Adam's Hifi World.


Music is one of mankind's greatest achievements. Music is an idea created by a composer presented by a musician to an appreciative audience. Audio is the hobby of trying to reproduce a musical event at some other time or place. Audio is trying somehow to reproduce the essential elements, the music in the music. And, sometimes, we are somewhat successful.

The basic audio chain is pretty simple. There is a pickup, usually a microphone, some kind of amplification and processing, a medium that stores or transmits the signal, some kind of receiver or playback gizmo, and a speaker to create sound for the listener. This description should be general enough to include live radio, magnetic tape, records of various sorts, and even compact disks. I regularly use six media, three formats of reel-to-reel tape, vinyl records, compact disks, and compact cassettes. I have heard a few others including cylinders, shellac disks, Super-Audio-Compact-Disk (SACD), and, once or twice, live FM radio broadcasts. (If the radio station is playing a so-called "live" tape, then it isn't live FM. Rather I think of the FM radio as a link in the chain between the tape medium at the radio station and my speakers at home.)

One object of the hifi game is to present to the listener a recreation of a familiar musical event that brings back the original. The other object is to present to the listener a recreation of an unfamiliar music event that gives him a clear aural picture of what happened. It is not enough that the sound be "nice" or "sweet" or even "musical." Until it reproduces an event the listener heard or might have heard, it isn't really what hifi is all about. At least not to me.

So we build our gadgets and we do our listening and try not to forget the real reason we're doing this. (Okay, after we impress our neighbors and friends, the other real reason we're doing this.) If we lose sight of this objective (or should I say "if the objective goes out of earshot"), then the serious solemnity and sanctity that we bring to the hobby melt into ordinary pomposity and sanctimony. Like any group of people persuing a vision, we put up with each other because we believe that our community, in sharing a quest, achieves more together than separately. Who knows? It may even be true.

What I think of as "high-end" audio, the willingness to spend considerable time and money on this goal, began a long time ago and got a serious boost in enthusiasm in 1973 October, the Energy Crisis, the 55 mile per hour speed limit. Here in the United States, for the first time in a long time, the automobile was no longer king. What was the point of having a big, expensive sports car that would get a big, expensive speeding ticket any time it was driven in a fun way? So the Joneses that we're all keeping up with decided not to spend $6000 on a new sports car. Boats and airplanes use even more gasoline so what are they going to buy? A new and expensive audio system. So we better buy our own new and expensive audio system lest we fall behind.

These were the golden years of golden ears, the ten years from 1973 to 1983. Nothing was tabu, nothing was forbidden. One designer pursued vacuum tube designs while another worked in solid state. One designer built a better turntable suspension while another made his turntable massive so it would not need a suspension. One designer pursued DC-to-light bandwidth while another limited "slew-rates" so limited-bandwidth equipment would sound better.

I consider the period from 1957 October through 1973 December the "modern age" and the period following that the "post-modern age." Audio's modern age ran a little longer, as I see it, from 1957 through 1983. We began that age with the bare bones of audio, single-ended triode tube amplifiers and super-efficient horn speakers. We developed amplifiers that were enormously less limited and less colored and we spent that increase in available power on speakers that were far cleaner and more correct. By 1983 we had amplifiers that could reproduce more of the musical signal than we ever dreamed possible. And we had loudspeakers that could recreate musical sound so precisely that they could even reproduce a "square-wave" transient. The triumph of these twenty-six years makes me proud to be a hifi-audio person for twenty-seven years of my own life.

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