast. Called SCA, this extra channel served as a commercial service for background music in stores and offices.

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Sadly, most of the early stereo tuners with their hastily cobbled outboard adapters, were a total pain in the ass to use and sonically disappointing as well. Early tuners with adapters lacked stability, had barely adequate channel separation and drifted like crazy. But, by about 1965 FM Stereo had gotten pretty good. Second and third generation multiplex circuitry became inherently more stable, better sounding and multiplexing was designed as an integral part of the overall tuner instead of being a temperamental "add on" option. Secondly, the timely use of well-executed transistor tuner circuits added needed stability, compactness, simplicity and got rid of tube thermal drift with lowered cost. Tuners, incidentally, were the earliest audio circuits where transistors worked exceptionally well. That was not the case in most other early transistor audio circuitry. FM stereo became a solid product by 1965 and I enjoyed at least 4 good stereo stations in Portland with my stable H.H. Scott kit stereo tuner to receive them.

The Transistor Revolution:  Ten Years of Wandering in the Desert!

Transistor audio amplifiers somehow survived their first five years of production. They shouldn’t have! (How do I put this charitably? They sucked! The brutal fact is they sucked swamp water!!)

First generation transistor sound tended to be insufferably dull and harsh, simultaneously! McIntosh was constipated and flat, Marantz was gritty and dead sounding. The other contenders went mostly down hill from there. With huge amounts of circuit gain available, early transistor circuit designers applied massive negative feedback correction to their early amplifiers resulting in sound that was cold and irritating and couldn’t handle transients worth a damn. Early circuits produced superb static sine waves and low distortion numbers, even some fairly decent looking square waves, but that’s the easy stuff. Real music isn’t sine waves. Real music isn’t symmetrical. Real music doesn’t obey the static testing rules. Real music is difficult to reproduce.

Compared to highly accomplished tube amplifiers of 1967 / 68, the best of which were capable of sounding lush, smooth, dimensional, sexy and real, the 1968 transistor amplifier was arid, closed down, tight-assed, two-dimensional, irritating and cold. Transistor amplifiers had no juice. They had no life. They were not seductive. They were not warm. They were not euphonic. After months of careful listening to new designs from the major vendors, it was obvious that this was not the arrival of perfect sound or even improved sound. Solid-state Nirvana was not gonna’ happen, now or any time soon.

And pre-amps from top makers were closed in, murky, mostly just plain dull. Power amps would sometimes blow their expensive output stages in a microsecond for no discernible reason. (An exception was the boat-anchor Mac with its autoformer isolated and stabilized outputs. You couldn’t kill these massive suckers with a fire ax, but eventually you hoped you could so you could file a vandalism claim with your insurance company.)

Starting out very slowly in 1971, the dawn appeared in the east. Two things happened. The best circuit designers quit thinking tubes and began to master the current amplifier nature of transistors. Just about then, good silicon power devices showed up in complimentary pairs, thanks to the audio divisions at Motorola, RCA and a few others. Semi-conductor science improved markedly, too. Low noise, wide bandwidth complimentary pairs of low level silicon devices appeared, specifically designed for audio use. With late generation transistors, line stages, studio equipment and pre-amp circuitry improved markedly. Power devices became more rugged, sophisticated and wide bandwidth. Musically astute engineers gained experience and developed novel ideas on how to use the new silicon devices, not like tubes, but like transistors. Circuit engineers were finally doing some original thinking about solid-state technology and it was long overdue!

I filed for my 1970 divorce and never looked back—

I obtained a legal separation from my McIntosh transistor 2105 and C-26 in 1970. I wanted an annulment, but the Pope wouldn’t hear of it. He told me he understood how I had been seduced, though. Do you suppose I’m still legally married to my Mac 2105 and C-26? Hmmmm.

