Letters in Response

Letters in Response appeared in April 1994 (Vol.17 No.4):

The High End's blindness
Editor: Well done, Jack English! Truer words have rarely been written in the pages of Stereophile. In the opening paragraph of your "R.I.P. High End Audio" in January, you nailed the culprit: people. For all its brilliant scientific success, the High End has failed miserably at the most important science of all: that of human psychology. Since a good understanding of human psychology is the basis of successful marketing, nobody should be surprised to learn that the High End can't market its way out of a paper bag. The people within the industry act like they've never met an average American consumer; and when they do, they recoil in terror.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, an American tragic novel is depicted on Stereophile's gorgeous new cover. Just below the date, January 1994, is an amplifier that could have easily come from January 1934. Though 60 years apart, both '34 and '94 represent periods when the flashiest status symbol of all is a job! Has anybody within the High End figured that out? When corporations like McDonald's to Mercedes Benz are announcing "value-pricing for the '90s," we turn to the pages of Stereophile to discover that a pair of 30W retro-turds are going to set you back $7500.

Meanwhile, people with brains, with common sense, with a job, with an eye toward value, are doing this with their $7500. They've noticed that the price of 35" color tubes has actually come down in the past couple of years. (Does that ever occur in the High End?) They pick up a big-tube TV for $1200, figuring that's a great start to a home-theater system. They might take Corey Greenberg's suggestion and add a trick satellite-subwoofer system from someone like NHT. Throw in a laserdisc player, add an electronics core from any number of manufacturers, and one could assemble an entire home-theater system for $7500.

And now for the basic lesson in human psychology: Listen up, you idiot-savants! There's a reason they call this the home entertainment business: Girls just want to have fun, and guys just want to be cool (and impress the girls). So now it's New Year's Eve, and you have two choices: drop in on Skip and Buffy, party hearty to the Tina Turner laserdisc, grind hips with the hot little redhead certain to be at Skip and Buffy's—after all, they've got that cool new Home Theater—or accept the invitation from that bed-wetting, propeller-head Poindexter with the two new 30W retro-turds.

Don't all raise your hands at once, now. I want you to think carefully before making your decision. Remember, we're talking about the probable behavioral patterns of real Americans. (Does anyone in the High End associate with anyone like that?) Jack, did I notice your use of the word "irrelevant"? Good choice!

In the final paragraph of JE's article, he writes, "We aren't effectively communicating the value of high-end audio." Wake up and smell the coffee, Jack; there is no value to be communicated to the average American through a $7500 pair of 30W retro-turds! Or an $8900 Krell amp, or a $6300 Krell preamp (line only), or a $12,850 MFA preamp, or the $10,995 Mach I speakers, all of which occupy the first issue of the newly enlarged Stereophile. Too bad your concept of value isn't newly enlarged.—Bruce Market, Coeur d'Alene, ID

The high end's success
Editor: Jack English's very well expressed article in January on why high-end audio does not penetrate the consciousness of its natural market addresses all the relevant issues, except perhaps the deeper philosophical one. Indeed, most musically sensitive, intelligent, and well-heeled consumers of reproduced music do ignore the world of high-end audio. If they have some fleeting contact with it, they recoil in repugnance at what they see as either simple charlatanism or complex self-delusion. I know, because I was a scoffer myself until a couple years ago, and I had more than a few good laughs about people listening to cables. (This is the apogee of absurdity to a non-audiophile. You might as well spend your time listening to the sound of your sofa for all the sense this makes to the uninitiated.)

The philosophical obstacle to even giving the High End a listen is based on unquestioning faith in Science. If anything, this faith is even narrower and more blinding than the faith of medieval theologians in the orthodoxies of Catholicism (footnote 1). To think that one 100W receiver with less than 0.01% THD could sound different from some audiophile preamp/amp with the same specifications is not just a novel opinion, it is downright heresy! It is almost as unthinkable as it would have been for Thomas Aquinas to disavow the divinity of Christ. If one admits either proposition, the whole edifice of Science or Christian theology respectively tumbles into chaos. To go to a listening session would be the equivalent of the Pope attending a black mass.

In my case, the conversion began by reading a couple of issues of Stereophile, to which I had subscribed without any comprehension of what I was getting into. I came aboard just as the controversy about Tice clocks was churning the "Letters" column. That was more theology than I could swallow, and I just about asked for a refund, except that a few of the articles seemed interesting and even sensible.

However, a dealer, frustrated by my continuing skepticism, administered the most telling blow: He commanded me to sit down and listen to two amplifiers. After about an hour of listening to Barbra Streisand breathe ("Listen real carefully to the sibilance when she takes a breath"), I stood up believing that a 50W amp could sound just as loud as a 100W amp, and that the differences in intonation that I heard really existed and sounded more pleasing on the lower-powered amp. (The sustained repetition also opened to me the world of Streisand and Show music, which I had previously despised.)

Since that experience, Science has become science to me. I am no longer a true believer in the all-importance of measurement. It took the dethronement of a na;d;ive faith before I could hear the difference that the High End proclaims. I suspect that this same shift in belief—and it's a big one—must be made by anyone who enters the world of high-end audio.

Unfortunately, I doubt that there is any substitute for the dealer who spent so much time with me tediously changing cables and cuing my attention. It is a time-consuming process with no guarantee of conversion; but then, that has always been the price of evangelization. A dealer must evangelize even knowing that some other dealer may become the beneficiary of his efforts. Perhaps he will be the beneficiary of another dealer's efforts.

