Progress in Hi-Fi
IN SOME ways I like my friends to be old-fashioned. It is gratifying to be reminded occasionally that Hollywood offers nothing now to compare with Greta and Norma, that nobody today builds a car like the old Packard Twelve, that we really lost something when Farrar retired, that Dempsey could have taken Floyd Patterson in half a round. Such remarks are born of nostalgia, and everyone enjoys a touch of nostalgia once in a while.
However, there is another way of being old-fashioned which is muchless appealing. It partakes less of glamorizing the past than of being reasonlessly timid about what is new, even when a new development may be unarguably superior to what has preceded it. Such timidity, no doubt, long preserved the carpet sweeper against the vacuum cleaner, and the coal stove against the gas range. Me it plagues chiefly in another area, as follows:
“Of course I love music and listening to records,” my friend tells me. “But I’m afraid I just couldn’t cope with high fidelity. It’s too technical. All those wires and things.”
This used to leave me without retort, since — five years ago, let’s say — there was an element of truth in it. Then, as now, separate home audio components represented the best possible buy in living-room musical equipment, but they could also represent a certain amount of work and of puzzlement. The dealers were largely electronics parts wholesalers who had found, to their surprise, that music-loving private citizens were interested in buying their wares. But neither the dealers nor the manufacturers behind them were accustomed to dealing with folk totally unacquainted with matters electronic. And the instructions they furnished these latter were sometimes painfully inadequate.
Further, there really were, sometimes, wires to be bought, cut to length, connected, even soldered. And often there was confusion about whence to where the wires went. I recall a very intelligent young man’s calling me up once, at about midnight, because his loudspeaker had two terminals, mystically marked red and black, whereas his amplifier had four, mystically marked G, 4, 8, and 16. The loudspeaker also bore the cryptic Legend 16Ω, from which he had shrewdly deduced that one wire should go to the amplifier’s 16 screw-on terminal. But where should the other one go, and should it lead from the red or the black connection? These were all very reasonable questions. It simply never had occurred to the manufacturer or the dealer that not absolutely everyone knew that loudspeaker leads are reversible, that one always goes to ground (G, see?) and the other to the appropriate output-ohm tap (16, of course!).
Now operating procedure for the buyer of high-fidelity components has been much simplified and much more intelligibly documented, so I no longer need shrink into mortified silence when an acquaintance says, “It’s too technical.” If it is a paterfamilias who speaks, as it usually is, I wither him promptly with the suggestion that he turn the technical problem over to his wife. Whereas he, I suggest (meanly), can cover his technological lag behind an array of efficient assistants and secretaries at his office, his helpmeet at home has no such protection. All by herself she must figure out and apply the control readings on the electric rotisserie, connect the polishing attachment to the vacuum, and pre-set the washer-dryer to the proper adjustment for shirts, sheets, and diapers. To anyone who can do that, complete mastery of a 1957 highfidelity amplifier should take no more than 128.30 seconds. (This is a scientifically unacceptable figure, since it is based on measurements taken in only a single case, but it is food for thought.) Sometimes this argument works.
When I say it works, I mean it works on the male in the household. Even when simplified and shorn of its psychological subtleties, it does not work on the female. As a general thing, she is not taken aback by electrical complexities. She is used to dealing with these pragmatically, by trial and error. Her ego is not involved. What she does boggle at, though, indomitably and with a skill handed from mother to daughter through countless generations, is the way the thing is going to look.
These two facets of objection to high fidelity must be treated together, and not — no pun intended — altogether facetiously. Music is one of the very greatest refreshments of the spirit. This is an age in which the human spirit stands constantly in need of strong refreshment. And it is also an age in which music has been made available, in unprecedented vividness, to every home (in America, at least) that will accept it. To reject it, if its need is felt, seems to me preposterous, foolish.
A digression is necessary. High fidelity never has been defined by the industry that produced it. Nevertheless its essence is well known to the people who have and enjoy it. The table-top record player priced at $99.50 and the modest console which costs $199.50 today are decided improvements on the radiophonograph of 1947, but they are not high fidelity. They can make good records sound like good records. A high-fidelity array can do something subtly but drastically different. It cannot bring the Philadelphia Orchestra into your room, or move your room into the Academy of Music. But, if your room is of a size to accommodate a real, live tenor with guitar, or a harpsichordist, and if such an artist has been captured on a disc with unflawed realism, a high-fidelity rig can reproduce him sonically in your room in such fashion that you could close your eyes and confuse the reproduction with the original, were he present. This is the distinction.
Let it be said here that high fidelity can be bought packaged in single consoles. I have heard some that I would not mind owning. None of them, however, cost much less than $800. And in no case within my experience would I hesitate to promise that I could match their sound, with judiciously chosen separate components, between half and three quarters their price. In other words, there really has been a helpful revolution, in the last eight years, in the musical furnishing of living rooms. And it is a revolution directed not solely at the man handy with a soldering iron, but at everyone. Further, its shape has been in accordance with this aim.