I replaced the Mac stuff with the English Quad 33 and 303. Very British, vaguely old fashioned, quite musical and endearingly quirky. I became happier with my sound than I’d been in three years. Coming out of my speakers, once again, was a sound that fell gently on the ear, sweetly detailed, no buzz saws and I was able to indulge in long listening sessions once again. I tried to forget that fateful day I’d foolishly parted with my Mac tube gear in the name of modernity. (I had MC-75 mono blocks and an MX-110 tuner/preamp—1967 vintage) From my painful experience, I soon learned that progress ain’t progress ‘til the fat lady sings. I continued leaving burnt offerings at the shrine I built for my departed Mac tube gear and the fat lady hired a new vocal coach.

The second half of the seventies brought major progress to transistor audio design. Mati Otala in Scandinavia theorized brilliantly about the causes and cures for a harsh sounding form of IM distortion. He called it TIM (transient intermodulation distortion) and he was joined by several other European and American designers who pointed out the pitfalls of using massive global negative feedback. They demonstrated that the judicious use of negative feedback, properly applied around individual stages, is the way to go. Almost in unison, they advised going for smaller amounts of feedback, just enough to do the job, and came out foursquare against being a slave to test bench numbers. The best engineering teams began enlisting expert listening panels to evaluate their products and the new emphasis was on musicality, dynamics and accurate transient response. Amps began to sound more musical and alive by 1977 and ‘78, more vital, a lot less harsh and congested. I bought my American-made Harmon/Kardon Citation gear (Citation Models 17-18 & 19) in 1980 and I kept them for several years. Good stuff! Very musical and a great tuner.

The 1970’s and beyond

Whither open reel tape?? Whither indeed! Dead as the proverbial doornail! What the hell is a doornail, anyway? Everybody refers to a doornail being dead. (See how easily I get sidetracked?) Recorded open reel tapes were effectively off the retail map by 1976. Reel machines, more refined than they’d ever been mechanically and electrically, went into a gradual dignified decline that virtually ended their existence by 1990. The beautiful open reel machines remind me of a Tennessee Williams’ character in The Glass Menagerie. In her state of genteel decline, Amanda Wingfield fondly recalls the gentleman callers of her southern youth. But, now she realizes there are no more cotillions in her social calendar. And no more gentlemen callers, either.

The less talented audio cassette, although handy for the car and portable use, continued to languish in restless mediocrity throughout the 70’s. Sometime in the early- 80’s, though, the humble cassette became a surprisingly musical-sounding mass medium. The best of all the analog tape cartridge systems was the El-Cassette. Sold for less than two lackluster marketing years in the mid-70’s, the format died. Why? Too many formats and, by now, a highly skeptical public, recently burned in the format wars, the surround sound debacle and other assorted games of musical chairs. Speaking of musical chairs—

The Book of Genesis in Four Channels: CBS Labs begot SQ—SQ begot Sansui QS—and RCA whispered, discretely, "We’ve had another brain-fart. It’s called CD-4."

Here was another war that paralleled Vietnam, but this one was fought in the ad agencies, the glossy magazines and audio listening rooms from 1969 to 1975. A classic instance of "Sound and Fury, signifying nothing." Or the case of someone giving a war to which almost nobody came. But, for whatever reason, the whole multi-channel surround sound adventure came to a confusing, lurching halt. Sadly, all the combatants died on the battlefield. There were no survivors. And the equipment buying public, as they usually do, picked up the burial costs.

In 1969, CBS/Sony launched a quasi-4 channel matrixed playback system using the LP as a recorded source. With unwarranted fanfare and barely supportable claims, they were just in time to witness Sansui Electric Ltd.of Japan introducing a competing and similar, though not compatible scheme called "QS." Get it? QS? SQ? (You say "tomato" and I say "tomahto." Let’s call the whole thing off!)

