It Ain't Necessarily So...

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When I first started-out as a kid Hi-Fi Crazy, I was about as orthodox as it's possible to be. Part of it came from simply the fact that, at twelve years old, you're accustomed to people knowing more than you do and to accepting what they say as true. (It wasn't until some years later that I fell prey to the common young man's fallacy of thinking that I knew EVERYTHING, and that anybody who didn't agree with me must obviously be wrong).

AR-crazy2a.pngBeing a kid, I had no money, so, other than scrounging whatever I could by way of a sound system and trying to modify it to make it sound as good as possible, Hi-Fi remained for me (until later, when I actually had some money to put into it) pretty much a fantasy "sport" (Don't blame me for that description; the idea of Hi-Fi as a sport was first put forth by Anthony Cordesman in The Absolute Sound) and I did what all of us fantasy sportsmen do: I learned as much as I could about audio, its equipment, and its great designers and great companies, and I daydreamed about the perfect System.

My learning process consisted - as it has for so many of us - of hanging-out at (although Valley Electronic Supply remained my favorite) all of the local Hi-Fi shops that (at least until I turned sixteen and got my first car) I could get to by bicycle, by public transportation, or by cadged rides from other, older, kid Hi-Fi Crazies or anyone else I could get to drive me. Once there, I listened-in on as many demonstrations as I could, added every new piece of product literature to my collection, and chatted-up all of the sales people and anybody else that I thought might be able to teach me something.

I also read every book I could find on the subject, read every article on Hi-Fi in Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Consumer Reports, and the mainstream press, and, as they came out or as I learned of them, I subscribed to all of the then-growing number of Hi-Fi magazines (Audio, High Fidelity, Hi-Fi Review [later to become Hi-Fi and Stereo Review, and, finally, just Stereo Review])

And what did I learn from all of that great pile of printed paper? Specifications and prices. None of the publications of the day - not even Consumer Reports - ever said anything about the SOUND of any of the things they wrote about - that didn't happen until Stereophile came out in 1962 -- and there's even an apocryphal-but-still-probably-true story that the word "sound" never once appeared in the pages of High Fidelity magazine. Even so, all of the magazines DID tell you about specifications and prices.

The result was that I learned that frequency response was supposed to be "flat", at least from 50 to 15,000 cycles per second (it wasn't until later that it became 20 to 20,000 and "cycles per second" [CPS] became Hertz [Hz]); I learned what Harmonic Distortion (HD, as in THD, "Total Harmonic Distortion) and Intermodulation Distortion (IM) were, and that they were supposed to be as low as possible; I learned what S/N (signal-to-noise ratio) was, and that it was supposed to be as HIGH as possible; and I learned that woofers were supposed to be big and tweeters small, and that, for either one, the heavier the Alnico 5 magnet, the better.

AR-crazy1a.jpgWith a vast trove of learned prices and memorized specifications, I dreamed of utterly straight-line frequency response curves; of zero percent distortion; and of S/N ratios still impossible even today. Later, when stereo came along, I added dreams of perfect imaging and soundstaging - things that, in the earlier "mono" era, no one could even imagine.

The fact, though, was that my dreams were just dreams, and bore little resemblance to reality: Flat, broad-band frequency response and near-zero distortion - at least in a system's electronics - were proven to matter little when solid-state amps, with vanishingly small distortion specs and bandwidths flatter and FAR broader than even those possible from the very best output transformers (solid-state amps typically don't use output transformers) came along and, in many instances, tubes - with limited bandwidth and as much as 2% distortion - still sounded better. Even in speakers, it turned-out that the very best-sounding ones WEREN'T necessarily those with the very best "specs".

It also turned-out, on speakers, that "true omnidirectional radiators" (the things that I, after "going stereo" had imagined most likely to be the very best possible solution for perfect spatial presentation) were not necessarily any better than anything else, and could prove to be a real problem with room reflections.

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