The most immediately noticeable change is that the common box is gone. Almost the only wood you buy now is an enclosure for the loudspeaker, and its solitary function is to enclose the loudspeaker acoustically. Unless you are willing (or anxious) to pay for a facsimile of real symphonic impact — which your neighbors might take amiss — it will be much smaller than the old console. Yet it will, by virtue of sealing and padding, enable the speaker really to probe the bass range where the bassoon and the 32-foot organ pipe make their effect.
From this enclosure will trail a pair of wires, usually, these days, in the form of a 300-ohm, ribbonlike twin-lead, such as is used to bring in the signal from a television antenna. These can be obtained in the color of your choice, and can run easily under rugs and over moldings. The objective of the twin copper strands is two screw terminals on the rear of your amplifier, labeled G and 16 or 8, as the case may be.
Your amplifier — provided you settle for no more than twenty watts of power, about ten times what your elderly radio-phono could supply — will be a device about one foot broad, a couple of inches high, and as deep, front to back, as your abridged dictionary. It can fit on a bookshelf (at eye level, which is a convenience), and its tubes and condensers are hidden by a punched metal grill cover, finished usually in what is described as brushed gold. At any rate, it is no eyesore.
If you have a radio tuner — AMFM or just FM if you live in a metropolitan area — it will be about the same size and shape as the amplifier. Indeed, if you want, it can be bought on the same chassis, in which case the combination will be six inches high. If you prefer the units separate, for aesthetic reasons or to space out the expenditures, the two will be connected by a short length of coaxial cable, discreetly covered in gray plastic and terminated at either end with a plug-in pin-tip connector. The fitting terminal on the tuner will be marked “output.” That on the amplifier will be marked “tuner.” If you have trouble figuring out this connection, it can safely be entrusted to any literate ten-yearold child in the neighborhood.
Close by the tuner socket on the rear of the amplifier will be another, marked “phono input.” Without serious cerebral strain, it can be deduced that this should receive the plug at the end of the cable from your record-playing assembly.
Your record-playing assembly, whether you buy it piecemeal or as a unit, will consist of three components: a pickup cartridge (with diamond stylus, at least for LP records), a tone arm, and a turntable. If you buy a changer, you get also a mechanism which will automatically play the first movement of the Brahms First right after the first two movements of the Beethoven Seventh, if that is the way you like to hear these selections.
However, changers are viewed these days as somewhat non-U, and so are lidded boxes to conceal precision turntables and tone arms. I must recommend them nevertheless to folk who live in grit-ridden cities. For other people, it is now thought proper to let a turntable and arm, tastefully mounted on their boxlike base, stand unabashed in the open, functional as andirons or ash trays.
The pickup cartridge, incidentally, should be a magnetic or FM type. The low cost ready-made phonograph employs a ceramic or a crystal. These work reasonably well on newly made records. But only about half of the discs pressed before 1955 — perhaps half of those now in the catalogues — fall into this category. For the others magnetic cartridges must be used, to permit the amplifier’s equalization controls to come into play.
And here is the last frightening aspect of high-fidelity equipment. It shouldn’t, really, frighten. There is nothing mysterious about equalization. Record makers always, in cutting discs, have raised the volume of their treble and lowered that of their bass. The idea was to mask surface noise (treble) and prevent unduly wide groove-swing (bass). The playback amplifier — even in your ancient radio-phono — produced the desired readjustment by reducing treble reproduction and boosting bass.
However, with the onset of widerange high fidelity, it became obvious that the readjustment had to be precise. And the trouble was that the record makers had not all used the same degree of treble boost and bass attenuation. Columbia, for instance, had applied 16 decibels of treble boost, whereas RCA Victor had applied only 13.5. In 1955 the manufacturers assembled and agreed on a common degree of treble boost and bass attenuation. But records made earlier remained incompatible. So, which do you want — strident Beecham or dull Toscanini? Or equalization controls, by which you may make either one sound right? Is it too much trouble? Too technical? Do you likewise insist that your stove, set for the same heat, should in the same time properly bake four tiny Rock Cornish game hens or a twelve-pound turkey?
Let us, at the end, be a little serious. The reproduction of music in the home is, beyond much question, the field in which the layman, the recipient, can most nearly join the artist, the creator, in any of today’s creative activities. The proper placement of a loudspeaker, the accurate adjustment of a tone control, the careful leveling of a turntable, can make of any of us a collaborator, in a great adventure, of Arturo Toscanini or Pablo Casals, not to mention Ludwig van Beethoven and Giuseppe Verdi. Is this not worth the exercise of a little wit?