Last, but refusing to be denied their God-given right to be wrong once again, RCA, in partnership with JVC Japan, introduced an ambitious frequency-modulation sub-carrier variant for LP playback called CD-4. Not a matrix scheme based on matrixing two stereo channels, the CD-4 system was designed to give the user four discrete channels. However, CD-4 put extraordinary demands on every aspect of the record playing chain, including the phono cartridge, pickup arm wiring and turntable signal cables. An FM demodulator box decoded the rear channels from the FM sub-carrier. In actual use, a CD-4 LP could play only a few times before the sub-carrier’s tiny ultra-sonic modulations wore off the conventional stereo 45/45 groove walls. The rear channels then became marginal for lack of a stable sub-carrier. With marginal ability to maintain FM sub-carrier demands and other inherent stability problems, the CD-4 system was another major write-off for RCA by 1976.

In spite of audio’s experiencing major birth pangs in the 70’s, I thought, "There must be a Pony!" Fortunately, there was a pony. Hidden in RCA’s ill-fated CD-4 adventure, there were two very positive outcomes for the LP playing audiophile.

First: Phono cartridge engineers got busy solving the sub-carrier playback problems of CD-4. Worldwide, phono cartridge engineering reached its highest levels in history and by 1975 phono cartridge high frequency performance had become very well understood. Although the CD-4 medium was short lived, the resulting research into cartridge behavior brought the LP to unheard of levels of performance.

Second: New and harder vinyl pressing compounds were developed to conquer the CD-4’s ultra-sonic wear problem. The new vinyls were very good and proved their sonic superiority several years later in the spectacular Direct-to-Disc Audiophile LP pressings in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Basic inquiry into ultra-sonic groove tracing focused on using narrower side radii with lower tip mass. Improved cantilever performance was another factor in the search for low distortion and reduced groove wall wear. All moving generator parts were re-examined. Thankfully, CD-4 related research led the way to lower distortion and superior high-frequency groove tracing on all LPs. Next, the engineers improved magnetic generator performance by giving us more linear magnetic behavior. All cartridges, moving coil, moving iron and moving magnet, benefited from this research and even a couple of piezo cartridge designs joined the fray in the 1970s. And there was a major bonus that seldom got mentioned. Cartridge makers began to publish stringent standards for optimal loading of their cartridges. Once the loading questions had been brought to light, cartridge generating coils, internal tone arm wiring, interface connectors and phono leads underwent serious revision. At last, the questions had been asked and answered.

For no particular reason, except that they weren’t very good, all the surround systems were dead by 1976. Unfortunately, the four-channel pioneer of 1970 was left with an assortment of extra speakers, useless quadraphonic decoders, bitter memories and no new music available to play on four channel installations. Screwed again!

But, wait! RCA wasn’t finished with their boardroom antics yet.
There were more bullets in the chamber and three more toes on the foot.

In the early 80’s, RCA responded to the growing prospect of movies on Philips and Pioneer’s Laserdisc system. One sunny morning, the assembled board members said, enthusiastically, "We can do that!" They rubbed their hands together and hatched a competing video disc system called Selectavision, with their old partner, Japanese JVC. (CD-4 hadn’t told them something about reading ultra-sonics with a stylus?) In trying to unseat the superior optical Laservision system, RCA’s Selectavision, used a mechanical tracing system, had wear problems and an indifferent picture. Laservision was barely surviving as it was and operating at a loss, so Selectavision tanked in less than two years. Yet another bruising write-off for RCA. (Toward the end of Selectavision’s run, Radio Shack was giving away the players and remaining discs for nickels on the dollar. Today, twenty years later, they’re mainly dumpster stuffers with a few forlorn movies showing up in the LP bins at the Goodwill.)

The humble beginnings of "High-End Audio": Toys for boys who read Playboy—

A velvet smoking jacket, a leather couch and a lovely pipe—soft music and gazing at Hefner’s heifers—a roaring fire and swirling a snifter of warm cognac—in charge and Livin’ Large! Sigh—"I wonder how the poor people are doing."

