’Philespeak

Mike Silverton

[March 2006.]

At about mid-century, high fidelity entered the marketplace at a brisk trot. Young readers may find this difficult to believe, but hi-fi was a hot ticket years before the advent of stereophonic recording and playback, let alone home theater and surround sound. All it took was the microgroove disc. Nor was it long before high-end audiophiles staked out their turf. Prior to the appearance of crazy-expensive audio toys (designer cables, etc.), a few of the hobby’s early-onset mavens distinguished themselves from the common herd by eschewing vinyl for open-reel tape, with Ampex being the deck of choice. Indeed, the salesman at Leonard Radio who demo’d my first hi-fi speaker, a 15-inch Tannoy Dual-Concentric in a corner bass-reflex enclosure, did it with an open-reel tape — in mono, of course, and boy, was I sold! (Later, at a hi-fi show, bass-drum thumps from a Tannoy in a huge folded-horn enclosure made my innards quake. I clearly remember the sensation — the highlight, for me, of the show. The Dual-Concentric still has a following, especially in Japan.)

Events do take ironic turns. As a high-end desirable, pre-recorded analog tape has gone the way of the Victrola. Nowadays vinyl occupies the heights. You can spend $100k or more on an analog front end. Ask any philovinylite: Only the hoi polloi prefer digital sound. Number this reporter among the knuckle-walkers.

Like businesses cluster. Chinese food markets, a jewelry and diamond exchange, flower, produce and meat wholesalers, buttons and notions…. Leonard Radio was situated among others of its kind in that Manhattan neighborhood razed to make way for the World Trade Center. My former father-in-law represented the business association that fought the evictions. As a personal thing, I sorely regretted the obliteration of a funky old neighborhood through which I loved to meander.

Quirky districts have their fascinations. Take Audiophilia, a virtual duchy wherein flourish behaviors with features similar to those of religion. Zealotry is no stranger here, nor are factions and sects. The vocabulary reveals much. Among certain Christians, upper-case Rapture differs from its secular twin. “Rapture” in Audiophilia has no currency, at least as an event. But there is a patois. Let’s call it ’Philespeak, a hyperbolic aspect of which early appeared — and remains — in advertising. It’s the rare upmarket audio item that fails to lay claim to at least one technological refinement or breakthrough, sometimes several. The merely great is yesterday’s news.

In mass-market audio publications (most having long since expired), equipment evaluation lay in the hands of technically schooled reviewers who relied in large part on measurements in arriving at their recommendations. One such, the late Julian Hirsch, was a particular object of scorn. Hirsch’s measurements-tell-the-story stance was nothing short of heresy. Imagine — the man actually stated in print that he was unable to detect sonic differences among CD players that measured well. The early subjectivists — reviewers who found listening the more revealing gauge — include J. Gordon Holt and Harry Pearson as two of the better-known exemplars. Pearson much prefers to be called an observationalist, i.e., a reviewer who judges the sonic distinctions of amp 1,002 against the 1,001 he’s already scrutinized. Something like that.

An electronic component’s signal-to-noise ratio, channel separation and distortion figures, a speaker’s efficiency, dispersion and impedance characteristics, etc., etc., can be duplicated in disparate venues. This isn’t necessarily true of a subjectivist’s impressions. Indeed, subjective and objective aspects of Stereophile equipment reviews have sometimes been at odds, with the subjectivist reviewer remarking lovely qualities in a component Editor John Atkinson’s measurements peg as less than good. There’s no attempt at reconciliation. The reader’s on his own.

In the matter of lovely qualities, ’Philespeak has its ladder-like aspect. A subjectivist audio journalist is also an audio enthusiast. Enthusiasts tend to express their perceptions and opinions in enthusiastic terms. We need to understand that if these cumulative encomia — “the differences I heard boggled my mind, knocked off my socks, blew me away!” — operated incrementally, perfection (whatever that might be) would have been achieved soon after hi-fi’s advent.

It’s not that the subjectivist audio journalist is creating impressions out of whole cloth in order, say, to curry a manufacturer’s favor. It happens of course but not all that often. It’s rather a case of reviewer X having heard a difference he describes with characteristic exuberance. (And it’s almost always a he.) It would probably prove instructive to ask reviewer X to listen to an amp he recommended 20 years ago as the best thing since ever and compare it to one he recently celebrated in similar terms. I suspect that we’d gain an interesting insight into phantom incrementality and how we subjectivists operate.

[For a detailed and fascinating account of Radio Row, see http://www.antiqueradio.com/Sep02_RadioRow_Steinhardt.html]