Across Time and Space to You
Her name was E. and the gentle quaver in her soft voice gave me the impression that she was nervous, anxious, young. Something about it seemed sweet, seemed sincere. Which made me want to help her more. She was calling from England, and the connection was crystal clear. I could hear her perfectly, though she was so far away. She was doing research on the high end hi-fi industry.
"I'm not so sure that I'll be able to help," I said, "but I'll certainly try."
We talked about this and that, and I could sense that she was taking notes, when she finally asked, "So, how do you define the high end?"
I couldn't help myself. I laughed. She started to stutter an apology, "I mean, a lot of people seem to equate the high end with a certain monetary figure. Like you have to spend at least $1000 on Product X for it to be deemed high end."
When she said this, I gained a better understanding of where she was coming from. Basically, I concluded that a lot of people had been feeding her a ton of horseshit. And before I knew it, words were flying from me, my heart was racing, my voice was trembling.
"The idea that you need to spend some extremely large amount of money on audio equipment in order to experience high end sound is a bunch of crap, and is potentially harmful to this industry. Part of my goal here is to get younger people interested in what we do, and if all we're telling them is that they need to spend tons of money on this, then they're instantly going to be turned away. It's just not true. There are plenty of affordable pieces of equipment out there. And by 'affordable' I mean that any kid with a summer job can put some money away and get involved. For $1000for less than $1000you can put together an entire system that'll give you high end sound."
She made a noise that indicated she was listening. Again, I could sense that she was scribbling notes.
"I never think of the high end in terms of dollars and cents. Or pounds and pence."
"It has much more to do with a component's ability to communicate the truth and beauty of music. A component, whatever it is, needs to be respectful of the music. Does that make sense?"
"Yes, I think so."
"It never occurred to me that some wood box or a bunch of mechanical parts could be respectful, until I heard it. And now it's all I look for. Respect for the music. Often, in our industry, a component will share some characteristics of its designer, will speak the heart of its designer. And, to me, that's something very special. These people love music, and they want to share music with us. When you buy a high end component, you buy a piece of its designer, you gain a sense of what music means to that person."
I felt an answer finally forming.
"Music has to be a component's number one priority. Music is the thing. If a component puts music and music-lovers first, then it's high end. Regardless of the cost."
I paused to think about what I had just said. Where had that come from?
"It's kind of difficult to explain this without just sitting down and listening to music," I continued. "What I just said is kind of vague, I know."
"No, I think I understand what you mean. It's very interesting. This is something I hadn't heard before."
"Our editor, John Atkinson, wrote an essay called 'The High End, Mid-Fi, & Pretend High End.' Whenever I think about these things, I go back to that essay. I'll send it to you."
We talked a bit more about this and that, and then we said goodbye. It was a nice conversation.
While searching for the link to JA's essay, I discovered this one by Robert Harley. In "Just What Is High End?," Harley tackles these same concerns. I was surprised and happy to read:
What distinguishes a high-end from a mass-market product is the designer's caring attitude toward music. The high-end component is a physical manifestation of a deeply felt concern about how well music is reproduced and enjoyed by the listener.
The high-end designer builds products he would want to listen to himself. His superficial goal is to design a product that conveys the music the best way he knows how. His real and unstated goal is to build a product that creates the same kind of relationship between the user and his music as the designer enjoys with his music. Because the high-end designer cares about music, it matters to him how a faceless listener he will never meet, perhaps thousands of miles away, experiences the joy of music. The greater the listener's involvement, the better he's done his job….
High end isn't a prestigious brand name, or the type of store in which it is sold, or cost, or faceplate thickness, or a positive review. It is the relationship between the designer and his producta relationship that produces a similar relationship between the user and the product. High end can be an inexpensive product, provided that the designer's goal was to best convey the music.
It is when the playback system is forgotten, replaced by the performers in your room. It is when you feel the composer or performer speaking across time and space to you. It is when you feel a physical rush during a musical climax. It is the ineffable roller-coaster ride of emotion the composer somehow managed to encode in a combination of sounds. It is when the physical world disappears, leaving only your consciousness and the music.
That is high end.