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Positive Feedback ISSUE 70
november/december 2013


Making the "Right" Choice
by Roger Skoff

Sometime in the early 1950s, General Electric introduced its first "variable reluctance" phono cartridge. Even though its output was so low (only a few millivolts) that, for the first time ever, pre-amplification was required, it quickly superseded and displaced all of the much-higher-output (1-2 VOLTS) crystal and ceramic cartridges that had been absolutely dominant until that time. With only one exception that I know of, that one product—the first of the commercially available magnetic cartridges—effectively and permanently destroyed its predecessors, and they very quickly disappeared, never to be seen again, except, perhaps, as collectors' items or museum curiosities.

The exception was the Electro-Voice ceramic stereo cartridge, introduced in 1957, which, because of its low price, simple construction, and low output (to replace the by-then-ubiquitous magnetic cartridges of the day), was the very first phono cartridge offered to bring stereo to the record-buying public (which was, at that time, EVERYBODY).

The Electro-Voice ceramic, even though surprisingly good, was itself replaced in 1959 by General Electric's GC-7 stereo magnetic cartridge, and the across-the-board-dominance of magnetic phono cartridges was begun.

With the ability to play stereo records at home, the "HiFi era" had its real beginning as a general-market consumer phenomenon and monaural recording (or "monophonic" as some purists insisted on calling it), except for utility applications (communications, surveillance, etc.), disappeared forever.

The mid-fifties also saw the introduction (by Philco, in 1955) of the very first (low-fi mono) all-transistor record player and, over surprisingly few years thereafter, an ever-increasing number of other solid-state audio products, including a substantial number in stereo with state-of-the-art intentions. At first, these had the same effect as the magnetic cartridge and stereo records had had, and tubed anything started disappearing in droves—even television sets, which, for everything except their until-relatively-recently-indispensable picture tube (CRT), converted to cheaper, often better, and certainly longer-lived solid-state operation as quickly as possible.

Although the advent of the transistor brought the death of the vacuum tube for almost every application, INCLUDING HI-FI, no sooner had the death knells been thoroughly sounded and even stolid old McIntosh Laboratory was producing its first solid-state products than, in 1970, William Zane Johnson and Audio Research Corporation came along to lead the way back into the light (the one glowing in the little glass tube).

Unlike crystal and ceramic phono cartridges which, when they died, pretty well stayed dead, the resurrection of the vacuum tube as an element of state-of-the-art audio proved to be the harbinger of what has become a whole series of similar and equally convincing resurrections:

The most obvious of these is the LP record, which "died" over the years following the 1982 release of the first CDs, only to become a vibrant and fast-growing part of the current High-End scene. Another is horn loudspeakers—high-performance essentials in the early days of HiFi, these (all except for the perennial Klipschorn, which has been in continuous production since its   introduction in 1947 and can still be ordered today) were largely superseded for home HiFi use as higher-powered amplifiers allowed other speaker types (acoustic suspension, infinite baffle, transmission line, bass reflex, planar, and on, and on, and on) to gain popularity, only to come back in force with the arrival of Avantgarde and other modern horn systems and the near-simultaneous revival of very-low-power, often triode, often 300B amplifiers.

There's even been—although, to my knowledge, no new mono records are being produced―a new mono phono cartridge brought to market: the Miyajima Lab "Zero" Moving Coil Mono Cartridge. At two grand for the cartridge, plus another two grand for the step-up transformer required by its very low output (only 0.4 millivolt), it's certainly not cheap, but, with its moving coil design, it IS thoroughly modern, and a respectable number of people are buying it. Whether mono is on the way back, though, remains to be seen.

While some of the "death and transfiguration" (with due respect to Richard Strauss) of HiFi products and technologies is certainly the result of nothing more than manufacturers' marketing considerations ("Keep stirring the pot to keep the customers interested"), it's equally certain that not ALL of it is.

As we all know (and many of us may still have bloody noses or knuckles from), there are active debates that have been raging for years (or even decades) over whether analog or digital is better; whether tube or solid state; whether horns or planars; whether moving magnet or moving coil, and whether practically any other audiophile option you can think is better than practically any other. (And that doesn't even mention the other, years-long and equally spirited, "discussions" of the merits of cables, cable lifters, power products, rigid vs. absorptive [Sorbothane and the like] equipment and speaker mounts, and a whole host of other audiophile accessories and tweaks.)

Who's right?

How about they ALL are? I wrote recently for another publication about a recording session that I had been invited to, and how, even though BOTH analog and digital recordings had been made, NEITHER of them―because the microphones hadn't been mounted exactly where I was sitting—would sound exactly like what I heard when I was there, and even if, by some miracle, one or both of them DID sound like that, it still wouldn't sound exactly like what anybody else had heard at that same session.

Does that matter? Does the fact that the very best anyone will ever be able to hear of that recording session (or any other) will be what he LIKES, instead of what actually WAS make any difference at all in the real world?

Audio—music, sound of any kind—is not simple. Even a sine wave tone produced by a signal generator still has to be played ON something before you can hear it, and, if that something is one or more speakers, those speakers have to be IN a room. And if you're listening to those speakers, you're going to be at some distance from them, which means that there will be some degree of room interaction that will affect what you hear. More complex sounds—music, for example—allow both the need and the opportunity for more listener interpretation, and that must ultimately lead to the joint issues of "taste" and bias—what it is that we, for whatever reason, prefer, and what it is that we will make our listening priority.

Every one of the new things that has come along has had at least some characteristics or qualities to recommend it, and so has every one of the technologies that has come back from apparent obsolescence. Different things do different things and different people like them and choose them as their most important things to listen for. In fact, there are as many different sets of listening preferences and priorities as there are listeners, and the things that satisfy each of them are the right things for that particular listener. Like dynamics? Maybe you want horn speakers. Like "lush"? Maybe you want tubes or analog. Like detail? Maybe you want solid state? Whatever you want, there are things that will give it to you, and there are more coming along every day.

And they're all the right choice for somebody.