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'safter all, they've got that cool new Home Theateror 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 beliefand it's a big onemust 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 lifeit 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 homea subject, Raymond said, which is interesting to people with serious interests in musicinto 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 pinie, 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 Theatertranslated 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 cultivatedie, well-educated and sensitive human being, sensitive to the arts in all their manifestationsis 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 systemie, that available to most peoplehas 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 musicthese 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 Angelespick 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 thisFurtwängler 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
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 experimentsMichaelson & Morley's proof for the nonexistence of the ether, for exampleand 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