February 2023

Music is the reason for high-end audio. I still recall the first time I heard music on something that was better quality than the stereo console my parents owned. When I was in high school, I knew a keyboard player who worked part-time in an electronics supply shop. He convinced the owner, who might have been his dad—we’re going back quite a few years so the details are a bit fuzzy—to let him set up an audio shop in a section of the store.

Joseph TaylorJoseph Taylor

One Saturday, he organized a demo of some of the gear. I don’t know how he got the word out, but quite a few people showed up. I don’t remember what brands he sold; perhaps he had some McIntosh equipment. He also had some Pioneer and Sansui gear. What I remember clearly is that he put Laura Nyro’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession on a nice Pioneer turntable with a beautiful wood plinth, and played it through a big Pioneer receiver and some impressive-looking speakers.

For the first time, I heard music that was lifelike. It was as if Nyro’s voice was right there in the room; instruments sounded realistic and full, and I felt transported. My parents’ stereo might have had two channels, but it sounded flat and uninvolving after hearing that component stereo. I soon cobbled together something better for myself, but it was still not hi-fi.

A couple of years later, I bought my first light-tracking turntable with a magnetic cartridge. I think it was a BSR. I was transfixed by the feel of the tonearm lift. Somehow, the act of manually lowering the stylus onto the record and then lifting it at the end of the side made listening to music a more serious act than flipping the switch that set the tonearm in motion on my parents’ stereo. The receiver I had at that point was something cheap, and the speakers were not much better.

When I got my first job after graduating from college, I bought a Kenwood receiver, a pair of Ohm Model E speakers, and a Technics direct-drive turntable. Not audiophile-approved, but moving closer. The Kenwood had a great tuner and it sounded cleaner to me than some other brands I’d heard. When I bought a used Rotel RA-1210 integrated amplifier from a neighbor, I heard something even better than the Kenwood. Small details in the music were even more apparent, instruments sounded even more as if they were live, and so on.

That was in the mid-1980s. I didn’t really know about audiophile magazines back then, and didn’t start reading them regularly until the late ’90s. I soon realized that my setup wasn’t audiophile, but for a while I was happy with my Rotel integrated amp, Dual turntable, and Ohm speakers. Since then, I’ve upgraded my gear, and even have a second setup in the living room. Neither cost a million dollars, or even six figures. But they both give me what I want: a glimpse into how music is recorded, mixed, and mastered; and a better understanding of how a musician, producer, and recording engineer combine to create a recorded work.

That’s the goal of good audio equipment, regardless of its price. It brings us closer to the way the music should sound. It’s the music that matters, not the cost of the audio equipment or its pedigree. I’m happy with both of my audio setups for now because they allow me to enjoy listening to music.

That doesn't mean I’ve decided they can’t be improved. That’s true about many things in life, including online publications.

A few weeks ago, I was discussing what direction SoundStage! Xperience might take with Jeff Fritz, the SoundStage! Network’s editor-in-chief. My “Curator” column and some other articles have appeared there over the last few years, and I’ve written music reviews and various pieces for other SoundStage! Network sites since 2001. Jeff asked me to take a closer look at the site to see what role it should play within the SoundStage! Network.

It struck me as I looked at Xperience that it works best as a place for SoundStage! readers to find out about the music that high-end audio is supposed to help us fully enjoy. The site should also continue to give readers some insight on how music gets to us, in whatever format. For example, the Encore video series, which tells us how music is recorded, mastered, and so on, makes sense as a part of SoundStage! Xperience. Other parts of the site should also remain pretty much as is. The Entertainment tab will still take readers to music reviews in various formats—DVD, Blu-ray, CD, SACD, vinyl, and downloads. The Features tab includes articles on music, such as the ones in my “Curator” column.

The Features tab also houses James Hale’s “Art+Tech” column, which combines his evaluations of audio gear with reviews of current music releases, and Mark Phillips’s “Fix It in the Mix” series, which gives the technical background for the way that recordings are created. Both columns fit in with the vision of Xperience as a source of information about the things that help drive our passion for high-quality audio gear.

In other words, Xperience is mostly fine as is, but even good things can be improved. To that end, my monthly music review for SoundStage! Access will now appear mid-month on Xperience to further emphasize the site’s focus on media.

Living roomMusic on the main floor

For a long time, listening to music on our own terms meant physical media—LPs, CDs, SACDs, and even cassettes. Now, music comes to us in whatever form we want—song by song, or full albums—via streaming and downloads, as do movies and TV shows. As I said, things change. In the past, software for computers came on floppy disks or CD-ROMs, which we installed via the computer’s drives. Faster internet speeds made it possible to download software and thus avoid cluttering our shelves—or landfill sites—with physical media.

I can see how some people might find that appealing for music. I have a few shelves of DVDs and Blu-ray Discs I’ve bought in the past, but I rarely purchase movies or TV shows in a physical format anymore. If I do buy them, I find someone who stores films and shows on the cloud so I can stream them. I’ve begun downloading and streaming music, too. However, I still buy music on CD and vinyl, and I feel confident that music in some physical format will be available for some time. I’ll be more than happy to find a way to store my movies on a hard drive or the cloud and clear the shelves that now hold them for my music; I’ll even build more shelves as my vinyl and CD collections continue to grow.

In other words, each of us finds a way to enjoy these things in the way that we find most convenient or enjoyable. Since music comes to us these days in so many ways, it makes sense for Xperience to cover it in all its varied forms. I see us continuing to review music on vinyl and CD, but we may look at more music in download form, since that’s often the way that new music sees its first release now. Maybe we’ll look at different music-streaming services, as well.

Basement systemMusic in the basement

We will also continue to explore how music arrives, in whatever format. Last month, we posted a piece I wrote about Blue Sprocket Pressing, a vinyl pressing plant in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Although I already had a good grasp of how the records I’ve been collecting for more than 50 years were made, it was exciting to see up close how it’s done. I hope we’ll post more articles about music recording and mastering, including interviews with prominent mastering engineers to learn how they work.

The SoundStage! Network brings you information about high-quality audio gear, from the affordable on SoundStage! Access to the expensive and esoteric on SoundStage! Ultra. Whether it’s affordable or not, our goal is to separate the real from the fake, claims from actual performance, and the good from the bad. Whatever we think about the gear we review, the most important question is how it serves the music it is tasked to reproduce. That’s where our passion begins, and that’s what SoundStage! Xperience will continue to highlight.

. . . Joseph Taylor