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June 2014
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
On Past Greatness
Article By Roger Skoff

 

  A good long time ago, probably in the 1950's or '60s, somebody (possibly Anthony Boucher, editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and, himself, one of that magazine's greatest writers) noticed and wrote a short piece commenting on the fact that every person then living had had two parents. That was no great surprise, even then, but neither was it, even then, the sort of thing that one would normally spend a great deal of time thinking about. It was certainly not the sort of thing that one would normally dwell upon long enough to carry it to its next step and thence to its ultimate logical conclusion.

Even so, the writer of that piece–whether Boucher or not–did do those things, and DID come to the conclusion that at some time past–but apparently not too far past, as indicated by the simple arithmetic of the situation–the earth must have been packed solid, "standing room only", with our ancestors; and that some hideous unknown force must, since then, have been killing us off in our tens-of-millions.

Do you doubt it? The proof is simple: if each living person (1) had two parents (2), and, as must have been the case, each of those two parents had two parents (4), and each of those [grand] parents had two parents (8), and each of those [great grand] parents had two parents (16), and so on, just (1x2=2, 2x2=4, 4x2=8, 8x2=16, 16x2=32, 32x2=64, 64x2=128, 128x2=256, 256x2=512, 512x2=1,024, 1,024x2=2,048, 2,048x2=4,096, 4,096x2=8,192, 8,192x2=16,384, 16,384x2=32,768, 32,768x2=65,536, 65,536x2= 131,072, 131,072x2=262,144, 262,144x2=524,288, 524,288x2=1,048,576) twenty generations ago–certainly less than 1000 years in the past, no matter how you count it–there had to have been more than 1 million people on earth for every one of us alive today!

Given that same kind of thinking, if what a surprisingly high percentage of "we remaining few" says is true, then Voltaire's idea that this is "the best of all possible worlds" must also be utterly wrong.

You've heard them or read them, yourself; all those people out there who always look to the past for greatness, ignoring the present entirely: Ooh, they say; look at that 1937 Bugatti Type 57sc Atalante – Obviously better and worth much more than the current multi-million dollar Bugatti Veyron coupe. Aah, they croon; look at these wonderful 1939 Western Electric horn speakers that I bought when they tore down that ancient movie house! Oh, they drool; a matched pair of genuine "Mac" 60 amplifiers, built in the grand old days of 1956, to drive them with...

In cars, in guns (Wow, a genuine ancient Holland and Holland 12-bore 'Royal Deluxe' Over-and-Under Shotgun!), in art, in any number of other things, and especially in audio, there has come to be a whole  culture of people who see greatness, not like E.E. "Doc" Smith and his ilk, who, imagining great emerald cities connected by flying bridges, and aircars, and women in gleaming brass bras, sought it in the coming achievements of a glorious future, but in the "classic" goodies of a past, long-gone, sanctified, and hopelessly irretrievable.

To a very great degree, I can understand them: I would love, in the automotive arena, to own a mid-'30s Packard, or a late '40s Delahaye, or a 1950s Freestone & Webb or Mulliner Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith limousine. In audio, a pair of Bozak B310s or Lansing Hartsfields or even Electro-Voice Patricians, might very well get me grinning from-ear-to-ear-to-ear, but in either case–in cars or in long-remembered-and-forever-lusted-after Hi-Fi gear, the thing that would have my toes curling wouldn’t be the performance of whatever it was, but its physical beauty or its remembered emotional impact.

The fact of it is that even the very great cars of the '30 and '40s and '50s were just cars, and their technology, though perhaps exemplary for their era, was–even in the Rolls-Royce example–in no way better than (or in some aspects, even comparable to) the most ordinary cars of today.

It's the same with the audio gear: Each of those speakers that I mentioned was great in some way, but all have now been surpassed in some–or even most–of the sonic characteristics that we hold to be of value today. To me, for example, the abilities to "image" realistically and to present a detailed and believable "soundstage" for a musical performance are among the very most important things a speaker can do, but not one of those wonderful and highly desirable speakers that I named does either of those things at all well.

And that should come as no surprise: At the time those speakers were designed, even the very best home HiFi was "monophonic" (single channel) and imaging and soundstaging of the kind that we've come to expect today were simply not possible from any available home medium.

Because of that, the speakers were designed for what was then known to be important, and some of the very basic things that we have come to take for granted today, like time-aligned drivers, for example, or concern for the diffractive effects of enclosure shape were never even considered. That, just in itself, is proof that progress–real forward movement toward the achievement of some stated goal, in this case, the realistic reproduction of the "live" musical experience–is possible.

The "good old days" that so many people seem to long for may certainly have been good, as, indeed, they demonstrably were, but they were not some zenith of perfection from which we can only decline.

That is not to say that every step we make is a step forward. "New" Coca-Cola  was a genuine disaster; the debate still rages over whether digital, in terms of sheer sound quality, is really an improvement over analog tape and LP records, and some things, like the MP3, seem to offer a benefit in one desired quality and a decline in others. One thing IS certain, however: just because a thing is old does not necessarily mean that it's a "classic".

A perfectly maintained or restored Yugo may have significant value to a collector, but that doesn't mean that it's a "classic" car. The same with that mint-condition mid-fi receiver or turntable that you or your pal scored at that local garage sale; the odds are that all it is old.

Unfortunately, facts are facts: No matter how much fun it may be to think that there were millions of people years ago for every one alive today, it is just fun, and not at all true. Similarly, no matter how cool it may be; or how romantic or nostalgic; or how much it may encourage you to continue your hobby of dumpster-diving or shopping flea markets for lost audio treasures, it's just plain not true that old stuff–even old stuff that really was "classic" is automatically better than what's being made today.

What is true, if it's audio, and if you love it, and if it gives you pleasure, is that it will help you to enjoy the music... and what could be better than that?  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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