Luxury audio, as we know it, began to develop in the late sixties, starting as a casual mix and match affair, drawing components from up-scale audio companies such as McIntosh, Marantz, JBL, Bozak, Altec, Ampex, Wharfdale, Tannoy, Thorens, Tandberg and Revox. Some installations added selected items from professional studio catalogs. Then in the early seventies, the market began to change again when several small manufacturers began promoting "name designers" and consciously created a civilian linkage to industrial / professional mystique. Several current high-end companies started as three man garage operations. Others were start ups involving ex-employees of older firms. A surprising number of manufacturers were former audio retailers.

About 1976, we entered the silly season. Attending mirrored, strobing dance clubs, we donned polyester leisure suits and had our hair permed into frizzy afros. Impressive upscale components appeared at the audio showroom. Disco dancing, stack heels, rack panels and meters showed up everywhere. Components of the 1970s pillaged most of the studio gear visual conventions: rack-panel mounting, rack handles on everything, Big knobs and Bigger meters, the total banishment of tone controls, but installing several processing loops instead, followed by a bevy of equalizers and black boxes of all kinds. Go figure!

Daring new visual designs, incorporating the chunky industrial look, emphasized high quality metal work, massive construction, and, occasionally, decent circuitry. With their outsized output stages, huge heat sinks and monster power supplies, amplifiers resembled a Hummer with a power cord. Top-of-the-line audio was loaded with tons of macho mystique. In fact a parallel exists in today’s consumer market. Many high-end audio designs remind me of the gaggle of petrol-slurping SUV’s and 4X4s looming ever larger in our rear-view mirrors. Everybody has to have one, but nobody knows why. Couldn’t be advertising, could it?

Vietnam finally went away. Sort of. The acquisitive decade of the 1980s took its place and a vast array of upscale toys were paraded in front of salivating yuppies. Leisure suits and permed afros gave way to BMW, Mercedes and Volvo. Soldiers in the Reagan revolution joined the status parade and with the Lexus was just around the corner, luxury audio components dominated sound dealers billing themselves as salons. Incredibly good looking amps, massive speakers and gorgeous turntables ooozed major mojo, as the Visa card balance swelled right along with the audiophile’s ego. Sadly, much of the audiophile experience wasn’t about the music anymore.

Relentlessly escalating pricing structures came to audio components and revised marketing objectives became increasingly exclusionary, harming the pursuit of serious audio for many people in the process. Audio ownership, which had formerly been a graduated step-by-step climb from humble beginnings to excellence, gave way to a bifurcated market full of harming the pursuit of serious audio for many people in the process. Audio ownership, which had formerly been a graduated step-by-step climb from humble beginnings to excellence, gave way to a bifurcated market full of attitude. The market reality became: Snob appeal vs. value for money. Both cannot win. Value for money discussions often became "What can we get for this amplifier after we put bigger bumpers on it?" Through the Looking Glass marketing conferences in the 1980s dwelled on a question never mentioned in my Econ 101 classes. Classic "Build a Better Mousetrap" thinking that spurred the success of audio’s first three decades fell by the wayside. The new question asked was: "Have we priced our product high enough to dazzle the true-believer?" In practice, audio marketing policies of the 1980s were more related to "Reaganomics and Gold Mastercards" than to loyal audio hobbyists with four kids and a mortgage.

In the eighties, we witnessed another change, this time concerning the flow of audio product information and critical opinion. We witnessed the entrenchment of an audiophile "priesthood," more in touch with technology than music or the arts. The priesthood sprang from several fiefdoms in the British and American audio press and was characterized by incessant acrimonious blathering and spiteful turf battles. I can see these guys in a creepy Roger Corman flick with hooded robes, incantations, amulets and secret handshakes. Let the audiophile pissing contests begin!! Alas, babble on.

Musical Nirvana!! The Second Coming!!
Digital Perfection into Eternity and Beyond!!!

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Also in the early 1980s, an all-digital consumer format had been rumored for a decade. And it finally slid into town on a slippery layer of hyperbole.

This is the mantra; repeat after me: "Digital perfection for ever and ever unto the eighth generation."

