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High-End Audio Explained

August 11, 2007

"High-end audio is about passion -- passion for music, and for how well it is reproduced." With this simple, direct statement, Robert Harley begins the discussion of high-end audio in his latest book, Introductory Guide to High-Performance Audio Systems (Acapella Publishing, 2007). The Complete Guide to High-End Audio (Acapella Publishing, 1994), now in its third printing, is Harley's 450-page reference for audiophiles, covering our avocation with the sort of wisdom and depth that product reviews generally do not. Harley has written hundreds of reviews and technical articles on audio-related subjects and the book Home Theater for Everyone (Acapella Publishing, 1997), but his latest book is his most accessible work yet. In 223 pages, it breaks down high-end audio in a way that will open the minds of new listeners and give even seasoned audiophiles useful information. It's The Complete Guide slimmed down, without all of the technical information, and a tribute to the notion of active listening to music.

Introductory Guide is divided into a dozen chapters that take a "how to" approach. Critical listening and the language of audio reviews are discussed with the aim of demystifying both. SACD and DVD-A, technologies not available when The Complete Guide was written, are covered, as are home-theater and multichannel sound. Harley takes on the tangled subject of audio cables ("Good cables merely allow the system's components to perform at their highest level….") and emphasizes getting the most out of an audio system through loudspeaker placement and room optimization.

What makes this latest book a success is the extreme lucidity of Harley's writing. Whether he's describing a complex technical issue or trying to translate the sound he hears into words, he always writes in a straightforward manner, but never lapses into academic dryness or the use of pat audio-reviewing phrases. Summing up the difference in sound between analog and digital, Harley writes, "I think of it this way: LP's distortions are apparent, but separate from the music; digital's distortions are woven into the music's fabric. Consequently, analog's distortions are easier to ignore." No matter how you see this issue, Harley's description puts a fine edge on it, and his writing is succinct and perceptive.

The proliferation of undisciplined hobbyist-run websites over the past decade has contributed to confusion about good sound and how to obtain it, not to mention a decline in the writing quality from what is now considered the audio press. Robert Harley's latest book counteracts these trends, and the general principles discussed in it will help readers get the most out of the specifics in audio reviews. I'll be pulling for its great success....Marc Mickelson, editor@soundstage.com


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