The High End Arrives

After first experiencing music recordings played back via separate, high quality components, and finding out just how much more there is to be heard in all recordings, I found myself bitten by the “high fidelity” bug and began reading everything I could get my hands on.  Back in those days, there were three monthly periodicals I knew of and read fervently: Stereo Review, High Fidelity and my favorite of the three, Audio.  Of particular interest to me in the latter, were the “Behind the Scenes” column by Bert Whyte and the technical writings of Richard C. Heyser.  Where the earliest hi-fi systems were mostly built by hobbyists, the field was growing as new companies arose to fill the demands of interested consumers.  The magazines featured a constant parade of products in both the editorial content and in the accompanying ads.  They introduced me to the traditional laboratory measurements used to evaluate component performance using specific test signals.

In the early 1970’s, I would meet regularly with a few friends who shared my interests in music and in music playback systems.  We’d spend evenings spinning our latest vinyl acquisitions, sharing new musical discoveries and talking, not only about the artistry but about how the recordings themselves sounded when played via our respective systems.  Around this time, I discovered other enthusiast journals from other parts of the world, primarily the United Kingdom but also, a new type of journal from the U.S.  Stereophile from J. Gordon Holt (and later, The Absolute Sound from Harry Pearson) took a radical approach to reviewing audio components: listening.  While the traditional magazines talked of “total harmonic distortion” and “frequency response” and “signal-to-noise ratio” measurements, the new journals were pointing out that devices with similar measurements would often sound quite dissimilar — and that good measurements did not at all guarantee good sound.  Holt introduced the idea of evaluating components, designed for nothing other than listening, by listening to them.  (Strange that this idea is still a radical one in some quarters and a heretical one in others.)  Pearson suggested the sound of real instruments playing in a real space as the reference point for evaluation (hence the title of his journal).

The concept of high fidelity led to what became known as the “high end”, where many designers took a no-holds-barred approach to come up with new ideas in pursuit of something that would sound less like electronic reproduction and more convincingly like being in the presence of the musicians as they play.  The term “high end” appropriately defined many of the achievements, as well as the prices of some gear but it would be a mistake to overlook the many commensurate achievements in the more affordable price ranges as well.  Around this time, I first encountered the term “audiophile”, which Webster defines as “a person who is enthusiastic about high fidelity sound reproduction”.  I remember a large format book that came out at the time, “Audio Alternative” by Mark Tobak.  This was an audiophile’s dream book, containing photographs of and short essays on a wide variety of components, from better than average sounding modestly priced gear, to what were at the time, the components representing the state of the audio reproduction art

Having started my audio education with the traditional magazines and furthering it with what came to be called the “underground” magazines that followed, I found the contrast between the approaches taken by the two different “schools” set into stark relief by two particular listening experiences and what I came to learn from them.  The first was when one of my audio buddies brought over his turntable for comparison with the one I was using.  At first, I couldn’t understand the point as both units turned at the correct speed and we were both using the same model cartridge to read the grooves on our records.  I knew cartridges all sounded different but “turntables just turn”.  Then I listened.  Then I learned.  The unit I had been using was a popular, modern servo-controlled, direct drive turntable.  It had great measured specifications (or “specs”), with very low measured “wow and flutter” (i.e., it turned with very little deviation in speed accuracy).  It had been very highly rated in the traditional magazines.  My friend’s turntable was an older, lower cost, belt driven model with an inexpensive AC motor and a very bouncy suspension – the platter and tonearm rode on a separate substructure from the main body of the turntable.

What I heard from that old turntable was tighter and more extended response in the bass instruments, much smoother sounding treble instruments and an overall relaxed quality about the musical presentation, compared with the relatively thin, edgy sound from my more modern, slicker looking design.  It turns out those servo controlled, direct drive motors were always adjusting the speed of the turntable as they constantly sped up and slowed down, reaching, then passing their target speed.  These small variations did not show up in the “wow and flutter” measurements of the time but the harmonic changes that resulted showed up in the listening.  Another thing that didn’t show up was how sensitive the newer unit was to vibrations in the room as they impinged on the turntable surface from the air and entered the device via its supporting shelf.  Once they were in the turntable, these vibrations easily made their way to the record surface and then to the cartridge.  They became part of the signal fed to the amplifiers – a signal that should have been derived only from the undulations of the record groove.  The lightest, gentlest touches of a fingertip on the top surface of the turntable would translate into a thunderous rumbling sound through the speakers.  In contrast, I saw my friend cover the top surface of his turntable with a towel (to protect it from what was to come) and actually hit the top with a hammer (!), which resulted in no disturbance at all of the record as it played, no sound from the speakers other than that of the record itself.  The lightest, gentlest touches of a fingertip causing havoc with the new turntable and hammer blows having no effect on the older one.

That experience was followed by another one where the same friend arrived one night carrying a coiled up set of speaker cables.  Having already gone from “turntables just turn” to getting a different turntable, I was ready to listen.  Truth to tell, I already had “heavy gauge” wires feeding the speakers.  Once the cable was sufficient to pass the requisite power to the loudspeakers, I wondered “how could cable make a difference?”  Once again I listened and once again I learned.  Where did all that musical information come from?  What was formerly just a guitar chord was now a set of individual strings sounding together to make that chord.  The room in which the musicians were playing was suddenly also much more clearly evident – both in recordings made in real rooms and those where a “room” sound was added artificially via electronic reverberation.  Where cables had previously been not much more than an afterthought, required to get sound from one component in the chain to the next, I came to realize they are components in themselves and as with any chain, the weak link will determine the overall strength.

I was still a few years away from my first job as an audio engineer in a recording studio and a few years further from the day I first heard stereo.  More to come.