Listening #138

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.—William Morris (1834–1896)

The Arts and Crafts movement, which took root in England in the late 1800s, was more than just a reaction to the poor working conditions and the soulless, shoddy, superfluously decorated wares associated with the early days of mass production. It was a rejection of Victorian attitudes toward class: of a mindset that promoted a chasm, in industry as in society, between the designer and the craftsman, the architect and the stonemason. Writer and designer William Morris, regarded by many as the father of the movement, envisioned a Utopian society in which the artist and craftsman was one and the same, and where most consumers could afford to live with goods of genuine quality—not for materialism's sake, but out of the simple desire for the beauty of human creation.

Is any of this starting to sound familiar?

One might think the domestic-audio industry, the best wares of which both embody and reproduce the beauty of human creation, would be ripe for such a revolution. Indeed, once upon a time, all hi-fi was artisanal hi-fi, just as all bread was artisanal bread and all fly rods were artisanal fly rods. Sadly, our industry's greatest push toward mass production happened at the same time that the hi-fi press enjoyed both its peak of popularity and the zenith of its delusion that it was a cheerleading squad at a school for socially awkward girls: a bad bit of luck, and one with lasting consequences. By the late 1970s, when artisanal hi-fi began to reappear on the market, virtually any playback device not spat from the end of an assembly line was regarded by press and consumers alike as a "high-end" product—and both that label and the attitude of which it stinks have stuck with us to this day.

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Still, the High End might have carried on, content with its smallness, until corporate audio and the corporate press hove their last great heave: the Compact Disc, a technology that resists artisanalism in the same manner that a jet engine resists flying geese. What happened next embodied the worst of both worlds: The high-end audio industry became infested with components that could be realized only through mass production, yet the demand for which was so small that production runs were unnaturally small—and prices unnaturally high. It was a formula, and an unlikely formula at that, but it made an awful lot of money for some folks, so it survived. And it grew.

And the gap between our designers and our craftsmen widened. Before long, many of our high-end wares became just as soulless and superfluously decorated as most hi-fi products had been in the bad old days of specsmanship and imitation walnut. Che macello!

Mass production has its place. I confess a complete lack of interest in artisanal magnetic-resonance imagers, artisanal hydraulic brakes, or even artisanal headache tablets. And I have to admit that not all artisanal audio has been great audio, regardless of era. I know, from sad experience, at least one supposedly popular tonearm of the late 1950s that sounds thoroughly awful, and the same can be said of some phono cartridges and loudspeakers of the same vintage. I have also heard at least two very expensive contemporary artisanal turntables that couldn't communicate the excitement of music if their designers' lives depended on it. And with a bit of effort, the adventurous consumer can find modern handmade electronics that are decidedly ho-hum.

That said, throughout the ages, the vast majority of truly great playback products have been made either by hand or in factory settings in which a small number of craftsmen have been trained, personally, by the designer-in-chief (footnote 1).

The law of supply and demand will conspire to keep vintage-gear prices high (with lucky exceptions); the world of contemporary gear, on the other hand, in which some things fall more squarely within the consumer's control, should offer reprieve from that law—and sometimes does. The list of products you can buy right now that look and sound wonderful, are well made, and are, in their price ranges, very fairly priced, includes the 47 Laboratory Model 4730 tuner, the Quicksilver Audio Horn Mono amplifiers, the Croft Phono Integrated amp, the Fi 421a stereo amplifier, virtually any iteration of the EMT TSD 15 phono pickup, the Shindo Aurieges preamplifier, the DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93 loudspeaker, and the Volti Vittora loudspeaker. Those products, and others like them, all offer beauty. They are all largely handmade, they are all worth saving for for a few years, and they are all worth holding on to for several years more.

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On the other hand, I refuse to pay $20,000 or $10,000 or even $5000 for an overweight, oversize, overstyled aluminum box with a laser-etched front plate and a circuit board stuffed and soldered by someone with no real training and no real interest in playback gear. In other words, I won't pay artisanal prices for mass-produced wares. I don't think you should, either. When you buy such products, more of your money—often considerably more—goes toward all of that fancy, ugly metalwork than toward the parts that play music, and too much of it lines the pockets of people who are, as we speak, determining how to get the owners of their 2014 products to upgrade them by no later than 2016.