But perhaps we as individuals can make the biggest difference by demonstrating our systems to visitors without becoming irritated at skepticism. Why not go to the trouble of pulling out some of your audiophile gear and substituting that old Sansui receiver so your teenage son's friend can understand, too? If you truly love music, it is a joy to share not only the music, but also your knowledge of the means of enjoying it more fully.—Louis Bencze, Brush Prairie, WA

The High End can be saved
Editor: The average music lover (read "non-audiophile") is completely put off by assertions that speaker cables, specific CD players, different amplifiers, or, for that matter, green-ink CD tweaks make any difference. Most hardly know what a "soundstage" is. However, a large percentage would be very impressed with the difference between $700 Sony speakers and $1400 full-range Vandersteens. A small percentage of those would search for more and become dedicated audiophiles.

The way to save the High End is to encourage people to buy expensive speakers like Vandersteen 2Ces and Thiel CS2 2s and use their current equipment to drive them (as long as power/load requirements are met). This requires speaker manufacturers to appeal to a mass audience by insisting that their speakers sound great with almost any system. I have my Thiels plugged into inexpensive amplification. I love it. Only after a year, I am beginning to appreciate (or disagree with) Stereophile's opinions. Perhaps a Melos or a Krell would make an improvement...—Gill Eisenstein, Ypsilanti, MI

The High End's failure
Editor: Jack English mentioned the "High End's abhorrence of rock'n'roll" in January. Sadly, I suspect this is a common attitude, and it irritates me to no end. The purpose of flawlessly reproducing recorded music is to enjoy the music, not the technology. The technophiles who seem to populate the world of high-end audio miss this point. They can't tell the difference between a delicate violin sonata and the Stereophile Test CD 1, provided they are played using equal technologies. On the other hand, one of my favorite artists, Led Zeppelin, is history's most sloppily recorded. They sound like crap, no matter what sound system you have. But I love their music just the same.—Bruce D. Gretz, Ann Arbor, MI

The High End's decline
Editor: Jack English's January article, "R.I.P. High End Audio," built a case for the evident decline of the high-end audio industry on the lack of name recognition.

There are others in and around "high-quality" audio, as we who have been around for many years prefer to call it. I would like to add the thinking of these people, and myself (who should be qualified, after 35 years or so of being a part of it all), to the reasons why this is occurring.

Thirty-five and forty years ago, the ruling names in music reproduction in the home that were known to the so-called educated public were Capehart, Magnavox, Scott-Ravenswood; later, Philharmonic Radio (which became Fisher), etc. Among the initiated, and owing to the early writings of those such as B.H. Haggin in The Nation and F. Scott Burke in The Saturday Review, the ruling names were Fisher, Brociner-Klipsch, Electro-Voice Patrician, Brook, etc.

These latter names were no better known in their day than are the high-end names of today. Yet back then, the industry was growing ever upward, with great excitement everywhere. The late, great Joe Marshall, an early commentator on the burgeoning "high-quality" industry, called the "hi-fi quest" the search for the ineffable, the better in life—it seemed a proper project for each day, as we approached what we thought was the "golden mean" of music reproduction.

Today, that search and its idealistic overtones seem ended. Why? It is more than a lack of name recognition, according to most worthy authorities with whom I have spoken. Most of them add, parenthetically, that the cause of the decline is not inevitable, that it can be reversed. I offer the various theories I have heard, with brief descriptions of each:

1) The victim is the culprit; ie, the theory of it. Raymond Cooke, a giant in the art of the loudspeaker [and the founder of KEF], who in the past has done much for "high-quality" sound reproduction (he is now, unfortunately, quite ill), espoused this most directly in my demonstration room at the 1990 Summer CES in Chicago, and to a man well known to you all: Mr. Larry Archibald. Raymond spent approximately an hour berating Larry (I was completely silent during the trauma) for creating an underground publication which, like certain others both in the US and his native England, diverted the search for more realistic, accurate sound reproduction in the home—a subject, Raymond said, which is interesting to people with serious interests in music—into channels of interest only to hobbyists and the neurotically inclined. Something like the medieval argument regarding how many angels could dance on the head of a pin—ie, completely alienated from any serious purpose, and devoid of any scientific verification! Raymond seemed to be saying that the publications had rejected the same music lovers who had originally formed the basis for the new "high-quality" approach!

2) The days of glory in the industry were back in the late 1970s and early '80s. People no longer have an interest in higher-quality sound reproduction; those who stay in the industry are catering to a different class of thrill-seekers. (This theory was advanced to me by Raymond in a recent letter.)

3) Everyone is too busy these days. Several dealers have told me that their traditional customers, those who actually spend time listening to serious music, and who appreciate serious higher-quality reproduction (and were willing to pay for the equipment required for it), are no longer in the market because they are so busy in other ways that they don't have the time. The business is both professional and social, other leisure needs and pursuits taking precedence over serious listening to music. Symptomatic of the change is the emergence of Home Theater—translated as embellishments of the "boob tube"—as well as other leisure pursuits which were not relevant 30 or more years ago.

4) The day of the cultivated—ie, well-educated and sensitive human being, sensitive to the arts in all their manifestations—is in decline. Hans Fantel, a famous audio writer for the erudite New York Times, advanced this theory to me one late afternoon last summer on the porch of his home in the Berkshires, near Tanglewood (where, we both agreed, the arts are not in decline). He quoted a book with which I was familiar, The Revolt of the Masses, written by Jose Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher, in the early 1930s. This book foresaw the decline of the truly cultivated man under the onslaught of the masses and the commercial entertainments to come, wherein true culture and the arts were repackaged and brutalized for mass consumption by the rising group, rich in money rather than culture, which he termed the "new barbarians"!

