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November 2013
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Skoff'ing Up Food For Thought
Engineers, architects, and musicians.
Article By Roger Skoff


  I've been playing this game for almost sixty years, now ― since I was just twelve years old ― and, in the course of all that time, I've seen a lot of changes: For one thing, in the beginning, practically everybody thought that practically nothing mattered... In those early days we all, even us little kids, thought of ourselves as "engineers" (or at least "engineers manqué"), so when it came time for us to make our decisions on what was important to our pursuit of great sound, we naturally relied on logic; on what we could learn from books, magazines, and the guidance of people like Julian Hirsch; and, of course, on the specifications that were published by every reputable hi-fi manufacturer.

Following that rigorous path led us to believe (as we had been told by the "experts", and therefore accepted without question) that wire was wire; that electronics were (with typically less than 1% THD and IM distortion) essentially perfect; and that the only things about a home hi-fi system that actually mattered and were likely to make a difference were the system's directly-in-the-signal-path electromechanical components: the phono cartridge and the speaker. (Yes, just one speaker! Prior to the release of the first stereo records, in 1957, practically nobody other than some movie theaters and a few recording studios catering to the movie business had access to stereo, so, for all home systems except those rarities equipped with stereo tape playback or Emory Cook's even rarer double-track LPs, there was only one speaker instead of the pair or more that we have become used to having today).

Speakers and phono cartridges were certainly nowhere near as advanced in those days as they are now, and they certainly could have stood some improvement; even so, with the benefit of perfect hindsight, it's easy to see that there were plenty of other things that needed improvement, too. Perhaps chief among them was our own attitude and the attitudes of those we hoped to learn from.

Basically, it was our own belief in reason and authority that was keeping us from making more progress: A book I read back then (it may have been Sound Reproduction, first published in 1949, by G.A. Briggs, the founder of Wharfedale Speakers, and one of hi-fi's first great authorities) taught me why loudspeakers (mostly cones and compression drivers, at the time) couldn't be run "full-range", but had to be separated by "crossover networks" into at least two separate frequency ranges ("woofers" and "tweeters") in order to be able to properly reproduce the entire frequency spectrum. Another book, though, or perhaps even the same one, taught that frequency "balance" was more important than total frequency range, so – I kid you not – it counseled that if your speaker system, like the overwhelming majority at the time, couldn't make bass below 50 Hz (it was called "cycles per second" then) you should limit its treble response to no more than 15 kHz in order to maintain "proper balance". Even in those days, that seemed to me to be sort of like hurting your right leg to balance a limp in your left, but there was more:

In those same days of the 1950s and even into the 1960s and later, Julian Hirsch, certainly the most influential reviewer of the time, reviewed equipment in his basement, with no acoustical treatment, no special cables, no special electronics, and not even any particular attempt at speaker placement because he, like everybody else, simply didn't think that such things mattered.

That he should think that way actually made good sense – at least then: For one thing, in the earliest days of what Avery Fisher had started calling "High Fidelity" sound, everything was monophonic, so there was neither any possibility of, nor any concern for, any of the imaging and spatial characteristics that are so important to us today. For another, when people don't know that something is possible, they don't miss it when it's not there. (Even I, for probably my first fifteen years of playing music in stereo, was satisfied with just right, left, and center, or with trains running through my listening room from one side to the other, and, until I got a new house and a new system, never knew that "depth", "layering" of presentation, or "soundstaging" could even exist as part of the stereo experience.)  If Julian Hirsch, like practically everybody else in the early days of hi-fi (and even on into the era of stereo), didn't listen in a decent, properly designed and treated room, on at least very good electronics, through at least very good cables, to (for stereo,) speakers with phase-correct crossovers (they knew nothing of such things at the time) and properly time-aligned (another unknown concept at the time) drivers, that had been properly placed so that, if the recording and all other factors would allow it, "magic" could be worked, well, it's no surprise at all that neither Julian nor anybody else believed there was any magic there.

The belief that nothing mattered became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Because people believed that nothing mattered, they, like the "authorities" they followed, set up systems that lacked the resolution to show any but the most obvious differences between components, and then, listening to those systems and hearing no differences, they declared that such differences didn't exist – and pointed to their own experience to prove it. This continued for not just years, but decades: Even well into the late 1980s, even such notables as the Audio Engineering Society – using "double blind" testing, on systems and in rooms incapable of showing differences as proof – held that there were no audible differences in power amplifiers, and the perpetual controversy over the audibility of premium cables and other audio enhancements continues even today.

The Absolute Sound CoverAt substantially the same time, though, another way of thinking was coming to the fore. After more than a decade of High Fidelity Magazine, (first published 1951,) and HiFi and Music Review (later Stereo Review, first published 1958) reviewing hi-fi equipment just by measuring it and never listening, J. Gordon Holt declared, in 1962, that "if nobody else will report what an audio component sounds like, I'll do it myself!", and started The Stereophile magazine (later just Stereophile) to, for the first time ever, tell people what things actually sounded like. In 1973, Stereophile was followed by The Absolute Sound, and the era of subjective reviewing and actual listening was begun.

With these new magazines, a genuine revolution came about in the way people approached the whole Hi-Fi hobby: Instead of the earlier basic precept that "nothing matters", the new watchword became "everything matters", and enthusiast audio was stood on its head. All of a sudden, "specs" became irrelevant and what came to be known as The High End stopped publishing them.  Nobody but "newbies" or the gullible cared. When people found that amplifiers claiming frequency response from DC to light and Total Harmonic Distortion ("THD") of only 0.00001% or other gear making equally impressive claims could still sound lousy, the specs lost their interest. Another thing that happened was that all kinds of new "tweaks" came into use – some of them, like high-performance cables, to become permanent fixtures of the High-End Audio scene, and others (like green markers for CDs, or "stick-on" anti-resonance dots, or "magic" clocks" and other claimed wonders), to enjoy a moment of glory and pass into well-deserved oblivion.

Just as Billy Ocean, after Caribbean Queen, said that "after thirty years of hard work, [he] was an ‘overnight success'", so audio "suddenly over many years" became what it is today – a great joyous conflict of tubes versus solid state, digital versus analogue, "tweaks" versus "trolls", and any number of other iterations of the Hi-Fi theme, all based on our own listening or our own decision that listening is unreliable, and measurements and logic are the only things we should trust. This new knowledge and new outlook has led us to learn that, in audio, everything really means EVERYTHING, and that everything includes our listening room, too, as a vital part of our system. Thus, in addition to being "engineers" for one part of our hobby, we must also become Architects and Interior Designers for another, and, given our new-found listening-based knowledge that we can make our system sound (at least mostly) however we want it to, we find that we can actually participate in the creation of our own musical experience.

Engineer, architect, musician; all so that we can...

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