Conspiracy Theories Page 2

"What is probably the six-hundred-and-thirty-eighth loudspeaker blurb touting 'studio monitor performance' has just passed, very quickly, across our desk. When, we ask ourselves rhetorically, are these bumbling baboons going to realize that, to any knowledgeable audiophile, 'studio monitor' is roughly equatable with 'terminal mediocrity'? Some of the worst high-priced loudspeaker systems in use today are to be found in recording studios, and are directly responsible for the abominable quality of the vast majority of the big-name-brand recordings we have been buying (and regretting having bought) for the past 10 years....[A]ny advertising copy writer who tacks that appellation to his client's latest clunker deserves three smart swats on the wrist with his metal pica ruler." (Vol.4 No.2, Issue 38, published some time in 1978).

Marketers, equipment manufacturers, and record producers all get their due in a single paragraph!

This fighting spirit was infectious. In another issue, Pro Musica, a retailer now in Chicago, took out an ad calling for audiophiles to send in postcards complaining about the "steely, dry, gritty" sound of recordings. They would pass them on to "an official of a major recording company" whom they had been talking to about the problem. Fear not, they explained—there is no "big-business plot" (read: conspiracy) to drag down the quality of recordings. This official, the ad explained, was "open and willing to take a look" at the situation. So send in those postcards!

Now things are different. The fanzine has become a professional magazine and, relatively speaking, its audience is huge: that 1978 issue of Stereophile reached around 2500 readers; the issue you are holding in your hand has an audited circulation of 80,000. While leafing through an old issue is kind of like ambling next door to see what your neighbor is up to (and finding glowing plasma in his garage), reading an issue of Stereophile today is more like attending a formal conference at which half the participants have traded overalls for suits.

True, J. Gordon's maverick spirit no longer dominates these pages. Yet that's precisely because his crusade was successful. The high-end audio industry caught up with Gordon. It came into its own by growing up with the sound-first values that Gordon promoted. Subjective testing, minimal miking, and tubed electronics (just for their sound) are now relatively common. There are many more high-end manufacturers, many more products, and we get more information about them in each monthly issue.

So what's to be angry about? Very little. Strangely enough, that's why those testosterone-driven invectives keep appearing in JA's mailbox and in the Internet newsgroups. As Andy Partridge of XTC put it, "Generals and Majors always seem so unhappy unless they've got a war." For the soldier-audiophiles among us who relish a good argument, who thrive on fighting the kind of battle JGH waged in the '60s and '70s, the fun is over. The battle for high-end legitimacy has been won. The enemy has been defeated. Unless, maybe—just maybe—there are some subversives hiding in the ranks. They may even have worked their way up to the top! Enter conspiracy theories.

You don't have to an Einstein to invent one. A good conspiracy theory need only be consistent with all available evidence. That's not a high hurdle. With a dash of imagination, nearly any fact can be made consistent with any theory. Suppose a new product starts getting favorable press in Stereophile and, at the same time, advertisements for it become larger, slicker, and more expensive. It's possible, of course, that this is the evil spawn of a backroom deal in which advertising revenue is traded for good press. But it's equally possible that the product is good, it's selling well, and those ads are becoming larger and more expensive because the manufacturer now has more money to promote it.

What about the fact that few products get flatly panned these days? Once again, you could reason that reviewers and editors, one way or another, are on the take. But there's another possibility: given all the information that we have about current products—via the Internet, e-mail, the CES and Stereophile HI-FI Shows—editors and reviewers may tend to choose products for review that are the best of what's out there. After all, they do have to live with these components for weeks, if not months.

If you're convinced that JA, WP, and the rest are up to no good, then nothing will necessarily change your mind. Still, Stereophile's critics should consider a broader, historical view. Yes, the magazine has grown, and it has a lot of influence. The important question, however, is whether things are better now than they used to be.

If music and sound are your main concern, there's no doubt that they are. In one of his "Recommended Components" lists from the late '70s, JGH rated the Hafler DH-101 preamp borderline Class A/Class B—somewhere between "the state of the art" and "the next best thing to the very best in sound reproduction." I've had two of those preamps. They're listenable, but "state of the art" is just not a phrase that leaps to mind. The preamp hasn't changed much in 20 years (except for falling apart, as mine did). Our standards for equipment performance, on the other hand, have gone up—way up. Equipment has simply gotten much better.

Can Stereophile take at least some credit for this situation? Why not? As the industry has grown, it's functioned as a forum where consumers learn what products are out there and where manufacturers get quick, regular feedback about their products and those of the competition. In this sense, the magazine is in bed with the audio industry—and the result has been positive.

But I won't argue anymore. Mr. Brylski points to the best advice for the conspiracy hounds among us: "I would think that with all the fantastic sound that comes out of high-end stereo equipment," he wrote, those who send angry indictments to Stereophile "would be more, well, excited in a positive manner."

Turn up the volume. Arguments will never beat a conspiracy theory, but music just might.