The many-decades-old term “Straight Wire” wasn’t referring to a wire without kinks. Instead, it meant that the music passed straight through the wire without affectation. The first time I heard it was from reviewer J. Peter Moncrief of I.A.R.. (though I believe he borrowed the term from designer Stuart Hegeman of Harmon Kardon).
Peter had devised a test that compared the sound of music passed through a wire to that of an amplifier with gain. The idea was a simple one. If you could gain match the amplifier to the wire and audition the differences you might be able to judge the amp’s performance. He called it his straight wire with gain test. He wasn’t alone. Stereophile founder and reviewer J. Gordon Holt standardized a similar test he called his A/B Bypass Test.
The long and short of these tests were to make certain there was nothing added nor removed from the purity of the musical signal. This was a great idea if that’s what you were aiming for. But there were wrinkles. The first problem was the very act of gain matching equipment has an impact on sound quality. Next came the problem that units passing the straight wire test didn’t always sound as good as others that contained slight colorations. Then the kicker came when we realized wires too had a sound to them.
In the end, we have to go back to what we know the best. We need to trust our senses and memories to use as a reference. We need to attend concerts and recitals and sharpen our memory of what real music, unamplified and unaided by microphones and mixing boards, sound like.
Then, we can bypass all the wires—straight or otherwise—and simply use the two little appendages alongside our heads to determine what’s right or wrong.
A master recording captured on 30-year-old magnetic tape won’t sound as good as it once did, but that is not true of virgin vinyl LP’s or digital audio of the same age.
Of all the virgin vinyl ever produced there was one that was head-and-shoulders better than any other: Direct-to-Disc recording. Many of us will have fond memories of the Sheffield and Crystal Clear Direct-to-Disc recordings of the 70s and 80s. These rare treasures were an extraordinary challenge to make but, done right, there were few examples of recording art better than they.
For those unfamiliar with this lost art here’s how it worked. An artist or band would perform music live in a studio, often with little more than a stereo pair of microphones fed directly into a mixing board. The output of that board was fed into a cutting lathe where the mastering engineer would follow along with the musical score, making on the fly adjustments to the lathe to compensate for dynamic range challenges (as opposed to doing the same on the mixing board which limits that range). These were true works of art—one of a kind and never duplicated because it was live, the stamping master capable of producing only so many copies before it was exhausted.
The results were often extraordinary: Dynamic to the point of the needle sometimes jumping out of the record groove. The first time you played one of the albums would be the best and each successive play just a little less exciting (as the playback needle polished the grooves into submission).
What made the magic wasn’t the technology of Direct-to-Disc because digital was (and is) far better in every respect. It was remarkable because of what didn’t happen: the mastering engineer couldn’t screw it up with limiters, filters, equalizers, and all the trappings that today rob the life from reproduced music. The impossibly difficult process had to be live and without hindrance to qualify as Direct-to-Disc.
Imagine what we could do with live music on good microphones fed directly into a DSD recorder with the hands of the mastering engineer kept off the bells and whistles available today.
Oh man, those treasure would be remarkable.