Since Edison’s first wax cylinder, music lovers have pushed the limits of realism in sound reproduction, while coveting the equipment that makes all that beautiful noise. Electrical engineers, speaker designers, opera buffs and guys with too much money and time on their hands all agree that a great high-fidelity rig is one of the pleasures of our age. Unexpectedly, many long out-of-vogue designs, like horn loudspeakers and tube amplifiers, have come back for an encore. Today’s audiophile has more choices and better gear to choose from than ever before. But some of it — like a Stradivarius or classic Steinway — is as good today as it ever was.
Proof that the more things change, the more hi-fi crazies stay the same.
Peter Walker’s “little wonder” was a loudspeaker called the QUAD ESL-57, a radical departure from conventional cone-type speakers in technology and realism. The flat Quad electrostatic panels made otherworldly sound, more accurate than anything heard before. Today, they retain a cult following of audiophiles who contend that Quads—-despite their limitations at the frequency extremes—still make the most beautiful music on the planet.
The Golden Age of Hi-Fi was ushered in by brilliant engineers like James Lansing, Avery Fisher and Saul Marantz. Products from high-end American manufacturers made as much a statement about their owners as a Cadillac or Lincoln in the driveway. Marantz’s eponymous line of amplifiers, preamps and tuners were the decade’s high-water mark of tube topology, and today command Cordon Bleu prices to match their (still) mouthwatering sound.
By the middle of the decade, audiophiles had taken over the asylum, with the high-end electronics industry burgeoning worldwide. In America, Europe and Japan, critical listeners were spending five and even six figures on stereo rigs that took music playback to new levels of realism, using jargon often as overblown as the gear itself. High-power solid-state amplifiers were the rage, and wattage—like horsepower—was king. An audiophile was measured by the size of his system.
High-end manufacturers popped up like mushrooms. A whole industry was born when listeners decided that fatter cables sounded better. Meanwhile, crafty engineers at Philips and Sony turned the record industry upside down, discovering that bits and bytes could be converted to sound. Recordings went from analog to digital, and everyone threw away their LPs and settled back to spin little silver compact discs, the medium that promised “perfect sound forever.”
Digital’s promised paradise was short-lived when discerning listeners realized that CDs sounded awful compared to their beloved black vinyl. A decade’s worth of heavy lifting in the R&D lab got the ones and zeros behaving better, and near the turn of the century, audiophiles were beginning to believe that analog and digital might enjoy a peaceful coexistence. But home theater systems had become a commodity, and most people were beginning to consider audiophilia a bit strange.
Personal listening took a whole new turn when Apple got into the game. A new generation of iPod listeners blasted themselves senseless with low-fi MP3 files, leaving the handful of committed music lovers and a shrinking high-end industry isolated like monks during the Dark Ages. Here, a few brilliant designers continued to refine analog and digital technology. Horn speakers, tube amps and gargantuan turntables were back in vogue, and gave solace to true believers whose kids were content with cheap earbuds and compressed file formats.
Install a dedicated 50-amp circuit, fire up a phalanx of giant amps, stream a WAV file from the server or drop the needle on your favorite vinyl. Just don’t trip on the python-sized cables. Today’s digital and analog systems are better — and more expensive — than ever before. But advancing technology brings democratization to the marketplace, with moderately priced systems doing much of what the best big rigs can accomplish. Still, as it was in the beginning, nothing exceeds like excess.