Beethoven: The Creatures of Prometheus
Willem van Otterloo conducting Hague Philharmonic Orchestra; Epic LC-3366: 12″
When Beethoven was about thirty, he wrote a score for the Vienna City Ballet Theater on the subject of Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the Olympian gods, and with it animated clay, and thus launched Mankind. As might be expected, the ballet was complicated and preposterous. The music is not. There is some ordered prettiness, but through it strides martially the marvelous pride in humanity that was to elevate all the later works and make them ageless. This is the first complete recording, and a very good one: Otterloo knows what he is about and the microphones abet him faithfully.
Dvořák: Quartet No. 7 in A-flat, Op. 105
Janáček Quartet; Decca DL-9919: 12″ In the Janáčeks, out of Brno, Decca has got hold of what is patently one of the best string quartets in the world, at least for music like this strong, serene Dvořák piece, written partly in America, late in the composer’s life. Their joyous mastery of and submission to the music is something rare and exciting. With the sound reproduction, no complaint.
Glière: Symphony No. 3, “Ilya Mourometz”
Eugene Ormandy conducting Philadelphia Orchestra; Columbia ML-5189: 12″ Ilya Mourometz was the Sir Lancelot of Russian legend. Like Lancelot, he was never defeated but by unfair divine intervention, at least until he ran afoul of Reinhold Glière (1875— 1956). This is a terribly pompous piece of music. However, though unworthy of its subject, it abounds in orchestral devices ideal to test the prowess of Ormandy’s Philadelphians and your high-fidelity system. It sounds solid as oak and slick as silk.
Prokofiev: Piano Sonatas
Yury Boukoff, piano; Westminster XWN18369, 18370, 18371: three separate 12″ Prokofiev’s piano sonatas arc not his most exciting musical products, to my mind, but on die other hand they show no sign of the Politburo pressure for conventionality and comprehensibility (lazy tovarish level) that distorted some of his larger-scale works. They are divided among the discs 1—4, 5—7, and 8-9. The young Bulgarian, Yury Boukoff, is obviously an intelligent pianist, awake to Prokofiev’s wit and irony, and the recordings are highly adequate.
Ferenc Fricsay conducting Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra; Decca DL-9908: 12″
The Berlin Radio orchestra here sounds almost as rich as its municipal sister symphony, the Philharmonic, perhaps in part because of very skillful reproduction. Moreover, Fricsay appreciates Rimsky as orchestrator; nothing is wasted. But he does not appreciate him as storyteller in quite the same way as William Steinberg does for Capitol.
Schubert: The Death of Lazarus
Arthur Winograd conducting Helmut Kretschmar, Barbara Troxell, other soloists, chorus, and Hamburg Philharmonia Orchestra; MGM E-3526: 12″
Having ventured into secular opera without any marked success, Schubert at twenty-three reverted to the Biblical oratorio-opera of famous precedent — Handel— to make for us this piece of healthy melancholy. It has moments that recall Jephtha and Beethoven’s Mount of Olives, but mostly it is pure Schubert — maybe a little too pure, for there is a dearth of contrast and stress. Still there is plenty of melodic invention, and Arthur Winograd, at least, does well with it. The singers are no more than competent.
Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel; Death and Transfiguration
Fritz Reiner conducting Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; RCA Victor LM-2077: 12″
To me Toscanini’s Till remains the last word, but Reiner’s is certainly in the running for second place. And his Tod und Verlärung probably is the best we have. The recording is resplendent, the Viennese virtuosi and their fine hall never sounded better, and Reiner’s insight as a masterStraussian grows keener as he gets older. It is hard to set him above the late Clemens Krauss, so I won’t, but Krauss never had quite this kind of sound reproduction, a tremendous asset in Strauss.
Fiesta in Hi-Fi
Howard Hanson conducting Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra; Mercury MG-50134: 12”
The “Fiesta” consists of four American compositions. One has Mexican flavor, Robert McBride’s Mexican Rhapsody. The others traverse the continent in keeping with their titles: Ron Nelson’s Savannah River Holiday; Lyndol Mitchell’s Kentucky Mountain Portraits; Charles Vardell’s Joe Clark Steps Out — the last-named Virginian in origin. The common mood is not serious, but the wit, ingenuity, and rhythmic verve are of a very high order indeed.
Leopold Stokowski conducting unidentified orchestra; Capitol SAL-8385: 12”
In his initial effort for Capitol, Leopold Stokowski leads an orchestra, assembled in New York for the occasion, in nine selections chosen to show off the various sections of a modern symphony orchestra. The brasses, for instance, disport in the Fanfare from Dukas’s La Peri, the percussion in part of Harold Farberman’s Evolution. Two of Mussorgsky’s famous Pictures demonstrate the whole orchestra. Obviously both musicians and engineers joined zestfully in this project, and of course no one else in the world could have directed and supervised it so well as Stokowski, a pioneer experimenter in high-fidelity sound reproduction and an inimitable musical educator. The sonics are all crystal and thunder.