A Contrarian View
Mike Silverton
July 1999

Views are contrarian depending on locale. In the congregation's opinion, the fellow who proposes the nave's center aisle as a bowling lane is a contrarian. Which brings me to the Temple of Audiophilia, where the nave more resembles a highway to the stars. We Audiophilians concur: stasis equals stagnation. We huff up the grade, acquisition 'pon tweak, from good to better to knock-your-socks-off-flaming-fantastic to .... The scenic route we call musicality; the other, the one cluttered with instruments of torture and measurement, we call accuracy. These need not be at odds, but let's pretend for now they are.

Huffing and puffing up the grade, we note familiar motifs dotting the scenery. One of these expresses a preference for vacuum-tube circuitry; another disdains digital technology. Yet vitrophilia defers of late to a growing respect for solid-stateliness, vide in The Absolute Sound, HP's high opinion in issue 116 of a Spectral amplifier, as but one example of many such. And -- mirabile dictu! -- career philovinylites have actually acknowledged sonically attractive compact discs. Yet a claque continues to agitate for a return to the vinyl disc as egress from the morass into which that mass-market scam, the compact disc, plunged us. "Perfect sound forever, haw, haw, haw!" I don't know whose coinage perfect sound forever is, but it's bound to take its place with, "I have not had sex with that woman -- Ms. Lewinsky" or "Little Bighorn? It's thataway, Colonel." Anyway, no tension, no drama. Enter from above, Deus ex machina, erasing an impasse: the Super CD with its vastly expanded word-length as access to those virtues we Audiophilians all revere: heightened resolution, transparency, harmonic truthfulness. Enter stage left, the fellow in a cape and stovepipe hat twirling long mustachios.

The contrarian, damn him for a vulgar villain, diverts our melodrama's theme to upgrades and what they reveal not about the future or a pastel-hued past but here and now. Digital playback hardware is better than it used to be. Years ago I compared a Japanese player Julian Hirsch declared one of the best he'd ever measured with a high-end transport-converter. I much preferred the combo, thus clouding (for me) the issue of musicality vs. accuracy. The player sounded harsh and dimensionless. Was it by some technical measure the less accurate device? Perhaps I'm really asking whether ostensibly qualified commentators were simply ignoring then controversial factors -- jitter, for example -- as tweako obfuscation. The objectivists, so called, certainly couldn't have been doing much in the way of listening comparisons. Anyway, as I write here at the threshold of wonders to come, a lot of home gear is very, very good. As an audiophile, I am pleased to think that much credit goes to those fastidious colleagues who say what they think, name names, identify.

But what some of these fastidious colleagues say -- let's call them nostalgists -- I find unsettling. Here's the thing: The better I make my sound system by way of upgrades and tweaks, the better a large number of well produced CDs sound to me, irrespective of the year they were issued. I'm thinking of several from the early Eighties, when the medium made its appearance to cries of Yech! Treason! Perfidy! throughout Audiophilia. My perceptions of amelioration ought to fly in the teeth of received high-end wisdom which holds that a flawed medium will stand revealed in the penetrating light of a superior sound system. But this is not the case with high quality productions, whether recorded originally in analogue or digital. And that leads me to wonder about the judgment and possibly even the ethics of writers who've made a rather cozy place for themselves disparaging a carrier I much prefer to the vinyl grooves in which their loyalties dwell unabraded by however many stylus passes.

When I showed my TAS editor a preliminary sketch of this piece (I no longer write for TAS), she wondered whether I'm not shadow boxing. Would that I were! One has only to read letters to editors of audiophile publications to understand that Pied Pipers yet lead the impressionable off to garage sales. More significantly, the high end exercises an influence on popular attitudes. That quality audio gear should aspire to the sound of live acoustic instruments -- in HP's enduring coinage, the absolute sound -- is in large measure a high-end concern. That's good. What worries me is the scattering of unhappiness with the compact disc I continue to find in general-interest media. The malaise consists, I expect, of an unexamined parroting of received high-end wisdom. Sometimes, of course, a career digiphobe descends from the tower in order to make a few extramural bucks. Conspiracy theorists might well discern in this behavior an agitprop preparation for the Musicary-Industrial Complex's next gambit -- you know, the board-sweeping move in which we're all scheduled to replace our collections with sounds (and sights) canned by superior means. One is not a dinosaur. One always welcomes superior software. And so I shall when I'm convinced that necessity is truly the mother of these forthcoming pleasures.























































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