5) The costs of "high-quality" sound reproduction zooming upward while the disposable income of the middle classes declined, along with their standards of living and their exposure to art forms, one of which might be termed the "high-quality" reproduction of serious music.

Kevin Phillips, political consultant to the Republican party in the late '60s, describes just this situation in his recent book, The Boiling Point. Certain "elites" (financial, and definitely not the intellectual elites of Ortega y Gasset) have systematically and purposefully reduced the ability of the middle classes to involve themselves in art (such as music and its proper reproduction). According to these financial elites, the only purpose of these "middle classes," who in the past purchased the majority of reasonably priced "high-quality" equipment, is the consumption of cruder (ie, cruder than art forms), mass-produced goods.

6) Our educational system—ie, that available to most people—has fatally failed our culture, as evidenced by the wiping out of classes introducing students to music and other art forms in the schools. While the removal of cultural education from most schools does not affect the financial "elites" described by Kevin Phillips (cf 5, above), who can afford to send their children to expensive private schools, it does have direct effects on all other children who, for instance, come out of school basically illiterate, and certainly without an abiding love for serious music of the sort for which the industry of "high-quality" sound reproduction originally formed itself. Therefore, these children do not know music—these functionally and artistically illiterate people have no need of, no desire for, and no idea of the art form that, in essence, is the "high-quality" reproduction of music in the home!

According to this theory, even the original godheads of music in the home, mentioned in my opening paragraphs, would have little relevance to, and therefore little prospects for sales to, these functional illiterates which our current educational system produces.

So much for theories: I could go on and on, to other people's projections of the reasons why all art forms are in peril in our current social scene. For instance, the orchestras are suffering badly; ballet troupes are going bankrupt everywhere; even the Metropolitan Opera, I am told, is not as healthy as it would want to be.

But, as I have suggested, all the above theories predicate the possibility of being reversed. For instance, there are beginning attempts to reverse our educational system. Young children may again hear and love, in their schools, "In the Hall of the Mountain King," which started me on my lifetime involvement in music and its proper reproduction. I offer these theories for what they are worth, and am willing to expand on them at length, if the need and the interest be among your readers.—Irving M. ("Bud") Fried, Fried Products Corporation

But is high-end audio declining? I don't think so, as the companies that constitute the High End are doing better than they ever have, and are forming a new Establishment. I think the problem is more one of limited growth potential, which is why the next letter, despite the whiskers it grew in my in-tray, makes an appearance.—John Atkinson

Where are the women?
Editor: Every time I read in Stereophile or The Abso!ute Sound about the lack of women involved as customers in high-end audio, I think of the National Press Club bar, which was open only to men until 1972. Owing to the agenda of the times, it was decided to allow women members into the bar. A date was set for integration, and my paper, the long-gone Washington Daily News, decided to send our reporter, Judy Mann, to buy the first drink. The great day arrived, Judy bought her drink (I forget what it was), I got my picture, and news was made.

As a member of the club, I would look in the bar whenever I was there. Guess what? After all the fuss and feathers, it was still rare to see a woman member there. Most women members still preferred, it appeared, to sit in the lounge and order drinks from a waiter.

I attend live music pretty regularly, mostly the San Francisco Opera and San Jose Symphony. From time to time I count heads in the seats around me, and have noticed that women consistently outnumber men. I have a good friend who has season tickets to the SJ Symphony and our local opera. She often invites me to go along, because her husband wants to stay home and she doesn't want to waste his ticket. So far as I can tell, women are equally or more interested in attending live music as/than men. The only reason for this is that women like to dress up and go out more than men. Maybe, but let's look further.

Do you know any women who listen regularly to recorded music at home who own more than one performance of a given work? I don't, and my sample group of women includes a surgeon's wife, a microbiology Ph.D., a lawyer, a photo retoucher, and a clinical psychologist who sings in amateur oratorio and opera. If they wished to, they could all afford more than one recording of a favorite work. This leads me to:

Do you know any women who argue the merits of two or more live performances of a given work of music? I don't. At the opera, my female friends will assert that they like a particular singer of the evening or don't like another. What I have never heard (and some of them have been going to the opera for 30 or 40 years) is, "She's okay, but do you remember how Tebaldi (Callas, Milanov, de Los Angeles—pick your own) used to sing that passage?" Opera-going men make these comments all the time. It might be worth noticing that nearly all the "Letters" [published in] Fanfare magazine, which is devoted almost exclusively to comparisons of recorded performances, are signed by men. In Fanfare, we are dealing exclusively with recordings, not speaker wire.

Ah yes, speaker wire. Perhaps we ask the wrong question. Instead of asking why women don't get into high-end audio, we should be asking what particular form of dementia drives men (myself included) to sink ridiculous sums into audio equipment. I have read of $2500 CD players described as "affordable." We live in the era of "basic" $5000 preamps, $50–$100/foot speaker cables, and $2000 tonearms. Cartridges? Ho-ho.

Not long ago, my microbiologist friend asked me to help her select a modest system. She had been thinking about one of the various mini-systems which contain an integrated amp, CD and tape decks, and dedicated speakers. I suggested she get entry-level NAD equipment with PSB Alphas, and she took my advice. She loves the system, and her total investment was about two-thirds the price of a Lyra Clavis. She and her six-year-old daughter (who knows Die Zauberflöte and Hänsel und Gretel by heart) listen to it constantly. If I were to tell her that I saw, at the 1993 San Francisco Stereophile High-End Hi-Fi Show, an 8' pair of speaker wires costing $15,000, she would a) not believe me, and b) not care. She likes her system because it lets her hear music she likes, and she doesn't feel any need to compare it to others.

