By Bryan Geyer
|Jack Mullin with Ampex 200s, 1948|
Initial public recognition swelled in early 1940 with release of the movie Fantasia, but it waned with the approach of WW II. Later, in 1946, returning veterans--notably Major Jack Mullin--brought news of the amazing German Magnetophon tape recorders. When radio celebrity Bing Crosby berated his broadcasters to upgrade their recording capability, fledgling six man Ampex Corporation answered. Then, in 1948, Columbia released the first “long play” 33.3 rpm vinyl records, and the drive to bring “hi-fi” to the home went full bore.
From that start and well into the mid-1970s, hi-fi progress was propelled by avid “seat-of-the-pants” enthusiasts who scrupulously applied Ohm’s law logic and test-and-measure diligence. Local audio clubs bubbled with chatter about circuit design. Technical paper presentations were well attended. Kit building and home-rolled DIY projects were popular. And science-based magazines like Audio, High Fidelity, Stereo Review, Popular Electronics, Radio-Electronics, and Electronics World all flourished.
As the consumer base spread, a new breed of subjectivist reviewer gained recognition, nurtured by Stereophile and The Absolute Sound. Many of these contributors were technical neophytes, but so were their readers. The traditional need for qualified rigor withered. Science was out, ears were in, and personal perception became the arbiter of what’s good/what’s not. The feedback that has followed has been both bewildering and discordant. There are bizarre tales of $300 replacement AC line cords that instantly improve the sound from a power amplifier, and $500 speaker cables (+ $200 connector cords) that accomplish equivalent aural wonders. How can such folly ever be reconciled with good engineering practice? Is there some plausible explanation? Is this the sort of error-in-judgment that can stem from confirmation bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias)? Or could this be a consequence of too much audiophile groupthink (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groupthink)?
The origin of this dichotomy might lie here: http://www.pnas.org/content/110/36/14580. Clearly, this 2013 study shows that visual cues convey far more impact than any audible evidence. For example, your newly purchased AC Line Regenerator box will surely make your entire audio system sound better--as long as you can see the box. In sum, your eyes will implant a more vivid and persistent impression than anything that you hear. Did those gold-on-titanium connectors and teflon coated speaker wire truly improve the sound, or did their presence just make it seem so? (Yes, all readily answered by A/B/X testing, but blind comparison trials are not popular with audiophiles.)
Aside from grossly over-compressed pop-market CDs, I’ve often wondered how any listener could possibly contend that vinyl playback was preferable to standard redbook CD sound. The audible superiority of the digital CD disc is overwhelming when compared to the archaic capability of an analog LP record. How can such obvious advantage not be instantly apparent? Well, now I know. Just viewing that massive turntable and exotic tonearm/cartridge can implant the aural memory of sounds that were never really heard. A new and convincing (and artificial) reality can emerge.
It’s important to keep this visual dominance in mind when evaluating new equipment. Apply careful technical analysis—assess both intent and execution—and then conduct your audition. But know that the audible evidence is likely to be of little merit; it will get swamped by what you’ve seen.