Posted by: davidbowerkingwood | June 28, 2012

The New Kid on the Block, by David Bower

Digital Audio, the New Kid on the Block

The big advance in the LP came with the development of the stereo LP. This technology recorded one signal on the groove on one side and another signal on the groove of the opposite side. The difference in sound was immense due in no small part to the advances in cartridge design. The new stereo cartridges were a vast improvement over the older mono cartridges such as the GE cartridge on my Garrard changer and the spatial sound stage was very exciting indeed for those of us who had followed the industry.

Stereo sound had been available on stereo tape since the late 1950’s but stereo LP’s, although available as early as 1958, didn’t really catch on until the mid to late 1960’s.

After the excitement of stereo LP’s had started dying out there came a period of little or no real advancement in home audio technology. There were refinements here and there but not exciting enough to dispel the “ho-hum” attitude that seemed to infect the industry. Then the digital age arrived.

Video is Added to the Mix

The first laser equipment and hardware to surface that I know about was done by Magnavox/Phillips and was called DiscoVision. This was a 12 inch disc that was shiny and looked unlike anything we had seen before and provided both an audio and a video signal. An early commercial can be found here: DiscoVision

When I first started shopping around there were two competing formats; the laser DiscoVision and RCA’s Selectavision which used a stylus tracking a grooved record turning at a 450 RPM and offered video resolution only slightly better than VHS tape.

For me that was a no brainer, I saw the laser technology as the future and the stylus tracking a record groove as the past; I immediately preferred the newer laser technology and time has proven me right as demonstrated by the CD, DVD, and Blu-ray discs.

The laser technology offered one immediate advantage over the LP in that it didn’t have groves into which grit could insert itself. The snap, crackle, and pop associated with LP’s could be banished to outer darkness where it deserved to stay. The wear factor also disappeared as nothing touched the disc during playback but a beam of light.

The early Magnavox DiscoVision players were a huge challenge; the challenge was to keep them working and that was extremely frustrating. Pioneer came out with what they called a LaserDisc player which seemed to solve all of the mechanical problems Magnavox couldn’t resolve. More on my first DiscoVision player can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=miG3EFTcvr4&feature=related I have a copy of the LaserDisc of Indiana Jones he shows on the video.

The last time I took the Magnavox player in for service yet again I wound up telling the technician he could keep it for parts and walked out of the store feeling as if I had just been granted my freedom.

Digital Technology Hits its Stride

I then bought my first Pioneer LaserDisc player and used for it for several years; to the best of my knowledge it still works although I gave it to a family member. Shortly after that the CD hit the market using similar laser technology and the industry was on a roll once more.

The CD was followed by the DVD and it was clear that the audio scene had changed forever. As always happens with new technology there was a learning curve whether it’s in the design of the equipment or engineering the recordings that were to be played on the new equipment and this time around was to be no exception to that rule.

Some of the early CD’s had a rather strident upper frequency response which caused strings, especially massed violins, to sound somewhat harsh and unpleasant. The problems causing this were eventually resolved by refinements in the equipment and the recording techniques. Today good equipment can make even the old CD’s sound much better.

Recording technology branched out to dead ends a couple of time with the SACD and the DVD-Audio discs. Although both provided outstanding music reproduction their intense battle for dominance caused both of them to fail which to me is a sad story.

The Blu-ray Disc Opens New Doors

The advent of the Blu-ray disc opened up data storage possibilities that permitted the uncompressed recording of audio. This has resulted in new uncompressed formats such as DTS HD Master Audio, and Dolby True HD both of which offer special opportunities for high fidelity audio reproduction. As before the recording engineers are going through a learning curve which has produced some less than optimum recordings to date although many are real winners.

My Dream System is Started in 1996

During the 1990’s I had become excited once again by the progress and the equipment available for the home audio hobbyist. I knew I wanted to start work on my ultimate dream system and, true to my pipe organ focus, the first part of my dream system to be added in 1996 was a Velodyne F1500R subwoofer which I still have and still continues to amaze me.

(Update November 2016) The Velodyne finally stopped working and has since been replaced with a Hsu ULS 15 Mk2 which, if anything, is doing an even better job than the Velodyne did.

In February of 2000 I added five Infinity brand speakers because they sounded good and they were on sale. Infinity was closing out their old line and I had the opportunity to buy their formerly top-of-the-line speakers for a substantial discount. I went ahead and bought five matching speakers and still enjoy their sound today; along with the Velodyne (now the Hsu ULS 15 Mk2) they produce the full range of the pipe organ and have an almost perfect tonal balance.

I finally arrived at my present system configuration in December of 2010 and have found much pleasure in both movies and music as reproduced in my home. It almost appears that we have reached another temporary plateau in the development of new equipment which reminds me of that period between the development of the stereo LP and the development of the laser technology.

An Exciting Future?

We will reach the edge of this plateau sooner rather than later I suspect but I only have hints where the next big technological breakthroughs will lead us. They seem to be moving in the direction of combining personal computers and massive digital storage with the audio and video of the home theater. That in conjunction with streaming audio and video could eventually replace the individual disc recording and make the CD, DVD, and Blu-ray disc’s all obsolete. Streaming audio and video is already starting to make significant inroads with the consumer and sales of CD’s have fallen dramatically.

When I received that recording of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 for Christmas one year, the 78 RPM record was the standard; they were heavy and offered very low fidelity. The fact we didn’t know any better helped to offset the poor quality being offered. The progress through the LP, the LaserDisc, the CD, the DVD, and now the Blu-ray has been a very exciting ride to a hobbyist I assure you. I feel privileged to have been a part of that ride although I was only a consumer, an end user. For those of us who love music this has been a marvelous time indeed!

Should the Lord tarry we may still be in for some more exciting rides in the field of video and audio high fidelity; by God’s grace I’ll be watching and waiting with great interest.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my recollections on almost 60 years of interest in audio; there are fewer and fewer of us alive who lived through that era and can tell the story first hand.


Responses

  1. With havin so much content and articles do you ever run into any problems of plagorism or copyright
    violation? My blog has a lot of exclusive content I’ve either created myself or outsourced but it appears a lot
    of it is popping it up all over the web without my
    authorization. Do you know any techniques to help stop content from being ripped off?
    I’d genuinely appreciate it.

    Like

    • Sorry, I really don’t know of a simple and sure way to protect intellectual property; digital media can be a two-edged sword in that regard.

      Like


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