Is this the key to the lack of women in the High End? Have men made the whole industry/hobby one of constant comparisons? It hardly seems that men can listen to music without doing this—Furtwängler vs Toscanini, Pavarotti vs Domingo, Heifetz vs Kreisler, ARC vs Classé, Linn vs SOTA, ad infinitum. We're always looking for The Winner.

Perhaps all these comparisons are actually getting in the way of pure enjoyment of music. Or perhaps men only enjoy music when they make comparisons. I spend a lot of time listening to my system and tweaking components. Yet the thought constantly occurs to me that my enjoyment of favorite recordings, such as Furtwängler's BPO performance of Beethoven's Coriolanus Overture, has not increased at all since the days when I owned a B&O receiver and turntable and I forget what speakers.

Without the constant need to compare, there would be no desire to upgrade one's system. With no compulsion to upgrade, there would be virtually no high-end market. If my observations and assumptions are correct, some of the suggestions, like making components more "attractive," won't draw women into the High End. I understand that people collect vintage electric train sets. Apparently in the late '30s, some genius at the Lionel Train Co. noticed that little girls weren't buying electric trains and persuaded the bean counters that it was because trains were ugly. Lionel therefore marketed a train set painted entirely in pink! As I understand it, that set (complete and mint) now sells for tens of thousands of dollars because little girls didn't buy it, and it is of extreme rarity. Spare me from a pink Krell or a floral SOTA! That isn't going to do it. My friend with the NAD gear has never made any comment, pro or con, about the looks of the equipment (her listening room is in Early American). She accepts the NAD for what it is, and she likes the sound.

Will the growth of home-entertainment systems draw women into the field? I think not. I don't know any women who care if they watch a favorite movie on a 13" Panasonic or a 32" Sony XBR, or a Gawdalmighty Theta Data/Runco/Lexicon/Snell THX system. They don't seem to need to make these differentiations. And how many women buy subwoofers? Please, Velodyne and Muse, tell us. Make me wrong.

The High End is designed by men for men. It feeds our particular need to compare and improve. Nanette Westerman was right, in her letter last April (p.12), that there is a certain amount of defensive chauvinism in the men's club of audiophiles. Her most telling statement, if I may edit, is "...before I spend my money...you'll have to see how music fits into my life, and design practical, affordable systems around my needs." Actually, this is just what high-end systems are not. They are impractical and awfully unaffordable systems which fit certain men's needs. When I have audiophile (men) friends over, we listen to and comment on my system. But I listen to music far more (live and recorded) with women, who could care less if I'm using KT88s or KT99s.

Unlike the National Press Club bar, the High End has no rule excluding women. In this context, Larry Archibald's response in the April '93 "Final Word" was right on the money: Women don't see themselves as audiophiles, and would appear to have no interest in being seen as audiophiles. But LA's argument that industry, stupidity, and lack of promotional creativity have kept women out of the High End doesn't convince me. It's true that many dealers are insensitive klutzes and that many salesmen are ignorant jerks, but as many are not. Stereo Plus, a fine dealership in San Francisco, has female salespersons who are extremely competent and a pleasure to work with. I don't notice more women customers there than in other stores.

I have no idea if there is a way to involve women in the High End, which seems to exist to serve men in quest of constant upgrading. Should the industry discourage this? Should women suddenly become as neurotic as we are? Why?

LA's idea to "invite local female executive groups to be your guests for their meetings" is a wonderful idea. Perhaps the hangup for women is that their awareness of the High End usually comes from a father, husband, or boyfriend, and is therefore perceived as A Male Thing. If all-women groups could be persuaded to listen to high-end equipment together, things might change. A sensitive dealer could do a lot in this direction.

So is there a point to all this? I suppose it's this: Integrate the high-end bar by all means, but don't be surprised if women continue to buy drinks in the mid-fi lounge and enjoy their music live. They have a right to.—Charles Arnhold, San Jose, CA

Asymptotic attributions
Editor: In his cry of despair about the threatened demise of high-end audio (p.68), Jack English noted a possible parallel between audiophilia and automotivilia, and also offered a graph relating loudspeaker cost to performance which followed an asymptotic law. For the record, in 1968, I presented a similar curve in my book Hi-Fi in the Home, plotting financial outlay against quality for complete stereo systems, with cars set in parallel for comparison, and subsequently employed the phrase "asymptotic to perfection" when discussing the cost/quality equation in Hi-Fi News. Prices have changed somewhat since then, but it's gratifying to find the asymptote still in place after a quarter-century of further perfectionist striving.—John Crabbe, Todmorden, Lancashire, England



Footnote 1: This uncritical faith in Science is examined in Harry Collins's and Trevor Pinch's The Golem (Cambridge University Press, 1993). Professors Collins and Pinch look at formal scientific method as practised in a small number of classic experiments—Michaelson & Morley's proof for the nonexistence of the ether, for example—and conclude that "objectivity" is more intimately linked with society's and scientists' expectations and needs than is generally appreciated. They also examine the general public's flip-flopping between distrust of, and blind adulation for, Science. Regarding the latter, Collins and Pinch point out on p.143 that "It is no coincidence that those who feel most certain of their grip on scientific method have rarely worked on the frontiers of science themselves."—John Atkinson
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COMMENTS
lwhitefl's picture

"When it comes to "High End" , no amount of marketing will sell to a miniscule to non-existent demographic. That being the portion of the population that has $25,000 to $50,000 in disposable income to buy luxury items. Well under 1%."

With all due respect less than 1% of the world population is still a lot of people with sufficient disposable income to expand the current high end market. It seems logical advertising by high end manufacturers has the potential of allowing many more in this group to become aware how well executed audio can enhance their music listening and video enjoyment.

