Convergence...not just for breakfast!

Not too long ago, the word "convergence" had everyone in the High End ready to duck'n'cover. Asia was on the ropes, and a shakeout was thinning the ranks of high-end audio manufacturers. Some US companies were marketing and selling most of their output to the Pacific Rim. The writing was on the wall: High-end was dead, and we'd all just better get used to listening to music on our computers.

Some audio dealers ran for cover in home theater. "Yeah, high-end is dead; home theater, that's the ticket! I can pay for the kid's braces and the Mercedes this way! No one cares about music anymore!"

At about the same time, the great Internet tide washed in. Dot-coms proliferated like mushrooms; everything was a commodity, including our precious high-end components. Every week on www.stereophile.com you could read about the frantic rush to get online. Bricks'n'mortar were out—all anyone needed to put together a system was a mouse and a credit card. Even staunch manufacturers who'd protected their dealers from mail-order predators (the Net is just one huge mail-order pool, isn't it?) folded their ideals and forged online alliances. The lure of Net commerce was just too tempting to resist. In perhaps the most stunning example of this, Sony decided to sell online in direct competition with their own dealers. On the Net, they eat their own young.

Coolaudio.com, for example, exploded onto the scene and shot up big and splashy. To Wilson Benesch and Chord, two worthy UK high-end audio brands that had found it difficult to break into the US market, Coolaudio seemed the perfect solution—worldwide distribution, bricks'n'clicks. They signed up, but paid the price when this colorful dot-com startup went down the drain, their equipment dumped for pennies on the dollar on eBay.

But time flies, and today we see a different, and healthier, audio landscape. "Convergence" has come to mean much more than it did even a short time ago, and without all the negative vibes, man. While everyone is still striving to integrate entertainment systems into their busy lives, there isn't the same intensity to do everything with one system. There's such a diversity of preoccupations out there, and so many ways of satisfying one's lust.

Happily, as we all learn more about how best to bend the Information Age to our own best interests, we also learn how to go more deeply into those pastimes that inspire our passions. Rather than becoming more shallow, we're actually learning to once again become a society of connoisseurs, more Iron Chef than Survivor. We have the choice, we indulge in both, but there's a reason The Antiques Roadshow has become such a hit on PBS.

Indulging in both—that's the key. Dad goes into a specialty audio-video store looking for a home-theater system. But maybe the dealer hooks another aging Boomer with what he or she knows best—two-channel audio—then leads 'im into the HT demo room. Walk this way... Or maybe the other way around: You're looking for an audio upgrade and wind up watching a movie that takes your breath away in surround. That's convergence!

So what happens in this new scenario? Papa Bear invests in a multichannel home theater so he knows where the kids are on weekends. And while Bud and Sis are watching Chuck & Buck or Cecil B. Demented on the rilly big screen, Dad yo-de-does into the library, slams the door, and fires up the ol' two-channel system to settle in with some Haydn piano trios or a dose of The Three M's: Monk, Miles, and Mingus.

The difference between audio and home theater is that they're two distinct types of purchases. Surround systems are often bought in one huge orgy of spending. Get that big screen and 5.1 channels of front-end source, amplification, and speakers, and lay it all in. The novelty factor is high, the explosions are entertaining (in the short run), and the convenience is outstanding. There's a family factor too: Cuddling up with the wife and kids is fun as well as entertaining. Bond with your boy watching The Art of War!

Audiophiles are different. They're seekers, always looking for that special contact with the music, and thus, arguably, with themselves. It's a process, while home theater is an event—or a series of discrete events, if you will. What you "see" when listening to music is in your imagination; work those brains! But home theater requires little real effort, you just have to lie there like a dead lox and let it all wash over you, with an occasional twitch or grunt. Perhaps that's why the scuttlebutt has it that Sony wants you to own more than one machine. It's an interesting scenario: a more costly two-channel SACD player for music, and a DVD-Audio machine for movies and everything else surround.

And that's why, I'm convinced, bricks'n'mortar audio salons have another chance to make themselves relevant. Since newly bankrupt dot-coms are falling out of the trees, and since 200-lb monoblock amps and turntables never became commoditized, the dealers have one more golden opportunity to offer a truly value-added shopping experience, to make a visit to their emporia worth your while. If they don't go with the flow and cultivate new customers, they'll wither on the vine and die. Force them to serve you (what a situation!), [haunt] your local dealer, get in there as often as possible and audition equipment 'til the cows come home before making a decision. And follow your instincts! Use that demo time to develop your ears. The dealers are takin' your money, make sure they earn it!

Convergence, yessir; it's not just for breakfast anymore!

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