The High End, Mid-Fi, & Pretend High End
There are products I've heard audio snobs dismiss as "mid-fi"—Tyll Hertsens' delightful little HeadRoom headphone amplifiers, for example—purely because they're cheap enough to bring them in reach of those who don't have unlimited disposable income.
On the other hand, there are high-priced products—I'll draw a kindly veil over which ones, this not being the appropriate forum to add to their manufacturers' miseries—which audiophiles almost automatically think of as being the epitome of "high-end," yet are poorly engineered, suffer from abysmal quality control, and are sometimes incapable of producing a sound that anyone would find musical.
A couple of years back (July 1991, Vol.14 No.7), Robert Harley wrote: "What distinguishes a high-end from a mass-market product is the designer's caring attitude toward music...high-end products produce a powerful intimacy with the music." I think it runs deeper and wider than Bob's undoubtedly true words, however. I recently had a conversation with Larry Archibald about why some magazines succeed in the marketplace while others fail to attract a readership, however well-supported by advertisers they might be.
In person, Larry usually comes across as an affable man. His genial good humor, however, disguises a brain as sharp as a Japanese sword: the victim sliced by it doesn't realize he's mortally cut in twain until he tries to walk away. As always, LA cut to the quick with his comments: A magazine publisher who gives the highest priority to the needs of advertisers will never find a loyal readership, no matter whether his publication is concerned with high-quality products or mass-market dreck.
On the other hand, he said, good magazines—of which Stereophile is one—are written and edited to fulfill the needs of their readers. He reminded me of an old publishing maxim: A good editor produces a magazine that he or she would want to read. And that I indeed do. As you can read at the end of this month's "Manufacturers' Comments," this philosophy carries a price—but for all of us at Stereophile, the decision to pay that price is a no-brainer.
Larry's analysis applies equally to audio. Components primarily designed to meet the needs of audiophiles and music-lovers are worthy of the appellation "high-end," no matter what they cost. The much wider range of products whose genesis lies purely in the need of their manufacturer to fill a gap in their product line or attack a previously unoccupied niche in the market, or even just to flesh out their business plan, are "mid-fi" by definition. It's as simple as that. The next time you find someone equating the words "high" and "end" with "high-priced," or feeling that low-priced is automatically equivalent to "mid-fi," remind them that it ain't necessarily so.
Because a designer's heart is pure, however, is no guarantee that a high-end component will deliver on its promises. Having the right motives doesn't ensure that someone will be technically competent enough to design a product that works, is reliable, and doesn't do anything stupid. A topic that has seen some recent activity, both in competing high-end magazines and on computer bulletin boards, has been Stereophile's program of accompanying its equipment reviews with sets of standardized measurements.
Some of the criticism comes from those benighted souls who suspect all science. But to those who are more rational in their skepticism, I would point out that, as well as allowing us to—albeit slowly—build up a database of what good-sounding products have in common, such measurements expose the technical underachievers for what they are: pretend high-end. There's nowhere to hide in those graphs, folks, no matter how much an aggrieved manufacturer tries to talk them out of existence.—John Atkinson