It also seems logical to me there are considerably more people spending well beyond "necessities" on items such as cars, smartphones and notebooks, video, low resolution music, restaurants, etc. - in no small way due to advertising. I think many of those people would be drawn to much of the great sounding lower cost audio gear if they were aware of it and had the opportunity to hear it. I agree audio gear like Magnepan is one valid starting point. But I'm skeptical a complete good sounding audio systems can be assembled for less than $1,000 as you suggest.

Hopefully dialog like this by audiophiles, and marketing ideas expressed at venues such as RMAF seminars, can prevent high end audio from becoming extinct.

Rust's picture

The $1,000 price point was not sufficiently defined, sorry about that. It was not meant to exemplify the cost per system, but the cost per component.

On the other hand, $1,000 for an entire system? A decent system? Certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. Assuming one has a basic notebook/laptop/desk top, at an Audioquest Dragonfly or similar DAC, and a set of Audioengine or simlar speakers, and there it is, a "high value high performance" system.

Now that is a marketable concept. To a market segment, that over time, may be willing to move upscale. Provided that the perception of real value is there. Necessity vs luxury and the amount of disposable income  for those luxuries, and the law of diminishing returns.

As previously stated, until and unless there is some trickle down effect, the extreme high end doen't have much meaning to me. And regardless of cost, no high end system can reproduce the sound of my dreadnought 12 string which has been developing tone since I bought it in 1968.

Rust's picture

"By whose definition? Have you ever read Stephen Mejias' column in Stereophile, or any of Sam Tellig's columns, or any of the other reviews of reasonably priced equipment?"

Why yes I do.

Reading back through my initial post, among others, I specifically mentioned NAD as a high value manufacturer. And cited a few others like Magnapan, Odyssey who actually manufacture in the USA and STILL manage to produce high value high performance equipment.

After all, wasn't an Odyssey Khartago amplifier compared very favorably to the flavor of the month Soulution? Considering the Khartago can be biased for a particular set of speakers, can be configured mono or stereo, can have the power supply upgraded, can be ordered in a selection of colors, can be sent back to the factory for checkups and tuneup, costs under $1,000, is made in Indianapolis, Indiana AND has a better warranty, you tell me which one represents "High Value High Performance" and which one typifies "High End"

Measured purely in performance, the Soulution is a better amplifier, but it is not fifty times better than the Odyssey.

But keep in mind that I also said the "High End" is useful in that many developements initially available only in the high priced euipment may eventually trickle down the price ladder. Digital is a perfect example. Not that many years ago a decent DAC ran into the many thousands of dollars, now it has hit the 90/10 split, over 90% of the performance at less than 10% of the price.

tealosophy's picture

Young people involved in music, what do we do these days? why don't we put every single cent we earn on great hi-end equipment? 

one of the main reasons that comes to my mind is passive Vs. active music involvement: 30 or 40 years ago, the process of creating your own music, was limited to play with your band and perhaps get some money to record a crappy demo in a studio or  have the talent and luck to hit it and become part of the music industry as an artist. Nowadays you can get professional sound quality records from your home, although this is easy to achive it requires some cash, so imagine you have to make the decision of investing your cash on hi end audio, wich will get you a fantastic listening experience, or invest it in a very good home studio, wich will give you the possibility of creating your own music, and even recover your investment by recording other bands, earn you a very good job in the music industry, one of your passions, I never doubted a nanosecond where to put my bucks, such is the point of view of many of my friends with wich I share the passion for music. 

lwhitefl's picture

"Nowadays you can get professional sound quality records from your home"

I don't doubt there are some aspiring musicians capable of recording their own music with computer tools available today. But far too many of today's recordings are dynamically compressed and loud sounding due in no small part to musicians recording their own music. While studio recordings are no guarantee of a well recorded, mixed, and mastered album, I suspect like most human endeavors it takes talent and experience to achieve a really good recording that expresses the music and emotion the artist intended.

Sigma_6's picture

I grew up in an audiophile household, and was exposed at a young age to mid-fi/hi-fi gear that I would never have known about (or been able to buy) if it wasn't for older members of the family.  And it didn't hurt either being an aspiring young pianist; actually being able to listen to Horowitz play a Beethoven Sonata I was trying to learn was a revelation.  So I valued recordings and their sound quality; whether it was vinyl, tape, or later CD's - I borrowed from my older siblings or bought what I could afford and was happy with it at the time.

If you love music you'll listen to it in any format (rather than not listen at all), hence an economic trade off.  Do I want to pay more to listen to (or own) higher fidelity music - or do I simply want to subscribe to some digital cloud and stream/download more music (of lesser fidelity) then I could ever probably afford to own.   Actually I do some of both.  We all have different priorities and budgets, and while certainly most all musicians appreciate superior sound quality, neither can we all afford to (or need to)  "break the bank" with investing in the kind of high end gear routinely featured in Stereophile.

Many years later, I have EE degrees, I've made the transition from consumer to pro-audio, I've worked in the pro audio industry, I'm a member of the AES, I go to the technical/design sessions at the conventions, and I'm more of a software engineer nowadays than an "audio engineer" per se.  I've made some live recordings, I've been in studios, I know mastering engineers, I've taught audio courses, and I can make/remaster recordings in a home built studio.    

While it is easy/cheap to make recordings with a computer running ProTools (or similar - even free - software) with any number of $$-$$$$ audio interfaces and semi-pro/pro monitors, the results are often not commercial grade recordings (as one poster pointed out).  This is not so much because semi-pro users don't have the most expensive gear, or they don't know how to record properly or structure gain stages to preserve dynamics.  It's often just because they are working in untreated, acoustically terrible rooms (which not even room EQ can entirely fix).  

