ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

February 1, 2004

Turning Point to Where?

When the silver disc showed up in shops -- and here the Free Market Glee Club sings "Perfect Sound For-eh-eh-eh-ver!" to the tune of "Onward Christian So-oh-oh-oh-ldiers" -- the vinyl medium had been languishing in deep inactivity. One could almost hear the snoring wafting from the record bins. Whatever you may think of the medium, it can’t be denied: The CD delivered a much-needed shot in the arm to the record business.

And here we are, all these years later, at another turning point. As CD sales taper off, replacement media stand in the wings, adrenaline at the ready.

Maybe. With apologies to Rodney Dangerfield, I’m such an ugly old guy, I bought LPs before they became collectibles. I patronized a record store on Chambers Street in downtown Manhattan -- a salubrious hike o’er the Brooklyn Bridge from my home in Park Slope. Two partners owned and ran the place, one a stubby character whose demeanor resembled that of a Yellow Cab hack, the other a tall, courtly gent with an accent reminiscent of Hapsburg Vienna, both of whom would wince in unison as I walked through the door, returns in hand. Which was often. They couldn’t bring themselves to kick me out -- I was too good a customer. As for those returns and their frequency, for every CD that plays as defective in my system (essentially none), there had to have been at least a hundred buggy LPs: scratches, warps, pistol-shot clicks, champagne-cork pops, emery-board surfaces. It was not an easy time.

With all due respect to audiophiles of the philovinyl orthodoxy, the world was more than ready for a format change. My musical interests center on classical; more especially, modernist classical. I do know that a lot of classical buffs began replacing their LPs with CD equivalents. Their zeal actually distorted classical sales figures for a while. The angel dust has long since settled.

With the much-reviled CD to compare, the philovinylites rhapsodized over the LP’s virtues, and in so doing more or less exiled themselves to some analog Elba, where a handful remain to this day. Be that as it may, it’s been remarked, no doubt insightfully, that as the vinyl disc languishes at its furthest remove from relevance, its playback hardware continues to improve: turntables, tonearms, cartridges, phono preamps. Now, today, as the "Red Book" CD slips into obsolescence, knowledgeable people have begun to remark the medium’s sonic improvements.

I find the parallel too facile by half.

First, is the CD in fact becoming obsolete? I’ll believe it when I see it. I took my car in for a routine service check recently and scurried across the highway for a few things I needed to pick up. I detoured into a fairly large bookstore that has a record section off to one side. Of the several hundred titles displayed, all were on CD. Obviously no vinyl, but then, no SACD or DVD-Audio releases, either. Granted, the Coastal Maine town where I now live is about a year behind the techno-curve. Even so, not one SACD or DVD-A, years after their launch. That has to say something -- primarily, I think, that audiophiles don’t drive the market, even though their incessant denigration of the compact disc has found its way into the popular press as received, and to my mind unexamined, wisdom. The CD’s convenience and reliability vis-ŕ-vis the LP find no match between the CD and its putative successors.

I see no highbrow horde poised to fill their shelves with media only marginally superior -- if that -- to the compact disc. The one area in which the CD cannot compete is surround sound. A classical performance -- especially an orchestral one -- well-recorded in two-channel stereo, continues to be the exception. If, as I firmly believe, sound engineering remains more art than science, classical recordings in surround-sound merely provide mediocre techies more opportunities to make a mess of things.

Finally, with respect to what I listen to, I’m pissing into the wind. Classical music played a far larger role in high fidelity’s acceptance in the mono and early stereo phases of its development. Indeed, the term "high fidelity" has long been in disuse. As to what the future holds in an age of sensory abbondanza, listening to music -- any kind of music -- in an upmarket setting without a hyperkinetic visual component will probably strike as downright monastic the consumer to whom this market is geared.

My sound system occupies the front parlor of our charming old house. My interior-designer sweetie converted a small, first-floor space to a library and TV room. This is where we watch movies on cable and rented DVDs. Sound system in one room, video in another. Call us transitional characters. And call me, malgré soi, just another nostalgia chump. Move over, philovinylites.

...Mike Silverton

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