From the Edison Cylinder to the Computer-Audio Revolution
Audiophiles—or audiofools, as they’re sometimes called—have pursued better sound recordings since Thomas Edison’s time (Edison himself was an audiophile). The so-called Golden Age of Hi-Fi (the 1950s and early 1960s) made both state-of-the-art sound and quality playback equipment widely available, but excellent sound reproduction and commercial success haven’t always coincided. Will new digital formats usher in a second golden age, or corrupt music’s heart and soul—namely, its sound?
Thomas Edison, known as the Wizard of Menlo Park for patenting more than 1,000 inventions, gave us the electric lightbulb, the telephone and the motion picture projector. But the phonograph, his 1877 contraption that recorded and played back sound on a rotating cylinder, yielded to Emile Berliner’s rival gramophone rotating disc system, introduced in 1888. While Edison’s cylinder was capable of better sound, gramophone discs were cheaper and easier to store. Edison cylinder production ceased in 1929.
Nobody likes a format war, especially when worthy technologies lose out (see videotapes: VHS won despite Beta’s higher picture quality). That’s why audiophiles celebrate the Golden Age of Hi-Fi, a classic convergence of technology and a ready market. Companies like Quad, Marantz and McIntosh updated pre–World War II vacuum-tube technology for use in home hi-fis (often housed in handsome mid-century-modern cabinets), which for the first time could play FM radio and LP records—in stereo. This era came to an end in the mid-1960s, when tube technology gave way to solid-state electronics. The public embraced the smaller, more powerful equipment but in the bargain gave up the superior sound that had helped create the home audio market in the first place.
The vacuum tube, which resembles a traditional incandescent lightbulb, was the first signal amplifier and a hallmark of the Golden Age of Hi-Fi during the 1950s and early 1960s. Key developments in the early electronic era—radio, television, supercomputers—were based on it. But while these celebrated amplifiers are sensational for home use, vacuum tubes give off a lot of heat and require heavy iron transformers to work, making them impractical for use in portable devices.
In 1954 Sam Phillips used all-tube equipment at his Sun Records studios in Memphis to record Elvis Presley singing “That’s All Right.” That same year, the first tubeless transistor radio, the Regency TR-1, went on the market. Teenagers bought TR-1s in droves. As a result, youth-oriented rock music was increasingly played through small radios powered by efficient, cool-running transistors. For the 1950s teenager seeking freedom and self-expression, the handheld transistor radio—despite its tinny speakers—was well suited for rock and roll broadcast over AM frequencies, and became an iconic fashion statement. Meanwhile, for that teenager’s parents, luxuriating in the postwar economic boom, the tubed hi-fi in the living room continued to unlock the sonic riches of their favorite records.
The first commercially available transistor radio, the American-made Regency TR-1 (1954), sparked a revolution. To appeal to kids, the TR-1 eventually came in colors like lime, turquoise and pink. But it was a Japanese company called Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo—later Sony—that stole the show. Sony’s TR-63 (1957) and TR-610 (1958) were smaller and more stylish than their American counterparts; combined, they sold more than half a million units in the U.S. Sony went on to patent the legendary Walkman (1979), a portable “personal stereo” that played cassettes and delivered sound through headphones, not a speaker. Meanwhile, portable radios with speakers, or “boomboxes,” got bigger, not smaller. Sony made these, too.
But Sony missed the next revolution. In 2001 Apple, fresh from the last-ditch success of its iMac home computer (which came in such “flavors” as lime and tangerine), launched the portable stereo to surpass all others: the iPod, sleek and smaller than a pack of cards. The original iPod allowed users to carry 1,000 songs anywhere. By no means the first portable MP3 player, the elegantly designed iPod became the most successful—forcing Sony to cancel production of its compact-cassette Walkman models in 2010.
In 2001 Apple began offering iTunes, a free desktop application designed to help people organize their music collections, whether these included files ripped, or copied, from CDs, newfangled MP3s or any combination thereof. Later that year, supported by a maelstrom of chic marketing, Apple introduced the now ubiquitous iPod. Consumers, lured by smart design and frequent product enhancements, took the symbiosis between iTunes and their shiny new iPods on faith.
Since then, Apple’s universe of iPod and iTunes products has grown to encompass all portable and home playback environments. While iTunes players still run music on computers everywhere, they can now stream wirelessly to home stereos or over entire computer networks; meanwhile, modern hi-fis as well as automobiles come equipped with iPod docks, standard.
Apple and other technology companies have convinced music lovers—not just techies—of the computer’s central place in the audio playback ecosystem. As iPod (and now iPhone) owners well know, the only way to manage music is through a computer. Today, sales of CDs are plummeting, and every consumer audio company—from boutique high-end manufacturers to the consumer electronics giants—has integrated computer-audio into its products. The CD is dead. Long live the hard drive.
“Perfect sound forever” is the catchphrase that became associated with compact discs, the format invented by Philips and Sony. Unlike Golden Age formats like vinyl records and magnetic tapes, CDs, it was promised, would not wear out over repeated plays. That’s the “forever” part. (As it turns out, the plastic encoded with 1’s and 0’s does in fact degrade over time.)
But do CDs really have perfect sound? Digital music is based on the principle that a smooth analog waveform can be broken down into discrete bits during recording, stored as digital data, then reconstructed into an analog signal identical to the original waveform. How could this analog-to-digital-to-analog process ever be perfect? According to Roger Lagadec, a Swiss researcher in digital signal processing, “In Europe the CD was conceived as a mid-fi product from the beginning.”
If some audiophiles question the CD revolution, they also despair of its replacement. Computer-audio’s most popular format, MP3, is a compromise—literally a compression—of an already imperfect system. The music-as-data model underlies the continued push for computer-audio technology; without that paradigm, there can be no iPod or downloadable music. But where will sound quality fit into the next revolution?
“Listening to a CD is like looking through a screen window,” wrote folk and rock hero Neil Young in 1992. “If you get right up next to a screen window, you can see all kinds of different colors through each hole. Well, imagine if all that color had to be reduced to only one color per hole—that’s what digital recording does to sound. All that gets recorded is what’s dominant at each moment. I would like to hear guitars again, with the warmth, the highs, the lows, the air, the electricity, the vibrancy of something that’s real, instead of just a duplication of the dominant factors. It’s an insult to the brain and heart and feelings to have to listen to this and think it’s music.”
Neil Young’s undying love of vinyl records from the Golden Age is well documented. Like many in the vanguard of today’s vinyl resurgence, Young releases (and rereleases) albums in high-quality pressings. In 2009 he reissued his first four solo albums on heavy audiophile-grade vinyl, including Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) and the best-selling Harvest (1972). Harvest comes packaged with a meticulous reproduction of the original jacket—and has a $34 price tag.
Neil Young’s dismissal of CDs and continued support of vinyl is not a Luddite’s knee-jerk response but rather a committed pursuit of high-quality sound. Young has made his albums available as CDs and on iTunes. But true to his ideals, he has also released music in new, high-resolution digital formats. The Neil Young Archives, Volume I (1963–1972) box set, released in 2009, is available as “audiophile quality” DVDs and as Blu-ray discs, which, according to Young, deliver “state-of-the-art master quality sound.”
Websites like HDtracks (HD stands for “high definition”) are the new purveyors of topflight digital audio. Offering DVD-audio-quality downloads meant to be played back on a new generation of high-end computer-connected components, HDtracks provides freer access than, say, Young’s Blu-ray and DVD releases, “walled gardens” that cannot easily be ripped to a hard drive. Computer-savvy audiophiles can purchase networked audio players (like the Meridian Sooloos, the Logitech Squeezebox or Sonos models) or rig their Mac Minis with audiophile software and digital-to-analog converters (DACs). The tubed Wavelength Crimson DAC costs $7,500—silver wiring is extra. Will the computer-audio revolution be the next Golden Age? Artists like Young, the Rolling Stones, R.E.M. and Elton John are betting on it.