To put it succinctly, the boom in home "pro" recording just continues to make more work (and profit) for mastering engineers for anyone who thinks that having the "right"  gear is going to bring them professional results.  And the same is true for audiophiles (in their living rooms) thinking that a 20K piece of gear is going to get them closer to some "absolute sound" compared to a 10K piece of gear.   

The endorsement theme in both pro and high end audio advertising is sadly very effective advertising/propaganda.  So and so [insert famous engineer, producer, musician] uses this piece of gear, so you should too (with the implication that you will of course get the same results they get in their room - in yours).  Or all that is standing between you and "success" is that you are not using the right gear.  But you don't need to have the exact same gear that a famous professional engineer, producer, or musician uses to get professional and/or musically accurate results (and neither do you have to spend 5-10X more on your monitors compared to the ones the recording was mixed/mastered on).  You just have to be smart about finding and buying gear (and the room you use it in) at any price point (realizing there is a diminishing point of return).

So I read Stereophile for John Atkinson's test reports, technical analysis and commentary.  But I have a hard time with the die-hard analog recording fans, and the reviewers.  There are seldom A/B blind comparison tests; reviews are performed in untreated rooms with not even pro or full spectrum versions of frequency and time domain room correction (which you may not need in an acoustically treated room).

More importantly, the price range of the gear being reviewed can be 2X, 5X, .... greater in cost compared to what the engineers producing recordings (even in the review at hand) are using for references.  Spending 20K to 100K on a speaker to use in a home living room is not going to mitigate the poor acoustics of the room, or any other of the weak links in a home system.  And neither is its performance likely to achieve parity with a professional system at half the cost in a professional mixing/(re)mastering facility.  Yes, it is true that the premier mixing/mastering facilities with major label clients have huge "cost is no object" investments in their rooms and (multiple sets) of monitors/amps - but there are increasingly many commercial recordings made in well calibrated semi-pro project/pro studios whose total gear investment may be 50-100K (even with a cheap console).

The old "Eighty Twenty Rule" can be transposed to engineering, i.e., it can take less than 50% of the effort/cost to get to 80% of the design/project completed.  But getting the last 20% done, or optimizing a design to be 100% efficient or up to theoretical specs - can take sometimes unpredictable amounts of effort/cost.  While no one expects the price/performance ratio to be a linear graph, much of the high-end gear in Stereophile seems beyond even this profile/analysis.  It's boutique gear for collectors, where price-performance is not the issue (and optimizing this is not the goal).   

Much of this comes down to franchises, money, and advertising (at the expense of musical value for the dollar).  Consumer/high end audio and pro audio seldom overlap in terms of franchises and advertising dollars; but it's consumer/high end audio customers who often pay through the nose (compared to pro audio customers).  The mutual exclusion of pro and consumer franchises/lines of gear is on purpose and by design.

You are never going to see a review of Focal SM-9's,  Adam S3X/S4X's, Apogee Converters, or a host of other pro equipment in Stereophile (or other non-pro) magazines that would put consumer audio/high-end gear at the same price point to shame w.r.t price/performance ratio.   There are sometimes units by Bryston, Grace Audio, and Lipinski reviewed in Stereophile - but these are not the "pro" version or line (if a pro version exists).  

Certain design specs and characteristics can always be optimized and/or re-imagined differently via all kinds of component choices, layouts, discrete designs, filter implementations, etc.  But don't mistake the plethora of high end product choices/designs as "innovation" - because it seems to me that far more innovation goes on in the pro audio world (and sometimes trickles down from pro to consumer lines for the companies that maintain both).  Unfortunately, more (mature audio) design choices can lower the barrier to entry in the consumer audio market and make it easier for someone to claim yet another "esoteric" design and market it to high-end audiophiles who will believe the advertising.  That kind of marketing does not usually work in pro-audio circles.

planzity's picture

Following the lead of the unlamentable snarling Mike Kay, many hi-end dealers visibly sneer at potential customers or ingnore them entirely. $70K for components, and have been unable to complete my system except by mail-order because every one of the locals seem INSANE. Not responding to simple e-mail: how much is EXPENSIVE BRAND MODEL #GIVEN? Call them, talk nicely,  and they don't ring back. Try to audition with your own material and get a rant suggestive of psychosis. Suggest "trade-in" and get shunted off, even when they say they take tradeins.  Gave up on a wiring/cable order for $10K when the salesman would not fill after a year and am still using hookup wire. In what other industry are the customers treated so poorly--even used car salesmen hide their disdain enough to induce sales among their victims. G*D bless: Music Direct; Legacy; Audio Advisor;Acoustic Sciences, without territorial or other self-inflicted wounds. Audiogon for not joining the cartel. (Note: Am nowhere near NYC, supposedly in a location of nice folks.)

Mrckrescho's picture

I blame the Jawbone Jambox.