So proclaimed the full page color ads in late 1982. Note: If you want a real chuckle, dig up several audio back issues from October, November and December 1982. It doesn’t matter which ones. Just read the laudatory comments bestowed on the first CD player prototypes and pre-production samples. We all know there’s an annual mating dance at the magazines with only one identifiable purpose: The ritual whetting of consumer appetite. It’s also known in the trade as a pre- holiday "product launch window."

Once again, the silly old Emperor, with teeth chattering and goose-bumps all over his scrawny pale body, was found "butt-nekked—starkers—widdout’ no clothes on." Several notable scribes, founding members of audio’s publishing priesthood, failed to notice the antiseptic, parched sound coming off the fledgling silver disc. I had only one question: Where in blue, bloody hell had they parked their fabled golden ears? Or was it just the next new thing they were expected to report on?

Twenty years have passed since the CD’s introduction in America and several of the aforementioned scribes are now sitting atop the great Klipschorn in the sky, pondering the eternal question, "Is it live or is it Memorex?" In the eighties, their seriously flawed reviews raised doubts about all magazine reviewer judgment and objectivity. Audio reviews seemed to depend on which side of the toast has the jam on it—But, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe their analog souls fell under the spell of the Digital God, slipping into his eternal bit stream of 1’s and 0’s. We may never know. But, remember this one true thing: Music without juice is worse than no music at all!!

I’ve written about my fitful Compact Disc initiation before in PF, so I’ll be brief. I was loaned the first Sony CDP-101 CD player in my area when it arrived in the Spring of 1983. I had a 5 disc CBS assortment to play on it and our system was a very large, very clean JBL horn system situated in a large live room. Driving the JBLs we had the latest in Audio Research tube electronics. Spectacular, but representative stuff, I would say. How was my first CD experience, you ask? That session registered on the pain scale somewhere between adult circumcision and the sudden onset of an ice cream headache. In disbelief, I asked a the question: "What the (bleep) is this kaka?"

The early CBS discs from Sony’s Tokyo pressing plant, one of only three plants at the time, were bloody dreadful. Barbra Streisand was rendered hopelessly un-listenable. She had somehow acquired industrial strength adenoids. Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic peeled wallpaper and neutered the cat. Miles Davis’ jazz instrumentals were so strident that they caused widespread crop failure. And that was just the first three discs! So far as I could tell, the over-hyped CD medium, though praised in celestial adjectives by media flacks, was more than seriously flawed. It was DOA! Not only could I not recommend it, I couldn’t even listen to it. I put the player back in its carton and called it a day. After spending an hour trying to find the cat, I wondered if this was another disaster with which the audio industry routinely wounds itself every few seasons? Three more bullets and two more toes—

What the hell had happened? For three years, well into 1986, CD players were a mostly sorry lot. The 1983 model year was the worst. Some players were top loading, a few were vertical loading and there were almost no drawer loading models at first. All were cursed with nasty, 9th order, brick-wall analog filters designed to prune out the digital garbage. A threadbare 14-bit resolution prevailed for a couple of years leaving every thing feeling flat. Until 1985/86, they had no over sampling available, sloppy clocking circuitry and hot-running, stacked circuit boards stuffed with mediocre generic computer IC’s remained. A thoroughly sorry ass lot. With few exceptions, CD players produced a sound that was decimated, desiccated and constipated. I kept reassuring myself those first few years, "This can only get better."

Fortunately, several years later, it got a lot better!

Yowza - Yowza ! ! Step Right Up, Folks!!
Presenting the Ginsu D/A converter:  It slices, it dices, it quantizes—

Admittedly, my traumatic intro to CDs in Spring ‘83 was based on the first flawed batch of CBS titles, hurriedly released to support Sony’s first player. Rumor has it (and I still can’t prove it) that CBS vault people in New York sent LP mastering tapes to Tokyo for CD mastering. Their equalization had a rising top end and other non-linearities peculiar to LP production. In any case, the resulting CDs were execrable, fierce, unyielding.

