I was asked to lead two seminars, one each evening after the exhibits were closed for those participating in the show itself. On both evenings, there were SRO (standing-room–only) crowds lining the walls of the moderately-sized amphitheater. (Both sessions were video-taped and will, in time I’m told, be available.) I coerced Roy Gregory, former editor of Britain’sHiFi+, into moderating the sessions. I worked from a list of points I wanted to make about the past, present and transition to the future of High End audio, after which a Q&A session followed. Since I was not working from a prepared text (no spontaneity that way) what follows Is an idealized summation of what I said and not at all a literal one – for instance, most of the humor has vanished.
I began each seminar noting the loss of both Gordon Holt and Wilma Cozart (Fine), and the influence both have had on me, each providing a matrix upon which I modeledThe Absolute Sound. To Gordon I owe the idea of an alternative publication that could succeed on its own grounds and to Cozart, the muse of Mercury Records, who oversaw a series of recordings (a sonic track record unequalled by any other American company, then or now) a model for judging the truth of equipment, one based on recreating the truest possible facsimile of an absolute sound, of real music in a real space.
I made the motto of my remarks, Cozart’s oft-repeated maxim: “Trust Your Ears,” adding to that, if recreated music doesn’t sound like the real thing (when that is the source), then it is a distortion and, ergo, wrong.
What the magazine, at its outset, really represented was an abrupt departure from the measurements-uber-alles approach of the commercial magazines of the day. To wit, if the measurements these magazines arbitrarily chose to make were “good,” then there was nothing much more to comment on, except the price, the power and the features. They called this “objective” when, in fact, it was nothing of the kind. They picked and chose the measurements (a subjective decision) they would use as paradigms.
Instead, we turned to “observational” reviewing, which our critics and the British labeled “subjective.” I outlined the difference between the two: in reporting our observations, we were, under controlled conditions, describing the “sound” of the components we were reviewing – the only subjective thing about such a review, given that no component is perfect, is which of its shortcomings the reviewer could live with, after stating his listening biases in this regard.
To use the observational matrix, I created, along the lines of psychological insights, several views of the same component, assuming that certain unanimity of observation would approach the truth. As it happened, this procedure led to the creation and development of an audio language on my part, in other words, a common set of definitions about the way things actually do “sound.”
J. Gordon had done work along this line in describing colorations, euphonic or otherwise. What I did was expand these definitions into three dimensions; I developed a language to describe the acoustic space and the elements thereof, that is, instrumental dimensionality, depth of field, stage width, and further down the line, more detailed words to describe distortions within that ambient field.
To make sure our readers could hear first hand, on record, what we were talking about, I started a Super Disc listing of the best and most authentic (true to the absolute) recordings of the day (mixed in with a few sonic spectaculars, just for the hell of it). Little did I realize that out of this would arise a market in classic vinyl recordings, especially when the CD made the LP seem obsolete. And I did not pass up the irony of noting that many of the most “valuable” LPs in my collection were destroyed in a 1985 house fire and that I could not afford to replace them.
One other thing I emphasized was how crude the components of the early 1970s were in comparison with what we have at hand today. There were, aside from electrostatics (then in their prime because of their coherency), almost no speakers that werecoherent, top to bottom. Speaker cabinets were so clumsily designed that their diffraction effects prevented the recovery of a true soundstage, something I almost stumbled into in creating a hybrid speaker, composed of Magneplanar Tympani bass panels and a linear array of midrange ribbons and tweeter planar units from Infinity, hence, the QRS-1D, which allowed wall-to-wall recreation of the width of a recorded soundstage as well as its depth, along with a then unparalleled degree of coherency among the drivers.
And of course, there was our leading the charge back to tubed electronics (and thus the rise of Audio Research, conrad-johnson et al.) away from the crude-sounding solid-state units of the time, which were soon to be followed by the coarse, distorted and unlistenable early generations of CDs, which we correctly identified as anything but “perfect sound forever” -- neither perfect, nor forever, and not even sound by our definition.
In citing the prescience of our first female reviewer, Enid Lumley, about noise pollution and designer John Curl’s estimate that she was a decade ahead of her time, I encountered JC himself in my perambulations through the show* [*Ftn. He had two words for me, the first of which I don’t wish to repeat here, blaming my review for the failure of his Vendetta Research phono stage, a failure, said I, not mine, but his, since I didn’t design it.] He informed me that dear difficult Enid had died in ’07 of lung cancer, a fact I duly reported in the second seminar, thus building a bridge to
After noting the fact that observational-based reviewing and a descriptive language had helped designers eliminate most of the gross distortions of the early 70s, even in transistors and the CD medium itself, I stressed the need for a new language to describe the different and more subtle distortions of today’s best gear. And said I found myself somewhat stymied, even in trying to define my most provocative concept, “continuousness” (which I liken to the continuous flow of electrons in a tube, a steady stream, or “waterfall”).
Then I discussed, in brief, today’s transitional audio developments:
Magnetic-drive turntables for LP playback, with the remastering of classic tapings using today’s far superior disc-cutting technologies to breathe new life into turntable sales
High-definition digital encoding, with a special nod to DSD
The struggle to eliminate power-line noise polluting the ambient spaces of playback, either via battery operated electronics or power conditioners of all sorts and varieties, including some with near mystical-seeming properties
Multichannel sound, particularly SACD encoding, which has finally begun to achieve the potential of the medium in creating an acoustic space in which we can lose ourselves more fully in the sensations of the music, taking particular note of one of the last official Telarc recordings, John Adams’On the Transmigration of Souls, as the most spectacular example.
It was toward the future I had been headed during these talks, discussing the potential represented by the huge audience enamored with Iphones, Ipods, the other MP-3 like devices, countless millions, mostly young and open to deeper exploration. I told the SRO crowd that if we could “convert” but a fraction of this audience to really good sound, we’d have no worries about the future viability of high end audio.
I asked Mike Mercer, a long-time (former) TAS employee to expand upon an idea he had written about, namely, how high-end audio dealers should and must have computer listening stations in their shops, set up in such a way that the listener could switch from a budget system to one slightly better and on up the scale. On the first night’s seminar, this led to an argument among members of the audience about the problems with high-end dealers in general, from their disregard for women to a similar disdain for the youth, a kind of age- and sex-related bigotry.
I closed out the speech, both evenings, by calling for a deeper, more serious set of critical standards, while pointing out the need for refinement and expansion upon our descriptive language. And declaring that we need, as well, new methodologies (yea, even measurements) to correlate what we are hearing when trusting our ears, with what the equipment is doing electronically, particularly the anomalies - some of which we can hear but cannot yet, usingeither language, define.