Welcome to my holiday article. As in previous years, I'll end it with some suggestions for some holiday gifts that you can hint about to your loved ones. That way you may get something that won't be discarded or put in the back of your closet. But first I'm going to play Scrooge and bring out my curmudgeonly side and discuss some problems with our hobby that have been grating on me recently.
First, high-end audio is falling further and further behind the mid and low end manufacturers and dealers in both recordings and equipment.
On the equipment side, the high end is falling far behind the mid-fi companies in producing equipment that can decode and play back the present day codecs. Take for instance, high bit rate PCM, DTS and Dolby 24/96 7.1 channel recordings. While there are probably 50 mid to high mid-fi pre-pro's out there by Denon, Sony, Integra, etc. the number of units from high end manufacturers can be counted on the fingers of someone who's been involved in an accident with a rotary saw. And none of these have the latest standard of HDMI 1.4 in or outputs. It does take years to design, build, test, contract for, and manufacturer a new piece of equipment that will cost a developer megabucks before any possible funds can be recouped, but unless our designers catch up with the latest developments they and we will be left way behind.
We can't even keep up on equipment connections. While the high end has finally caught on to the possibilities of using a computer server for recording, storage and playback of high definition files, the developers seem to be stuck with trying to improve the USB output with fancy USB to SPDIF converters. That would be wonderful for systems built five years ago, or for mid-fi enthusiasts, but USB is probably the worst possible way of extracting data from a computer with its normally high jitter and noise. Somewhat better would be using the FireWire connector, or even better, just getting a decent soundcard with an S/PDIF output.
And if they were really up to date, they'd discard all of those and use the very low jitter HDMI output. The newest standard will pass perfect signals into the gigabit range, even the best single1 meter cords cost a pittance and look much neater compared with running separate multiple audio and video cords, and the computer soundcards with HDMI output are superb. For those high enders living in the dark ages with analog or S/PDIF-only inputs, maybe the audiophile manufacturers could concentrate on designing an HDMI high bit rate DAC with analog RCA outputs and video HDMI passthrough.
I understand that it's difficult for the high end manufacturers to keep up with the major manufacturers with the costs and expertise involved, but if they don't they'll be a dying breed. Why, you may ask? Because we audiophiles are. The average age of our group now is probably in the 50's with a vast number older than that. Take a look around you the next time you attend a classical, jazz or blue-grass concert. Bet the average age will be up there.
Younger generations have been brought up on earbuds and mp3 recordings of what pretends to be rock, and the vast majority has never been to a decent acoustic concert. The latest studies show that the present teenage to twenties generation have destroyed their ears with the above and will never ever be able to appreciate what a superb high end system can do.
Finally, the schools are no longer giving any time to music appreciation as their budgets have been whittled away on more politically correct activities for the masses. Thus, in the future there will be scant need for high end systems. Like many other things in America, quality will be replaced by mediocrity.
Thus, I'll ask of you two things. First, if you have any pieces of equipment that can't be sold on eBay or Audiogon, or, even better, recordings of decent works that you seldom listen to or have recorded to your computer's hard disk, donate them to your nearest library or school, where they'll be of use rather than cluttering you media room. This year I donated over 200 CDs to my local library which in this small town also happens to be used by the grammar school. The librarian has told me that many of the school children or their parents have actually been borrowing them for a listen. If only one becomes interested in music, it'll be worth the donation. Plus, you can take an income tax charitable expense cut.
Second, open up your system to others that may be interested. While there may be some who'll criticize you for spending so much on a hobby, maybe some will realize what joy can be obtained from listening to a really high end system. I love the looks on the faces when someone sits down in my listening chair and hears, for the first time, what my system can produce. The average comment is that it's better than going to a live concert.
My second problem is with the Luddites in our midst who claim that 2 channel stereo beats surround sound, even though they've never heard a truly high end multi-channel system, and wouldn't think of listening to one. I realize that I'm sort of one also, running single ended and parallel tube amplifiers into horn loudspeakers, both technologies from the 1930's, but I've learned to marry the best of the old with the best of the new. Editor Steven R. Rochlin in his column last month discussed this same thing going on at the RMAF, where few of the demonstrations had brought their systems into the twenty-first century. While I agree we shouldn't discard older technology just because there's something new out there, we also shouldn't stick with it if there is something better available.
The worst of the Luddites remind me of my early days in audio when the argument was on the merits of mono vs. stereo. The arguments were usually based around the fact that stereo meant that you had to buy two of everything and therefore you'd probably get inferior equipment. Second was the fact that the early stereo recordings in most cases had a ping-pong effect with the sound bouncing from channel to channel giving a less than accurate sound field. Of course, this was also the time of some of the greatest recordings of any age by RCA, Columbia and London, which are still being sold up to this day. So it wasn't the technology that was a step back, but the implementation. Same thing today with the debates on analog vs. digital, and stereo vs. multi-channel. Nothing changes!
While they have a right to their opinion, unless they've actually heard a superbly set up 7.1 system, and still feel stereo is superior, they have a right to express this opinion to the general public. But they must understand that this can only hold back the progression of high-end audio to the millions of video watchers who have set up mediocre audio playback systems with their mega-bucks video monitors. If only a small percentage of them set up high end audio systems equivalent to their video, high end audio manufacturers and dealers would flourish again.
For instance, Clark Johnsen, my earliest audio mentor, brought over an acquaintance from Georgia a week ago to hear my system. He's a card carrying audiophile but of the two channel audio only variety who had never heard a properly set up 7.1 system with projection video. But after listening to and watching 3 hours of various concert videos on Blu-ray, from 60's rock to jazz to classical music, I believe he's been turned, as he has written me extolling the virtues of his listening experience here. Now we'll see if he goes ahead and builds a multi-channel system out of his stereo.
Happily, I also obtained something from that evening. For years, with all of the improvements made in my system, I've had a problem with a slight glare that occurs with loud passages. Everything from changing out wire to various pieces of equipment to muffling the mids and tweeters with various cloths would not alleviate it.
The guest mentioned that I was using TAD 4001 drivers for my mids on my stereo speakers, which may have a tendency towards this. About 10 years ago, when I went multi-channel, I had purchased two TAD 4002 drivers which were fitted to two of the Edgar Mid Horns. Since the horns were a different color than the center and two main front horns, I never thought of changing them out with the 4001's.
Well, I did that last weekend, rebalanced the speakers and guess what; the glare is completely gone. In its place is a much improved balance between the bass and midrange, and for some reason a deeper and wider soundstage. Go figure. I've spent a fortune over the years trying to get rid of the glare and never thought of changing out the drivers. Just goes to show that it's also to your advantage to share your systems with others.
Now on to this season's audiophile gifts! In the spirit of this year of tight budgets, I won't recommend that you ask your spouse go out and get you a new set of seven Thiel CS 3.7 speaker with subwoofers.
Possibly your room could use some acoustic treatment. A set of four 2 or 3 inch thick Sonex Jr. panels placed at the first reflection points of your speakers on the side walls, and ceiling will work wonders for your system's imaging and at about $80 for the set won't break the piggy bank.
Finally, for those still into turntables, I highly recommend a Shure SFG-2 stylus pressure gauge. I have used both this and a very expensive electronic unit and find the Shure to be just as accurate and one hell of a lot cheaper at less than $25.