Turn off all electronic devices
Hi-Fi Buys. Nobody Beats the Wiz. Good Guys. Tweeter. Crazy Eddie. Circuit City. Stores that sell or sold, at popular prices, mass-produced electronics and loudspeakers. Many of those products were manufactured overseas, most were designed without regard for serviceability, all were made with the expectation that their owners would replace them, with ever-newer and ever-cooler-looking products, only a few years down the road.

To avoid being pegged as merely an overpriced version of the above, the industry's High End would have to offer more: More durability. More timelessness. More satisfaction. More beauty. And at least as much value, if value informed by a very different perspective. Many makers succeed at those things. Sadly, many others do not.

There's a storm coming. And I don't think it's going to be kind to manufacturers who have utterly failed to offer timelessness and beauty and value. By this time next year, our little tree will have shed more than a few useless leaves. That's bad news for some people and good news for others; the key to the viability and longevity of perfectionist audio is believing that the latter group outnumbers the former.

Some of the dead leaves will be replaced, and I think I know what the new ones will look like. They'll look like those companies, from any time and any place, that make wares that are neither throwaway cheap nor rapaciously expensive: products designed and built with originality and care, that are not burdened with filigree and bulk for bulk's sake, that offer the consumer an opportunity to own something beautiful, something worth handing down.



Footnote 1: I'll draw, once again, a parallel between our world and that of contemporary luthiery—which, most observers would agree, has made greater and more timely progress toward the Arts and Crafts ideal, as seen both in single-person shops (Henderson, Kamimoto, Laskin, Lucas, Merrill, et al) and bench-style builders (Bourgeois, Collings, Santa Cruz). Even C.F. Martin—one of the most progressive manufacturing companies in the US, in many important ways—has adapted some divisions to comply with the artisan-craftsman aesthetic, to critical and financial success.
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COMMENTS
Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

Art, your article reads like a collected wisdom sign off. One of your best ever. You're not leaving Stereophile, are you?

"...stop wrapping casework that costs $2000 to make around amplifiers that cost $1000 to make..."

Brings to mind a top-hatted tycoon lighting a cigar with a $100 bill, or a 500 pound tail wagging a five pound dog.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

I was struck by how signal (music) sometimes sounds better despite distortion (noise) generated by the medium or gear - LP's, tubes, horns, single drivers (and, as claimed by some, various active and passive resonators, conditioners and tweaks - with which I have no personal experience). Whereas, ostensibly cleaner sounding mediums and gear often sound lifeless. And then I came across this article about stochastic resonance:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stochastic_resonance

This principle has been used to boost faint signals in radar technology, astronomy and medical imaging.

Art, or JA, do you know any physicists who could comment on valid applications within audio? Any physicists or mathematicians out there reading this who can offer an insight?

BTW, I like your suggestion that since LP's generate their own voltage swings, their encoding of music contains more information and stress amplification gear less. Any physicists care to comment on that?

monetschemist's picture

Rick, at the bottom of the Wikipedia article you reference, there is mention made that SR is related to dithering. So there is one audio application for you.

There is also note made of the presence of SR in neurobiological phenomena, especially in vision; but one can't help but wonder if the same is true of audio perception, which I think is your point.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

I was also thinking of how it may apply in the analogue domain on LP's and in the air in our listening room with things like super tweeters on one hand, and signal generating harmonizers, resonators, conditioners and other audio tweaks on the other - which many consider voodoo. (I'm not including signal absorbing devices such as room treatment, isolating racks, footers etc. in this.)

monetschemist's picture

remember analogue tape bias? is this a related or similar pheonomena?

be interesting to think of an experiment that could help confirm or reject the idea.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

but controlled double blind testing seems to be a valid evaluation process in many other technical fields related to consumer products. (For audio, this assumes the subjects have "educated ears".) However, unlike pharmaceuticals, nobody will die or have deformed children as the result of buying megabuck snake oil gear or tweaks. As a matter of fact, pride/shame (or tribal loyalty) often demands that the greater the commitment (the more you spend), the less likely you are to admit you've been conned. And, plenty of audiophiles don't really care about the music anyway - they like glamorous, exotic or expensive gear for the pride of ownership and bragging rights.

Peter Papadopolopolous's picture

A most erudite column, Art, thank you.

Unfortunately, as a DIY person, I can make conceptually elegant innards, but a classy exterior is completely beyond me.

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