WELquest's picture

In all our navel gazing, rarely is it acknowledged that we are a symptom, not a cause. The "industry," manufacturers and the audiophile choir, seem too often to be trapped in the shadow of a 70's and 80's cultural phenomenon. Bringing back that time is impossible, though if it were possible, the hardware ingredients of today's audio world would not be a limitation. As JA and others point out, equipment exists at all prices, and is covered within Stereophile. Too much of our self-criticism is like blaming an on-stage chair for being a different color than in the past, while ignoring that it's the play, the human dynamic, this is or is not the one we wish were being acted out. Most people never have and never will read "buff books" like Stereophile or TAS, or in the past Sensible Sound, Listener, Audiogram, Audio Critic, Fi, Play, Sounds Like, etc. The demise of most of those publications isn't because they did anything wrong. The continued existence of Stereophile and TAS isn't because they "won." When the climate changes faster than evolution and a crop fails, it's not the fault of the seeds. Yesterday's audio ecology wasn't created by us, neither is today's, and tomorrow's won't be either. We're blind men feeling the elephant's, tail, leg, tusks and trying to extrapolate outwards ... better we should look back at where we came from ... being teenagers who wanted to get high on music, who reveled in immersion, speakers on either side of a waterbed. In the rational and rationalized climb towards audiophilia, we fogot that we're all humans who "just want to have fun!" There is zero possibility that the component audio business, or high-end, or merit-based hi-fi, will grow because audiophiles do a better job of preaching. In a world in which an intense relationship to music is successfully enabled by headphones and buds on an almost universal basis, there's no shortage of appreciative subjects ... some of whom would take off the phones and use speakers if they could be similarly immersed in a non-intellectual visceral manner. We need the retailers who sell headphones and buds to set up computers with nearfield speakers (off-the-head headphones) on either side. If the fertile soil of the old audio world was having the bedroom or dormroom be more attractive socially because it had better sound, the core of a new audio relationship is making YouTube and the rest of today's audio sources sound so good at the computer that one doesn't want to stop. All the rationalizing of mostly men becoming addicted to an upgrade-path first requires non-rationailzed immersion. The soil has never been so fertile. Never before has such a huge percentage of the population been addicted to an immersive aural experience. We have totally won, but the play's not over yet. There will be a renewed expansion of off-the-head sound ... more so if headphone retailers set up appropriately seductive systems which cater to peoples' existing life style. Any attempt to tell people that they have to worship a pair of speakers on the other side of the room is doomed to a fall on deaf ears. That's like telling people that to enjoy art they have to go live in a museum.

hifijohn's picture

What killed high-end audio is high-end audio.What was once a great hobby full of fun-to-be-with people and good affordable audio has degenerated into the lunatic fringe.

Super expensive  equipment that 99.9% of audio people cant afford,magazine that do nothing but promote this expensive nonsense.Since reveiwers never pay for the stuff, cost never enters into the review.

Super snobbish audio store owners, whos buy-something-and-get-out or just-get-out attitude doesnt help.When was the last time you walked into an audio store and felt welcome?

Audio nuts who look down at or you or verbally abuse you because you dont like that 5 watt $10k amplifier that he thinks its the best.Hobbies are empty if you cant share it with people,but who wants to deal with audio people?

Music that doesnt need good equipment to repoduce.yes in the old days people listened to classical,jazz and a good stereo was need but today music is so artificial it no similarity to real music anyway.

full or con artists,cd demagnitizers??!!

I started in audio the late 60's and by the early 2000's even I gave up on it.

Lets face it high-end deserves to die.

Robert J Reina's picture

I had two interesting conversations about audio today:

1) Audio Research told me that the sound of their $8995 Reference 75 power amplifier can be improved by adding the $12,000 Nordost Odin power cord.

2) I recommended an excellent receiver to a friend for $113.

Yes you can buy a decent stereo today for $1000 total. But you can buy an excellent one for $2000 total.

Both of my children (aged 17 and 12) are musically inclined and love to listen, but not to the same music as me. ("Dad, I don't like your music. First of all, there's no words. And second, it sounds as if the musicians are just making the stuff up as they go along." )   But they don't care about quality. MP3 files listened through the throwaway earbuds they distribute for free on planes or in hotel gyms are fine for them.

Ariel Bitran's picture

"And second, it sounds as if the musicians are just making the stuff up as they go along."

knowing your tastes, this is probably true...

kcychien's picture

Problem is obvious and easy to solve.

End all "subjective" thinkings in audio and end its status as a superstition among non-audiophiles (also for some audiophiles). Status of the audio world is as bad as the wine tasting industry, where there is no objectiveness and everything is "trust your ear" and "personal preference".

In the computer industry, objectiveness exists in the form of scientific hard numbers, such as CPU clock speed, GPU clock speed, benchmarks and so on. In the auto industry, objectiveness exists in the form of top achievable road speed, torque, horsepower and so on.

If one says a 20MHz computer is better than a 2GHz computer, and hire top singer to advertise for him, nobody would pay him attention. But similar condition in audio industry would yield totally different results, which is undesirable.

Ariel Bitran's picture

but do those specs determine how it feels to drive that car?

I'm not a real car buff by any means, but even if a car has XXX horsepower, that doesn't tell you how if its a smooth ride.

specs and measurements for an audio product Can but Are Not necessarily a linear indication of how it sounds. 

kcychien's picture

Hello, Ariel:

What the computer and auto industry has achieved is to pull their industry out of the superstition ditch by using scientific hard numbers.

Surely horsepower will not tell a consumer how smooth is the ride, but smoothness of a ride is subjective if there is no scientific way to quantify that (a salesman can claim his car gives the smoothest ride, and if you disagree then he can just say it is "personal preference"). Some auto manufacturers did find a way to scientifically quantify "smoothness of ride" though. 

jordon.gerber's picture

"I would say, in my perfectly objective opinion, that this speaker has the exact quality rating of 5."

That graph.....it makes me cringe.

nleksan's picture

As a sound engineer, audio editor, etc, etc... I have certainly developed my own belief system in regards to what constitutes "high end" audio, "mid-range" audio, and "low-end" audio.  The thing is, the difference between the three categories is just as non-linear as the price difference between your "Class E" and "Class A" speakers...

