Issue 213 May/June 2011
This issue's special focus on amplifiers and digital products exemplifies the rapidly-widening technology chasm in high-end audio. On one side you've got a product
category – amplifiers
– that has remained virtually unchanged over many decades; on the other side are categories that didn't even exist a few years ago.
Our amplifier coverage in this issue lives comfortably on
the unchanging side of that chasm, with reviews of two products based on
vacuum tubes (and another four on transistors). And although our list of The
Ten Most Significant Amplifiers of All Time includes products whose heydays
extend from the 1940s to 2011, a hi-fi magazine reader from the 1950s would be
perfectly familiar with the functions and technologies of all these amps.
But think how that 1950s reader would view the digital
products covered in this issue. We have a USB DAC, a USB-to-S/PDIF converter,
a survey of eight computer soundcards, an iPod dock that also receives
Internet Radio, an app that turns your iPhone/iPad into a comprehensive
audio-testing suite, and two CD/SACD players that include a host of features
and capabilities unimaginable to the CD format's designers, never mind to a
hi-fi magazine reader from the 1950s.
You don't need to be a putative hi-fi enthusiast from the
50s to be startled by today's digital-delivery technology. I confess to
suffering from "future shock" myself. This term was coined by Alvin Toffler in
his influential 1970 book of the same name to describe "a personal perception
of too much change in too short a period of time." (Toffler also correctly
predicted the coming information revolution in 1980's The Third Wave.)
Consider this: In this very issue, I had to think about the advantages of
playing a mono record with a mono cartridge (Jacob Heilbrunn's Miyajima
Shilabe mono cartridge review) as well as this technical comment from a
manufacturer of one of the soundcards in Karl Schuster's survey: "You
mentioned that you used ASIO with all cards, but we would like to point out
that it is ASIO4all, because of the channel change/swap. This means you use
WDM, the kernel mixer, and resampler."
Of course, technological change is transforming society in
every conceivable way, but in what field other than audio is a there such a
wide dichotomy between the past and the present? Between the Miyajima Shilabe
and the AudioTools iPad app? Between the Croft tubed preamplifier and the
Esoteric K-03? It's not so much the change that's jarring, but the stark
juxtaposition of the old and the new. It's ironic that the analog outputs of
today's sophisticated digital sources are often amplified by tubed electronics
and reproduced by dynamic loudspeakers whose fundamental technology hasn't
changed in three-quarters of a century.
Everyone knows that the pace of technological change is
increasing, but few truly comprehend the scale of this phenomenon or its
implications. At some point computers will become more intelligent than their
human designers, and thus able to make more advanced versions of themselves
through recursive self-improvement. If the advent of super-intelligent
entities becomes reality, it will be impossible to make any predictions about
technological development (or anything) from that point on. What we can say
with confidence, however, is that today's most advanced digital-audio
technology and music-delivery systems will appear hopelessly primitive by
comparison. I can envision a future in which humans have instant access to any
piece of music, in high-res of course, just by speaking the name of the
composition or performance. The technology for delivering that music will be
completely transparent to the listener.
But even in that future of digital-delivery systems beyond
our comprehension, I'm sure that some of us will still be using vacuum-tube
I'm pleased to announce that Karl Schuster has joined the
freelance writing staff of The Absolute
Sound. Karl is an industry veteran who is well versed in all
aspects of audio, but has particular expertise in computer-based music
servers. As you'll see from his survey of eight computer soundcards this
issue, Karl brings a deep technical understanding, a love of music, and an
engaging writing style to his work. You'll see a lot more of Karl's writing in
our expanding coverage of computer-based audio in the coming year. Computer
audio is a complex topic, but Karl has just the right combination of skills to
make the subject understandable to everyone.
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