FYI: What you need to know about Today's audio systems
Laser discs, compact discs, videodiscs, videocassettes. We've come a long way from the days when a home entertainment system consisted of a Victrola and your favorite 78 r.p.m.s. In fact, new era recording/playback technology coming on the market could make Thomas Edison's invention obsolete during the next decade. If today's array of options seems daunting, it at least offers something for everyone, regardless of preference or pocketbook. Even components at the lower end of the price range now offer reaso nably good fidelity. In the following articles, Monitor music critic Thor Eckert Jr. looks at what's new in the home audio scene. The standard: records
Ever since Thomas Alva Edison invented a way to capture voices on a foil or wax cylinder, the quest for the best possible sound has been relentless. The common denominator in the history of domestic sound has been the 12-inch platter. In the days of 78 r.p.m. recordings, it was made of a rigid, all-too-breakable lacquer-based substance. With the LP (for ``long playing'') came a less-fragile vinyl-based material. This engineering marvel has remained an efficient and practical way to get impressive sound into the home at reasonable cost. And while it's not impervious to dust and finger grease, with moderate care and an unworn needle, the LP can endure for generations.
With the advent of computer technology, the lathing methods of cutting the master discs have become remarkably precise. Whereas 24 minutes used to be the limit per side, technology has improved that time to over 30 minutes in full orchestral material, and up to about 37 minutes in Mozart or chamber music.
The computer has also enhanced the ability to clean up old recordings of master performers, so that current reissues of legendary performances sound better than ever.
The problems with records have always been durability and surface noise. American companies have generally been cavalier about the quality of the vinyl they have been using. But in the past few years, quality has become more of an issue, because the technology in even the cheaper home stereos has improved so drastically. What aural deficiencies used to be hidden by rudimentary electronics are now gloriously amplified.
Despite all this technology, the record companies are looking to the eventual elimination of the vinyl disc as a consumer product. All new recording is now being done digitally, and only the compact disc player (CD) can give you the full benefit of digital recording. When the CD plants are built with sufficient speed to keep up with the demand, and enough analog (nondigitally recorded) recordings are transferred to CD, the industry will phase out the LP -- probably in the 1990s.
What does this mean for the listener with a large collection? Not much. As long as there are records being played, there will be electronics to play them. Besides, many of the transfers of older performances to CD are being done with insufficient care that the LP will continue to have the sonic edge for much predigital programming.
By keeping the stylus clean, changing it every few years, and keeping discs free of fingerprints and dust, the records should last for many years. One hint: Whenever possible, try to buy an English direct metal mastered or Japanese pressing of your favorite performances. The Japanese are sound fanatics and, generally, their versions of most of the classical labels (and even pop material, such as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones) offer the best sound possible -- in many cases, even better than some of the new reprocessed-for-CD releases. The alternative: tapes
Prerecorded tape releases were on the endangered species list a few years ago. The improvements in sound-reproduction technology, and the prospect of digital playback seemed to be making tapes -- especially cassettes -- a thing of the past. What gave the prerecorded cassette industry its new lease on life was the advent of the portable Sony Walkman (and its clones), and the car stereo system. Most cassette tape simply sounded better through headsets or in a car than at home, even on a really good system. Besides, a window-rattling volume level on an earpad or in a car was not as antisocial as an overly-loud home stereo could be.
When the Germans perfected magnetic recording tape in the 1940s, a new era was introduced in the recording industry. But along with all the obvious benefits of tape, there was the ever-present problem of hiss.
Before digital recording, the rule was the wider the tape, and the faster it moved over the recording or playback heads, the less hiss and the greater fidelity of playback.
Reel to reel was therefore a must for the serious home sound system. Until the advent of such noise reduction systems as Dolby, and later DBX, cassette tapes could not be taken too seriously as a sound-reproduction medium, since the tape was very narrow, and it travelled very slowly over the heads.
Once the cassette was more or less perfected, it became a more convenient medium for home recording than bulky reel-to-reel tape, though the latter continued to offer better sound reproduction. Thanks to the new technologies in metal particle oxides on the tape itself, and with Dolby C or DBX encoding, today's high-quality cassettes can readily compete with a vinyl-disc equivalent, even on the home stereo system. (In fact, on a top-of-the-line Nakamichi Dragon cassette player-recorder, the results can b e downright startling.)
And until the technology is invented that will allow the laser in a portable compact disc player to read a disc while you jog around the park, the portable cassette player is here to stay.
Reel to reel will be the big loser in the tape war. It ceased to be a commercial factor years ago. And now that high-fidelity videocassette recorders are on the market, reel to reel is no longer competitive. Anyone who thinks a VCR is just for television recording hasn't heard the staggering results you can get from an off-the-air transcription broadcast using the audio-only recording mode of a hi-fi VCR. Any time problem is eliminated with up to 6 and even 8 hours on today's new videocassettes.