Then, a couple months later, Telarc produced their first CDs. This material I knew well from their well made, spectacular LPs. I was surprised to learn, that unlike the CBS product, they weren’t fierce at all, but just the reverse, unacceptably dull, lackluster and woolly. They bore only slight resemblance to Telarc’s impressive LPs from those same Soundstream digital masters. Philips CDs arrived that summer and theirs were an inconsistent mixed bag, some good, some terrible, a bit schizoid in nature. Denon of Japan delivered CDs in 1983 that were fairly decent if they were from Denon’s later digital masters.

Something very alarming: Germany’s classical colossus, DGG, got it all wrong at first. DGG’s discs sounded nasty, wiry and dry until 4 or 5 years later, probably due to totally wrong headed mastering. Finally, and to my great relief, musical CDs began reaching me in the fall of 1983, this time from London/Decca. This was my first indication that CDs might succeed after all. And Sony’s CDP-101 began sounding somewhat smoother and it was joined by a couple of fairly sweet sounding, clunky Philips/Magavox top loaders.

Second generation players and improved CD mastering lifted my spirits. I began to think it increasingly unlikely that the two biggest Japanese and European electronics giants would be that careless with their money and reputation. There just had to be something to this CD thing! An early shake out had already started and my attitude shifted to watchful caution. I didn’t stop buying LP’s. In fact it was a golden time to buy LPs. Apparently tired of the care and feeding of vinyl, a surprising number of record collectors who should have known better, were selling their beautiful imported LPs for a pittance and buying silver devils at 17 to 19 bucks a whack with the proceeds! There was damned good buyer’s market for choice LPs in the eighties and early nineties!

From 1984 through 1987, everybody and his brother-in-law tried marketing a CD player under their house name. This odd assortment of players, claiming exclusive features and magical qualities, was sourced from a small number of vendors around the world. Most were average to mediocre and disappeared quickly. I auditioned a few dozen players in my home system during the mid-80’s as manufacturers reps brought them by seeking my opinion on whether a new design had a snowball’s chance in audio hell. Most of them didn’t and melted quickly.

I didn’t commit to a player of my own until late 1987. Even then, I had some serious misgivings and had purchased remarkably few CDs. By 1987, however, CD playback circuitry and transports had reached their 4th or 5th generations technically. Clever over-sampling methods, improved resolution, CD specific LSI chip designs, far less intrusive analog filtering, and better digital clocking had been incorporated in the new players. D/A converters were much improved and analog filters, although still necessary to eliminate harsh digital artifacts, were revised, refined and simplified. At last, I could live with CD playback as the medium achieved its first real musicality. It had taken more than 5 years from its market introduction before I felt the medium was civilized enough to win a place in my system. The CDs took even longer to win my trust because some hideous mastering was still going on. Fortunately, mastering CDs has become a refined art and most reputable discs mastered after about 1989 will sound pretty good. Some of the industry’s best mastering geniuses achieve sensational results.

The Digital Revolution: And this one really is a revolution—

The digital revolution is real, it’s bonafide and it’s here! Believe it!

There’s very little in our lives that won’t be changed by digital technologies. Implications for our increasingly digital culture are profound and if we look at audio technology, we’re already 30 years into an earlier mini-revolution that started with Japanese Denon’s first halting attempts at digitally recording music in 1972. Using communications-based circuitry, painfully executed with the earliest IC’s and discrete transistors and barely achieving 12-bit resolution, it possessed marginal listening quality, the circuitry wasn’t fast enough and recording lacked the resolving power to be convincing. But, Denon pressed ahead.

Digital recording got serious in the U.S. by 1977 and 1978, but CD playback for the home had to wait until 1982 when IC circuits and semi-conductors had caught up with the engineering requirements. The first acceptable digitally recorded sessions I heard on LPs were done in 1977. In the first two years, the 3M Digital recording system and Tom Stockham’s Soundstream system sounded quite musical, and they still do.