Any John, Dick, or Harry can go to Guitar World or (shudder) Best Buy and walk away with a $500 "surround sound system" consisting of 7 speakers, a "subwoofer", and a "receiver".  This system will play back their Blu-Ray soundtracks with all 8 channels present, and is enough of a difference over stereo sound that to them it is going to be a huge difference.  Watching any film in stereo versus a properly setup surround sound system (regardless of the cost) is a very different experience.

The same Johns, Dicks, and Harry's can go to the same stores, or for the more technologically inclined, online retailers, and order themselves a setup consisting of an Onkyo TX-NR5010 or Denon AVR-4520CI 9.2ch Receiver, a pair of Polk RTI A9's with their 3/2/1 Woofer/Mid/Tweeter arrangement, a pair of Polk RTI A5's (2 Woofer/Mids and a Tweeter), two pair of Polk's RTi A1 Bookshelf Speakers (Tweeter/Mid), a New Monitor CSi A6 Center Channel, a pair of PSW505 subwoofers, and hook it all up with 14AWG Copper Wire.  
Set it up with the RTI A9's playing FR/FL, the A5's running SR/SL, the CSi A6 as Center, and the 45B's as Rear SR/SL and Front Highs or Wides, keeping the speaker wire runs under 20'.  The subwoofers go wherever the room acoustics dictate.
A nice LG 55" local-dimming LED-LCD Television, an HD Cable Box/DVR, a Samsung/LG/Sony Blu-Ray Blayer, and a Game Console (XBox360/PS3), and you have a typical upper-middle-class "Entertainment Room" setup, at least "typical" among the "somewhat better audibly-endowed" bunch.
Let's see...
$2,500-3000 for the Receiver = ~$2750
$675 ea for the RTi A9's = $1350
$400 ea for the RTi A5's = $800
$450 ea for the CSi A6 = $450
$350/pair for the RTi A1's = $700
$400 ea for the PSW505's = $800
$1800 for the Television = $1800
$200 for the BD Player = $200
$300 for the Game Console = $300

That's $9,150 just to get an "above average" home theater setup!!  NO WONDER PEOPLE ARE AFRAID OF HIGH END AUDIO!!!

Start talking about $5,000 DAC's, $125,000 Hand-Crafted speakers, or the RIDICULOUS $1000-25,000 CABLES, and no wonder people blow this off as a bunch of smoke!

I produce music, and I have my favorites when it comes to speakers (both monitors and "listening" speakers), headphones, etc... Some of which are a bit much in price for a "sane" person to fork out, but others which are perfectly reasonable.

We (my employees and I) did a few blind tests of our own.  We were doing some recording, and decided to see if there was ANY audible difference between recording the actual MASTER DISC with AudioQuest cables/interconnects totalling $88,539, or using (the always fantastic) MonoPrice's 12AWG wires and their Banana Plugs.

We re-wired the entire studio a number of times, and did both listening (double-blind: blank CD's other than a number that was put on them by a third party) and instrument-measuring tests.

GUESS WHAT???

NO DIFFERENCE!  NONE!  These are acoustic measuring instruments that cost upwards of $50,000 a piece, measure down to 1/10,000th of a dB, and not a single "high end" cable made more than a 1/500th of a dB difference in Sound Floor, SNR, etc.  The music didn't sound any more "lively", "forward", or anything.

MY ADVICE: Buy nice speakers, get good wire (from Monoprice), and then spend the rest of your money on your family/your loved ones... Music should be something that enhances your life, not takes away from it.
The more you obsess over your equipment, the less you will learn to love the life it is trying so desperately to play into...

Ruth's picture

great article - and I agree with many of your points - but to combat some of the issues at Audio Lounge we run weekly 'Listens" events which we advertise on social media. Every week we have a packed listening room of non-audiophiles - who enjoy listening to a seminal album on vinyl on one of our flagship systems - and we teach them about high-end audio at the same time. Proving so popular we now have to limit numbers!

www.audiolounge.co.uk

vlashing's picture

Its really simple and just like every other industry. The high end audio business is full of snake oil. No, I didnt say its all snake oil. Fact is far to many of the products are nothing but and the people selling it are using a sales technique that just doesn't work with either women or the younger generations. Snobbery. Plink plink goes the boring jazz piano. Tum Tum goes the string bass ... out walks the young man with no interest in that. Older fellow with bad sweaters and a big gut pretending to be refined ... out go the ladies.

Its not all that bad but unfortunately most shops are exactly that. Car lots, art dealers etc have all had to adjust. There is money out there. Its being spent. But trying to sell $3000 interconnect cables to an intelligent woman is insulting her. Get it? No one is fooled. They can read. They know the science. When dealers start into that crap, out they go. No time for it.They are not afraid nor timid .. they simply have no time for the insult nor to explain that to you.

I love high end audio. But I see alot of names being put on products that are made alongside others in china. The prices are not alongside though. The interconnect and speaker cable snake oil etc. Its not doing anyone any favors and the longer its ignored the more people will go under. Why tarnish your rep by taking part in what you will be eventually exposed for? Boom trust gone.

Tons of people would spend good money for good product. That includes women and young men who understand their IPOD sucks. They get it. A ton of them would spend 5 - 10k pretty easily too. But they dont want to hear some old guy talk over boring Jazz music ... or should I say talk AT them like they are tools who do not understand that 30k preamp is "sublime". There are people buying that stuff too. I know several. They have the same complaints. The Snobbery and pretend games are not working any better than the old fashioned zig Ziglar car lot sales. Everyone learned those techniques, worked them and came to loathe them.

Talk to people, its amazing what you'll find out when you actually listen instead of trying to lead their opinion. Treat them right and they come back again and again.

People will spend good $ for good product. But the stories and snake oil are fooling no one and visible floaters in your swimming pool.

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