With a high-fidelity videocassette recorder as part of the home entertainment system, the average listener might not even need a cassette deck: The unit will function superbly as a video and audio recorder, as well as an astonishing TV-simulcast recorder, all in one. The newcomer: compact discs
From its inception, the compact disc -- or CD -- revolutionized the audio industry. At first the high-tech plastic circle was greeted with some resistance. Some said it was too expensive; others questioned whether the medium would become an industry standard or go the way of ``gimmicky'' innovations. Today, demand outstrips supply at a stiff rate. Nationwide, CD supplies are expected to be depleted well before Christmas, and the industry doesn't really expect to catch up before the middle of next
What is the CD? A 43/4-inch circle of silvery plastic laminate with a hole in the middle, embossed printing on one side, and, apparently, nothing on the reverse. In fact, digital information is permanently encoded (into binary blips) under the surface of that ``blank'' side. The information is read by a small laser beam that translates the blips into electronic impulses, which are then amplified and sent to the speakers as sound.
Because there is no needle, there is, effectively, no wear and tear. Because the sound has been recorded digitally rather than magnetically onto the master tape in the studio, there is no tape hiss. Nor is there any surface noise from a needle ``reading'' a groove on a vinyl disc.
In recordings, the quest has usually been to give the home listener a reasonable approximation of the sound from the studio. Because of the limitations of LPs, compression, and other sorts of electronic fiddling, the recorded sound in playback competes with inner-groove noise and tape hiss (inevitable in the mastering process). With digital recording, the sound can actually be passed directly from the microphone to the tape by way of only the digital encoder. Thus, the home listener should hear somethin g virtually identical to what was actually going on in the studio.
Unfortunately, there is still concern that the extremes of sound -- from the very quiet to the thunderously loud -- could overtax a stereo system to the point of serious damage. So some companies still compress the sound for CD.
Naturally, CDs can only be played on a CD player, which four years ago meant an investment of at least $1,000. In the last year, prices have plummeted; two home audio companies offer players that can be found for under $200 in many discount houses. Sony and Technics both sell a small, highly portable version of the player that can be used with headsets, like the Sony Walkman, and as a stereo component in the home system. They lack many advanced programming features -- features which, truth to tell, will
not be used all that often.
At the upper end, the Denon 1800R, which lists for $895, has more reliable motor drives and highly efficient electronics that make the translation process from digital to analog information as glitch-free and natural as possible.
There is no question that once you get to know CD sound, you won't be content buying an LP version of a digitally recorded performance, so arresting is the improvement in sound quality. Putting it all together
The home entertainment system is a new idea in home electronics. It's a fancy term for placing the stereo, television, computer games, videocassette recorder, and laser discs in one interconnected unit.
The common link is sound -- specifically, TV sound. Stereo TV broadcasting is upon us, yet the little speakers still in most TV sets sold in America have the fidelity of a kazoo.
Stereo movie watching is also a living-room reality. Videodiscs give a visual clarity that videotape cannot rival, but both discs and high-fidelity videocassette recorders (VCRs) offer sound of audiophile caliber. (Just try ``Star Wars'' sometime!)
In short, today's home entertainment sound must be piped through a good stereo system to take advantage of all this new technology.
What does the enthusiast need for a home system? Today, reliable and powerful intergrated amplifiers can switch from TV, to VCR, to compact-discs (CDs), to videodisc players, as well as cassette recorders, computer games, personal computers, and whatever other auxiliary electronic items one may have at home.
Good speakers can be had for far less money than one might imagine. There are even miniature speakers that offer sound quality one used to get only from unwieldy and unsightly boxes. But there is still no replacement for top-of-the-line equipment. For instance, once I acquired the Miller & Kreisel Volkswoofer 1-B satellite system, I stopped searching for ``ideal'' speakers.
A hi-fi VCR can double as a home recorder for your own living-room recitals, off-the-air taping, or whatever. Beta hi-fi still has the edge on visual clarity over VHS, but the latter is winning the marketing battle as the format of preference. If movie playback is all you are interested in, the video laser disc is the best medium.
Buying one with a built-in compact-disc player saves space at no loss of quality sound reproduction in the CD mode. Including a cassette tape recorder in the home system is useful if you have a car or portable stereo, since you may want to hear them on the big unit.
For the home deck, Dolby C noise reduction gives the best results for relatively hiss-free recording, although very few portable players have it at this time.
Prospective buyers should be cautioned about salesmen in electronics stores. Most of them have a line of equipment they are encouraged to sell, so it is best to listen carefully and visit several stores.
Go to the library and read the test reviews in record, audio, and video magazines. Talk to friends who have the sort of system you want, and find out what they like -- or don't like -- about it. Then go and see the equipment demonstrated.
No two pairs of eyes and ears see or hear the same things, so make sure you like the way it sounds and operates.
For a good comparison, take along a few of your favorite records, tapes, CDs, or even videotapes, and see how they look and sound.
The new system should fit comfortably into your living quarters, as well. The search may take a while, but the equipment should serve you well for years to come.