Twenty-five years after Frank Zappa’s death from prostate cancer at age 52, it’s still difficult to assess his career, in part because it was so multifaceted. Composer, guitarist, satirist, free-speech activist -- Zappa had many sides, and while they often overlapped, it’s easier to appreciate each of them separately: he was almost compulsively prolific. In his last 27 years he released 64 albums, many of them multi-disc sets, and since then the Zappa Family Trust has released an additional 49 albums, bringing the total of available Zappa releases to 111.
By the early 1970s, rock music was firmly established as a cultural force, and the influx of cash from increased album sales gave record companies incentive to try new things. It was a time when musicians beyond category, such as Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, could have recording contracts with a major label. The ambition of bands both famous and obscure over the previous five years had opened the minds of listeners to all kinds of possibilities, and that willingness to permit and encourage experimentation extended to pop music of all genres. Stevie Wonder, to choose just one example, released some of his most ambitious and groundbreaking recordings in the early ’70s.
Newvelle Records is a Paris-based label that offers jazz recordings on vinyl by subscription. For an annual fee of $400 (plus shipping), the subscriber receives a newly recorded LP every other month and, at the end of the year, a handsome, heavyweight slipcase to store them all in. This year is the third for this service, but you can buy each of the previous annual collections, while still available, for the same price as the subscription.
The recent launch of Schiit Audio’s Loki equalizer, which I first saw at the 2017 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, inspired me to rethink some of the ideas I’ve long held about audio. The Loki provides a simple, affordable ($149 USD) way to alter the sound of the music you’re listening to. That the Loki is one of only a handful of equalizers ever marketed to audiophiles spotlights a paradox in high-end audio: It’s generally considered verboten to use an equalizer to change the sound of the music you’re listening to, but it’s perfectly OK -- and, in some camps, preferred -- to alter the sound of music through the use of speakers and electronics that add their own sonic color. Check out the comments sections on audio websites and you’ll see that many audiophiles shun the most scientifically advanced, sonically transparent speakers (PSBs, Revels, etc.) and embrace speakers with demonstrably colored sounds -- such as any model using a full-range dynamic driver.
When I got into high-end audio, around 1990, I was attracted to its focus on achieving more realistic reproduction of the music that has been my passion since I was eight or nine years old. But I’m starting to feel that high-end audio now often aims at a different goal.
I’d thought that the measuring of headphones was improving, but some recent developments have made me not so sure. Last year, the introduction of some excellent new lab gear made it possible for experienced engineers and technicians to make more useful measurements than ever before. But the introduction of some very cheap, nonstandard measurement gear has made it possible for almost anyone to make headphone measurements that are less useful than ever before.
My recent review of the Monoprice Monolith M300 earphones, and my friend Steve Guttenberg’s review of the M300s on CNet, have raised a timely question. The M300s seem to be a knockoff of one of Audeze’s iSine planar-magnetic earphone models, but they arrived so soon after the iSines’ introduction that it makes me wonder if some third party isn’t dealing to both sides. The provenance of the tech products we buy is increasingly unclear, a situation that prompts me to ponder: Today, what does a brand mean?
A few subwoofer reviews aside, I haven’t been all that active in home theater the last few years. So when I was invited to be on the AV Rant podcast, hosted by Tom Andry and Rob H., I was thrilled to catch up with what’s going on in the field. The AV Rant is a roughly two-hour weekly podcast in which Tom and Rob discuss home-theater news and answer reader questions. From 1995 to 1999, when I was editor-in-chief of Home Theater magazine, I became acutely aware of the differences between the home-theater and two-channel-audio industries. Talking with Tom and Rob reminded me how different the fields are -- and how much more different they’ve become over the years.
As I write this, I’ve just returned from the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, where I moderated a panel titled “Best Headphone Rigs vs. State-of-the-Art Audio Systems.” One comment, from PSB Speakers founder and chief engineer Paul Barton, especially stuck with me. As best I can recall, he said, “Once you go to blind testing, where the listeners can’t see the identity of the products, everything changes,” and he punctuated it with a wave of both arms.
Asked the question I pose in the title of this article, most of the people I deal with in the audio industry with would say, “Of course.” But a few -- including most high-end audio publications and some high-end audio manufacturers -- might say, “No.” “Trust your ears,” they tell us over and over, implying that whatever you hear, or think you hear, is just as real and valid -- and perhaps even more so -- than conclusions derived from blind testing, laboratory measurements, or scientific research.