Let's Face the Music and Dance

Does high-end audio have a future? High-end audio most definitely does have a future. So do the Latin mass, chess, leather-bound books, and wooden boats. But the future will not be like the past, and I think we must face the fact that high-end audio's future, both for hardware and software, will be as a minority enthusiasm. We should plan and act accordingly.

High-end audio has won the battle, but has become the first victim of its own victory. The sound quality of car stereos and of most of the components you can buy at retail stores is substantially better than it was 20 years ago. Even the sound quality of most of the products you can buy in high-end audio stores is much better than it was 20 years ago. But for most of its potential consumers, high-end audio is now a matter of sharply diminishing economic returns. A large incremental expenditure guarantees only a relatively modest, even marginal improvement in sound quality.

Most of the print magazines dedicated to high-end audio have devoted at least one cover story to Sony's Super Audio CD, including Stereophile. The first SACD player costs $5000. At the time of writing (January 2000), there were about two dozen SACD titles available, mostly remasterings of old analog master tapes. But I am not here to knock SACD. As Ray Charles said of laserdisc, I am told it is excellent.

I'm sure SACD is truly excellent as a recording and playback medium. The math is elegant. The favorable reviews for its sound quality are doubtless justified. But SACD's economics are straight from The Three Stooges. SACD's future is questionable, especially as a mass-market medium.

Meanwhile, high-end CD players---now a true high-end playback medium for the largest currently available library of great music---are dying from lack of journalistic attention, and from a marketplace conviction that today's premium-quality, CD-only players will be next week's Edsels.

I have at least 20 recordings of Brahms's Violin Concerto, but if you don't know at least one David Oistrakh recording, you don't know this work. Nigel Kennedy and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg can go sit in John Tesh's string section for all they bring to the party. But of the five different Oistrakh performances I have, only one is on CD. How many Oistrakh Brahms Concerto performances will make it to SACD? Well, if I won the lottery, which is doubtful because I don't buy lottery tickets, I'd try to get the rights to the Szell/Cleveland recording. Failing that, I expect the answer will be: none.

It's not only classical music that is in a funnel that narrows from LP to CD to emerging playback formats. Try getting Jesse Colin Young on CD. Or the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Or It's A Beautiful Day. Or Tom Rush. But here we are, under the tyranny of the new, and rejoicing is our duty.

While the editorial pundits declare SACD "the next big thing," the public is voting with their wallets. The winners are wall-to-wall nonstop music from satellite television and downloaded MP3 singles. Out there in the real world, most people think that CD sound is more than good enough for their purposes: a partial immersion in a warm bath of familiar tunes, or intense but brief concentration on new music tailored to their short attention spans. In neither case is ultimate sonic fidelity even on the radar screen---good enough is good enough. Don't look for this to change; it will only get worse.