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Home Entertainment 2002
Hi-Fi and Home Theater Event

Home Entertainment 2002

From Clark Johnsen's Diaries
By Clark Johnsen

Three Of The Vermeers In New York

  Once again I find myself hurtling through broad daylight on the Acela Express to New York. America1s first and only grand-vitesse train hugs the New England shoreline and affords expansive views of harbors, beaches and ocean, a sure distraction from any reading one might plan to do. In airplanes, at least, there’s no bothersome scenery. In my lap rests a new issue of the ARSC Journal. That’s the Association of Recorded Sound Collections, which I joined in 1978. The article that fitfully engages my attention is entitled, “High Drama in the Record Industry: Columbia Records, 1901-1934,” by Tim Brooks. Few in “high-end audio” realize how often today’s events mimic earlier situations in recording industry history. Along with old reliable From Tin Foil to Stereo, the ARSC Journal may be relied upon to provide unique and applicable insights.

As the Acela veers away from the shore I concentrate on my reading. And as we enter Bridgeport, Connecticut, I find myself staring in fascination at this very paragraph: “Never a cautious company, Columbia moved boldly along several tracks to address these threats. Easton kept his chief inventor, Thomas H. MacDonald, funded and busy at his laboratory in Bridgeport, Connecticut, working on improved phonographs and cylinder duplication processes. The company also handled promising phonographs developed by others, including Edward Amet’s Metaphone and possibly Gianni Bettini ~ Lyraphone. Seeking to broaden its base, it also dabbled in motion pictures.

Well! Sounds like Home Theatre, today. Columbia moreover remained a presence in Bridgeport until very recently. Then, further miles down the roadbed comes this epiphany: The first recording Columbia ever issued (at any rate, their matrix #1) was entitled, “In a Clock Store”. It was designed to -- demonstrate the capabilities of their system!

What was I just saying?

Arriving at Penn Station, I hail a taxi, check into the Hilton, thence to the Metropolitan Museum for one of the best reasons to visit New York: Viewing Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer. And a dozen other Rembrandts. And those three Vermeers. Not to neglect glorious van Goghs, multiple Monets, brightly-lit Renoirs, implausibly-muddy Gauguins, the occasional Rousseau, the several overrated Picassos... Harvey Rosenberg used to speak of “the audio arts”, but in comparison to these masterpieces, audio is a mere craft. Nevertheless, practicing one’s craft can be just as noble, honorable and satisfying as creating art.

Speaking of audio... I arise early Thursday morning, shower and don male drag (a coat, clean shirt and colorful tie) and drop down to the exhibit floors. The first day of the Show one never expects good sound, so one simply pokes a head in to say hello. Then again, one never expects good sound at all! Anyway the Show is more of a social, than a sonic occasion, for whoever knows the score. Which excludes, in particular, the hapless audiophiles for whom the Show is ostensibly mounted.

The prevailing sonic difficulties do however give token relief to a diarist such as myself, who is not constrained to discuss everything or even anything. I leave that pursuit to our esteemed (koff! koff!) audio journalists. For myself, I can be picky and live by the rule of halves. Which works like this: When I poke my head into a room and find the music playing out of phase (oops!), which I find insufferably unmusical, I just leave -— and that’s half the rooms, usually. When the music is not oops! I might listen for a while at the rear, only to be driven out by the edgy CD sound -- and that’s nearly another half. Finally I might sit down and only then notice the muddy, overloaded bass and flee -- yes, yet another half. You see now how I whittle a Show down to manageable proportions.

It goes almost without saying, if a video screen is flickering I walk right by.

Refusing to listen to bad sound makes life better.


But, Clark...

Perhaps I am being overly doctrinaire, you say. I disagree. Let me explain. (If you’ve heard my rant already, just skip it.)

First, video. Ah, dear video. Video killed the audio stars! There may even have been a song about that a while back... Never mind how a TV screen between loudspeakers destroys imaging, never mind that music is best heard with eyes closed, or that video consumes big bucks. The trouble with video (these days) is, it always comes with elaborate surround sound, when all the best movies are in mono! Find them playing one classically great movie, just one, at any Show and I shall repent and enter.

Regarding the bass overloading, if our electronics manufacturers would just include tone controls one might turn it down. But, no. That’s their problem, not mine. As for edgy CDs, well, ameliorative processes are available quite apart from expensive converters and upconverters, which never quite do the trick. Instead I recommend “tweaks” as they are called (although I prefer “fine tuning aids”), for both effectiveness and price. And for the dismay they create, especially among those of attitude, which includes almost everyone with higher degrees of education in what’s called science.

But we’ll save that allegation for another time.

The fact that tweaks do work exposes the belly of the academic/engineering beast. Oh it’s a beautiful thing! These prigs who think they know it all, and instruct us in no uncertain terms that digits are digits, are overdue for a slashing attack. Is that too frank? Very well, let’s just say we all have lessons to learn and theirs involve hubris.


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