Monday, April 4, 2011


One of the many quicksands that technology has devised for us, ever since Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph, is the concept of "fidelity" in sound reproduction. The term "hi-fi", which is widely misunderstood and misappropriated, is derived from the recording principle of "high fidelity", and was used to measure how accurately a recording reproduced not just the music or the spoken word, but the experience of being present at the recording. There are first-hand accounts from people who first listened to Edison's copper cylinder recordings that claim they sounded like the person speaking or singing was standing right next to them. Today, some of the surviving recordings sound barely human.

As recording technology improved, so did the expectations of the listeners. By the time of the first recordings in stereo in the 1950s, the extra-dimensional range could actually reproduce the placement of instruments within a room, or "spatial realism". Recordings of orchestral music could capture acoustical environments that the greatest concert halls could not equal. Jazz musicians could capture their playing in environments that were free from the obtrusive noises of a jazz club, the hubbub of tinkling glasses and muffled voices.

It was at this point that "fidelity" became somewhat idealized and ambiguous. "High Fidelity" was actually codified in Germany and applied as a standard for audiophiles to use in their purchase of audio equipment. But the term was quickly made meaningless by the indiscriminate application of the term "hi-fi" to every piece of audio equipment and even became synonymous with the equipment itself.

The invention of stereo recording and the long-playing vinyl record greatly enhanced the possibility of genuine "fidelity". "Stereo" soon replaced the term "hi-fi" as a name for audio equipment. Vinyl records improved in quality as technology improved, and audio players became segmented, with amplifiers, turntables and speakers becoming separable.

The main problem with vinyl records and turntables is that they are subject to environmental conditions that can interfere with the sound reproduction. Things like dust, grime, and vibration - not to mention the vinyl surface itself that is easily damaged - are some of the serious disadvantages of the medium. High-end turntables are now equipped with sophisticated baffles that eliminate the effects of vibration, which could come from a heavy truck driving by the house or merely walking across the floor.

Then came the compact disc. Compact disc players, which can eliminate the problems of environmental interference with oversampling, maintaining the position of the laser by constantly reading the information just in front and behind the track, are now commonly installed in cars. When compact discs, or CDs, first appeared, some audiophiles, who had spent small fortunes on the equipment required to produce a sound quality comparable to that produced by an inexpensive CD player, expressed their displeasure by denouncing the technology altogether. I recall music critics, especially of classical music, at the time expressing skepticism for CD recordings, since (they argued) the silence between the notes is as much a part of the music as the notes themselves, and the silence on CDs was considered merely blank audio space.

For me, the compact disc was an improvement on vinyl in many ways. It was the clarity of the sound - with nothing coming between the sound and the listener - that was most impressive, no matter how many times a disc was played. Everything else was, to me, secondary, like the dynamics of the recording range or its "fidelity" - whatever that is supposed to mean. To my educated ear, CDs sounded marvelous, and especially in recordings of classical music.

Lately there has been a curious backtracking among audiophiles, many of whom grew up after the invention of CDs, from digital to analog - from CDs and even MP3s to vinyl. This movement seems to suggest that the old recording technology, invented by Edison, of carving grooves in vinyl, provides a more "natural" or more dynamic sound. I find these arguments hopelessly subjective and hard to take seriously.

Aside from what I believe is the snob appeal of the old medium, it seems to me that alot of the people now advocating a return to vinyl are probably not old enough to remember the special frustrations of that medium. There are also people who are so emotionally (and materially) committed to vinyl that they refuse to go digital. When I think of the thousands of hard-earned dollars that I shelled out for my own modest collection of hundreds of records, not to mention the numerous cassette tapes I bought in the 1980s, I can't blame them one bit. But I refuse to go back. For the longest time, and even today, all that most people required of an audio system was something that played music - what Alex in A Clockwork Orange contemptuously called a "pitiful portable picnic player." Everything else, as always, is a matter of personal delicacy.

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