Academy? What Academy?!
Had they soldiered on, readers of the July 9th edition of the New York Times could have picked from a lineup of the usual suspects. There was the litany of examples of stupid-high prices. (Tube amplifiers at $34,000/pair! An electrostatic speaker system for $70,000!) There was the we're-dying-out-here quote from a member of the industry (Magnepan's Wendell Diller). And there was the we'll-survive-if-we-embrace-home-theater quote from another member of the industry (Jon Herron of Madrigal Audio Laboratories).
Some software company makes a template for writing these articles, don't they?
I've seen home audio written about in a number of places over the years, and the results are always the same: Rather than promote itself, our industry parodies itself.
You and I are among the converted, of course. So let's step aside and put ourselves in the place of the reader who doesn't know anything about hi-fi: What would the average American learn from the Times article?
• Most people who sell high-end audio are arrogant, classist fools, and to them anyone who can't buy their wares lives in a trailer park and blows his nose on his shirt (or one of his 14 children's shirts).
• Joe Sixpack and Jill Boxed White Wine are stuck with cheap minisystems and portables because the good stuff is too expensive—over $10,000 for a CD-only "beginner's system," the article says.
• Listening to music for the sake of listening to music is dead.
• The rich guys who were into hi-fi last year are into something else this year.
• This isn't a hobby, it's a fetish—an obsession—practiced by rich fruitcakes who don't really know much about music, so instead they have to blather about tweaking and phasing and "soundstages."
Sad, isn't it? It's like, "Okay, boys, here's your big chance to talk to the real media. What do you want to say to the folks at home?"
Well, what would you, as one of this magazine's readers, tell them? Would you tell them about the music that's still available on LP? Would you tell them about recent, real improvements in the CD format? Would you tell them about the resurgence of high-quality hi-fi in kit form? Would you tell them that Western Electric, a company that even my mother has heard of, is back in the business of making tubes? And would you tell them how exciting a record like Blonde on Blonde or Mingus Ah Um or the Herbert Howells Requiem can be on a good hi-fi?
Since I don't have access to the reporter's notes, I can't damn the quotees completely—it's possible that some redeemingly sensible observations are scattered across the cutting-room floor. But based on the published piece, there's only one reasonable conclusion: If you were among the industry denizens questioned by the Times, the answer is "None of the Above."
No. You'd tell them about $45,000 turntables and $125,000 speakers, because you think that will impress them. You'd tell them that an entry-level music system costs $10,000, and that $1500 of that is for wire. You'd tell them that listening to music is for only a handful of old die-hards. You'd tell them how supremely important it is for a system to create a three-dimensional soundstage. And you won't waste a single breath telling anyone about the pleasures of music.
That's right: over 2000 words about "high-end" audio, and not once is a piece of music mentioned. Hey, fellas: nice going.
I'm no longer surprised by the foolishness of the so-called High End. But I am outraged by the behavior of those make-believe music lovers who've grown very, very fat off this industry. And to hear the same Ferrari owners turn up the volume on their "woe-is-uh-me-bop" prognostications every year nauseates me.
How can we do better?
Well, the way it works in most other fields is that the smart manufacturers and retailers and press all get together and form an industry association. Everyone kicks in some money, and the association uses it to promote said industry to the public.
Nice idea. How about applying it to hi-fi?
Actually, we've got one already. It used to be called The Academy for the Advancement of High End Audio. Now it's called The Academy Advancing High Performance Audio and Video.
Here's the setup: You're the Lifestyles Editor for some newspaper, and you're gathering contacts for an article about hi-fi. You call some big audio salon and ask if there's a trade organization you can talk to. The guy who answers the phone says, "Yeah—it's called The Academy..." But he doesn't get any further than that, 'cause you're already laughing your ass off.
Hey, folks, someone's gotta say it: I have no idea who came up with the name "The Academy," but I imagine that that absurd, girlishly pretentious moniker has itself kept more people away from our field than it's attracted.
But ignoring even that, let's ask a question about our industry trade group: What does AAHPAV do every year with the money they get from their members?
Two things, basically:
• AAHPAV sponsors an annual awards banquet, so all those manufacturers who are clinging desperately to life can dress up in their tuxedos and gowns and honor each other for making the "best" high-priced gear and audiophile recordings; and,
• A few months after every CES, AAHPAV sponsors the "Academy Trade Days"—a portion of Stereophile's annual HI-FI Show to which the public is not invited.
Useful? The expression "like a screen door on a submarine" comes to mind.
Hi-fi needs a muscular trade organization to promote our goods and services to the public. We can no longer afford to sit back and watch our industry fade into obscurity while the people who should be promoting us are busy celebrating a bloated little status quo: the manufacturers, retailers, and magazines whose idea of strategy is to simply raise prices and product weights every year under the guise of "pushing the envelope."
Hi-fi is changing. More and more each day, people are coming to see the old "high-end" paradigm as irrelevant and silly. And some dealers, manufacturers, and magazines are reaching out to people of average means who simply love music and would respond well to a field that's dedicated to helping them enjoy it.
AAHPAV, you have some talented people at your disposal: If you can put your time and resources into promoting our industry to the American public, we would love your help. If you can't, or won't, then please get out of the way.
[Editor's Note: AAHPAV closed its doors not too long after this essay, Art Dudley's first to appear in Stereophile, was published.—John Atkinson]