Not many people seem aware that digital audio is a spin-off of communications research done for the American and Japanese telephone monopolies. Early digital research sought to achieve economical and stable voice and data transmission in our developing global communications systems. Of course, digital encoding is a major turning point in any discussion of 20th century audio and video recording, playback or transmission. Thanks to the digital revolution, nothing will ever be the same again in consumer electronics and the digital processes have taken over most land-based and satellite data transmission, as well as all the new audio and video formats. The digital desktop computer dominates our daily activities and with stunning advances in medical measuring and imaging electronics, the digital revolution marches on. Even color pictorials of blood flow in my aging arterial system were digitally scanned, plotted and printed. By tracking injected radioactive-isotopes in my bloodstream, a specialized digital computer and scanning device generated beautiful color images of blood flow before and after my "trial by treadmill." (Incidentally, my arteries looked impressively dazzling in living color. And open. Thank, God!)

Back to the digital revolution: As Al Jolson said about the "talkies" in 1927’s "The Jazz Singer", "You ain’t heard nothing yet!" With the new technologies emerging in 2002, I would add, "You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!" Almost every field of human endeavor will be changed by digital techniques in the next two decades. Pay careful attention to the anticipated changes of the next few years and hang on to your shorts: We’ve only just begun!

Foundations for a discussion of the future of fine audio

I’ve tried to keep my remarks about the "audio century" germane to the serious discussion of audio technology, and to ask the question about audio’s survival as a hobby activity. Approached as an art form and used to enjoy our world’s vast musical treasures, I feel that some form of our audio hobby must and will survive! My intent for Part Three of this series is to lay a foundation for a roundtable discussion of our audio hobby and its internal workings, past and present. I hold some strong views on how the pursuit of audio has changed through the last fifty years. Some changes have proven beneficial; others have not. But, realistically, I realize that change is the only absolute in audio and in life. It’s always been that way.

So, let’s examine several important questions about ourselves and our hobby. How about these?

Where is serious audio headed in the next few years?

Where will serious audio be in 2010?

Will audio hobbyist activity retain its primary goal of listening to music, or will it merge with a far larger multi-media future?

Will audio become an appendage to the video revolution or can it retain its independent existence?

Email our Editor (editorpf@attbi.com) here at Positive Feedback Online with your comments. Tell us what you think about the future of audio! We’d like to hear from you, and will publish the best stuff. (Keep it civil, please! Our Editor has a reputation for deleting rants and shrill weirdness with poor signal-to-noise ratios!)

Next up in the "Audio Century," another subject has to be discussed: the passing of the torch, or mentoring. Mentoring, a time honored method of passing on knowledge that we love, becomes especially difficult when there’s so much competition for the spare time we can devote to an activity. If serious audio is to survive at its most creative levels, who’s going to replace us when we join those already sitting atop the great Klipschorn in the sky? What do we tell the newcomer, when he or she expresses an interest in high quality sound? How can we help our passion for audio adapt to the realities of the 21st century? Is there anything left for the DIY hobbyist to do once we consider the sophisticated, less accessible nature of modern audio technologies? Can we reduce the friction and carping I’ve experienced in the last 20 years of audio? Can we avoid philosophical infighting and cult-like behavior in audio? Can serious system tweaking activity be weaned from pseudo-scientific nonsense that attempts to re-invent the wheel? Can the audio hobby be a true art form again with excellence as its only goal? Or will the pursuit of sonic splendor remain a frightfully expensive exercise in audio technology chasing after elusive rainbows?

Good questions, I think.

Finally, and I think the most important question we can ask in our pursuit of Audio: Can we enjoy today’s superb audio technology as a means to an end, with the end being the deeper appreciation of music?

Or will the means become their own end and dictate our pursuit of "audio excellence" (read, "I worship gadgets; keep that damned music out of here!") to the near exclusion of musical art?

See you next issue!

 

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