Wednesday, 27 September 2006

Old Friends / Bookends

I'm about to reacquaint myself with an old friend: Stereophile magazine. Some 10 years ago Stereophile was the main attraction of my student life; other than watching laserdiscs, reading Stereophile was pretty much the only "off studying" activity I've done. Other people tend to regard their student career as the best time of their lives, but for me it was probably the hardest working time of my life: the degree was just damn hard to acquire, and in retrospect I can't believe how I managed to survive those years.
Anyway, back in those days the best way to describe me with one word would have been with “audiophile”. All I could think about was sound, and in return I got a lot of satisfaction from listening to music and watching films. And in those times, Stereophile was my best friend in the audiophile world.

Two things set Stereophile apart from other stereo magazines, both to do with the way the magazine reviewed audio components.
First, it would be the systematic way in which reviews are “attacked”. For example, Stereophile would provide detailed descriptions of the way certain aspects of the component sound, using uniform language in order to provide the next best thing to quantification when it came to describing the sound qualities of a component. For example, it would say that a certain CD player is quick and provides a tights bass but a heavy mid bass; to those that know what this meant, this means a lot. It would shed further light using examples from familiar musical pieces.
The second thing about Stereophile reviews was their detailed measurements of each component. Stereophile knew what most audiophile know, that the human race is still unable to explain what makes a good audio component sounds better than another (but it is getting there); so they provide detailed and uniform measurements covering different aspect of each of the reviewed components and analyze them in an attempt to explain the sonic characteristics they previously described in their listening impressions (and often counter them too).
What these two elements – systematic reviewing and measuring – provided is a sophisticated mechanism for comparing audio components without really listening to them. Once you knew the language and knew what the measurements’ interpretations mean, you could match different components against one another within the confines of your brain. Obviously, it’s better to give them a proper listen yourself; but that’s not too easy in this world of noisy and crowded JB Hi-Fi’s with salesmen that don’t know shit about proper music reproduction (but know a lot about commission).

The peak of my Stereophile period came when a letter I sent the magazine was published. The letter was addressed to an article published by Roger Dressler, then the chief engineer of Dolby Laboratories (those from the Dolby sound in films, now decorating pretty much all DVD’s).
Dressler argued that Dolby Digital, a heavily compressed lossy sound format, was good enough to be used in home theaters, despite the fact it was designed for the severely limited space on a cinema’s projector film and despite the fact DVD’s could accommodate much more bandwidth than cinema film.
My argument was that he’s wrong, and that Dolby Digital sound sucks. You can try it on for size yourself: Listen to a DVD in your home theater but turn the TV off, so there won’t be any picture to distract you. Now compare the sound you’re getting to the sound from a CD, and you’ll notice that Dolby Digital, while nice with its surround effects, just sounds like shit.
Anyway, the letter of mine was published, and an editorial in the magazine addressed it while quoting from the letter by “Mr Reuveni, Israel”, and Roger Dressler wrote another article in order to answer the accusations of “Mr Reuveni, Israel”.
Thankfully, my mother threw this Stereophile issue down the way of the garbage one time when I was away; but several of my university friends still remember this episode, and from time to time they refer to me as “Moshe Reuveni, Israel”.

Through the years my interest in Stereophile waned. On one hand, I just couldn’t afford to spend money on stereo equipment. On the other hand, my philosophy changed and I just didn’t want to spend money on materialistic stuff, especially as the time I have available for music listening is getting shorter and shorter.
And then there was Widescreen Review, which I consider a superior magazine. Widescreen Review was providing enough review coverage and was more idealistic; best of all, it had (and still has) these articles that keep you up to date with what’s going on and with how to make the best of your setup. However, Widescreen Review does not cover that much ground in the music arena (as opposed to the home theater one), and overall its reviews are inferior to Stereophile's.
But now things are changing. Not much, but still: we’re considering buying new speakers, as our rear surround speakers are dying. But which speakers should I get? That’s where Stereophile might come in handy.
Each October and April, Stereophile publishes its list of "recommended components" – hundreds of audio component reviews are provided in a short format, so you can quickly shortlist components. Thing is, individual issues sell for $17 at your nearest Borders, while a yearly magazine subscription is less than $40, postage and all. And that’s why I’m a new subscriber again (and I can even sell the yearly collection afterwards on eBay for improved return on investment).
Financial reasoning aside, I’m still excited. I read a couple of Stereophile reviews on the web, and they reminded me just how good the magazine is. With its systematic ways, it is leagues apart from the majority of magazines that go “this is good; but it now”. I’m not talking about audio magazines only; stuff like Vogue or your average car magazine apply here, too.

Reading Stereophile is a philosophical experience for me. And while I’m against its message of consuming, I am all for its systematic methodology of reviewing.

No comments: