The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XXVII: 'perfect sound forever' again
I have heard the future, and now I have a splitting headache.
It all started a few weeks ago when I received an e-mail from Phil, an engineer friend of mine. He wanted to know if I was interested in attending a Meridian seminar with him and our mutual friend, Jim. At first I balked. Meridian seminar? Wasn't that one of those network marketing schemes? Or was it a code word for Amway? I didn't respond immediately, and of course I forgot all about it until Jim called the day before the event and asked, "Are you going or not?" That's when I realized that we were talking about Meridian, one of the pioneers of digital audio. The seminar was going to discuss all of the latest digital formats such as SACD and DVD-A, and we were going to have a chance to listen and compare, not to mention shmooze and eat finger sandwiches and Doritos. I told him hell yes, I was up for it.
Before you think I went with the intention of bashing the latest digital technologies, I must tell you that I think that Meridian is a heck of an audio company. They were the first to say that the original Sony CD players did not quite sound right, and they came out with the first player to improve upon Sony's sonic standard, which made the phrase "perfect sound forever" sound like the hype that it was. They were among the first to offer separate transports and digital-to-analog converters. They've constantly strived to keep pushing the digital envelope, and the audio world is better for it. They even made the CD player that finally convinced my friend, Dr. Cameron, to enter the digital age after many years of resistance.
So when I arrived at the seminar, I was ready to be enlightened, impressed, and generally wowed. The three of us were greeted by a home theater set-up designed primarily for lottery winners and record company execs. The video projection unit probably ran for $40,000, and the screen probably half of that again. The six speakers were Meridian's top-of-the-line digital speakers (don't ask me what that means), and the rather tall equipment rack was filled with digital amps, digital preamps, digital processors, DVD-A players, and other assorted mystery boxes. All in all, we estimated the total price of all the equipment, including room treatment, to be in excess of $200,000. For that price, someone mentioned, you could hire any number of symphony orchestras to perform at your house one day a week for an entire year.
The Meridian rep started his spiel, and pretty soon we were listening to and watching a variety of recorded performances. We compared different formats, we listened to improved digital mixing techniques, and we identified differences. We discussed Dolby Digital, DTS, 24bit/192kHz sampling, and a lot of other random numbers and letters of the alphabet. And then somehow, in this room full of thirty or so well-heeled audiophiles, music-lovers, and technology buffs, things started to go wrong. People began to question what they were hearing. They wanted to know why this was supposed to be better, and why it was so expensive. People began to leave the room. Others started to argue amongst themselves. I said, jokingly, that it was time for me to go home and listen to some vinyl. Many of the others laughed and agreed.
So what happened? What was so awful? Well, to tell you the truth, the sound wasn't really that bad. In fact, it was pretty impressive in a lot of ways. It was the whole package that didn't work. In theory, I think it's a great idea to mate state-of-the-art sound with state-of-the-art video. It's one step closer to having live performances in your living room. But the current technology fails because what was happening on the screen did not match what we were hearing. The video portion should have been filmed with a stationary camera. Instead, it was filmed in the way we're used to seeing videos, with editing, interesting camera angles, and fluid camera motion. In other words, what was happening visually did not match up with what we were hearing.
This effect was compounded by the six-channel surround sound set-up. With a traditional two-channel stereo set-up, everything is in front of the listener, much like it is when we hear live music on stage. But here I was, watching some guy on the screen pounding away on some conga drums, and the sound of the drums was coming from behind me. It was disconcerting, to say the least. My wife calls it "all fuckity."
Now the surround sound proponents think that the 5.1-channel or full 6-channel sound is the only way to accurately capture such things as the sound of the recording venue, be it in a studio or a nightclub or the Los Angeles Coliseum. They think that stereo cannot recreate that sense of space. But c'mon. Didn't we learn anything from the quadraphonic craze of the '70's? It was kind of neat and gimmicky, but it didn't sound like music. And here we are, a few decades later, and it's five or six or seven channels instead or two, and it still sounds gimmicky. Do you know why stereo STILL sounds better? It's because we don't have five or six or seven ears. The last time I checked, human beings have two.
After some more heated discussion, it finally became obvious why Meridian was holding this seminar. It was being held by Meridian primarily for owners of Meridian digital equipment, none of which is owned by Phil, Jim, or myself. With all of the new formats rapidly appearing on the market, Meridian wanted its customers to know how they were going to keep up. To Meridian's credit, they have always designed their gear to be upgradeable no matter what new format gains acceptance, and, in a very relative way, the upgrades are cost-effective. But when the people asked for specific prices, I was shocked. The projected fees for upgrading to the various new formats ranged from $1500 to $3000 per piece. That means per each digital preamp, each digital processor, each assorted mystery box.
And you know what I thought, don't you. $3000 buys an incredible turntable. $1500 buys one hell of a nice turntable. My turntable retails for even less, and I personally think it sounds at least as good as anything I heard that day. I'm amazed at the people who e-mail me and tell me that they think $500 is too much money to pay for a turntable. I've had people tell me $100 is too much. Yet here were all these supposed music-lovers, resigned to the fact that they were going to have to spend tens of thousands of dollars, or even more, just to keep up with the latest digital advances. And you think I'm crazy for continuing to recommend vinyl LP's?
We came away from that seminar, an engineer, a lawyer, and a writer, with pretty much the same perception. We all felt that this was the wrong direction for audio to take. "Never have so many spent so much time fucking up the simple act of enjoying music," I said. Things are becoming way too complicated. In fact, of the three of us, I'm the only one that still listens to LP's, yet the others both stated, at the end of the day, that they were going to start shopping for turntables. In fact, before the seminar, I had decided to trade in my trusty Naim CD player on an SACD player by the end of the year. After the seminar, I scratched that plan. I think I'm going to upgrade my turntable again.
Once again, to Meridian's credit, they are doing the best to keep up with what's going on. The rep pretty much said that companies like Meridian are at the mercy of the Japanese manufacturers who develop the technologies. These companies (primarily Sony, as you have probably guessed) are tight with their licensing agreements, and they don't like to be told what to do. When companies like Meridian suggest that the video mixes and the audio mixes should be more closely matched for realism, they are told that consumers really don't care about that. When asked to provide more of these breakthroughs in two-channel formats, they are told that consumers want surround, and they think stereo is dead in the water. Kind of reminds me of a dozen years ago, when we were told that CD's sound better than LP's, whether we thought so or not.
Do you really want to give your money to these people?
Needless to say, I went home and listened to my LP's for a while. The aforementioned headache subsided. All felt well with the world. For now, anyway.
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