Snobs, Slobs, & Marley's Ghost

As often as not, it ain't the heat—it's the stupidity. When confronted by the smattering of self-referential dilettantes, acrimonious Internut wannabes, and obsessive-compulsive types who suck the air out of our aural fun-house, I find myself overcome with the desire to program my phaser for CLIP.

Snobs and slobs, I calls 'em, O'Boyle. The snobs patronize you with the notion that spending a lot of money is the only way to achieve audio nirvana, and make little effort to hide their contempt for your slobbish blue-collar gear. The slobs, being of a reactionary, pseudo-populist bent, assert that it's all a fraud perpetrated by a cabal of esoteric snobs (see above) who intrigue to bewitch, beguile, and befuddle you with balderdash about how "they" can discern audible differences between amplifiers and speaker cables—and then proceed to brag about testing high-resolution gear with lamp cord as if it were a badge of honor.

I can't begin to divine what the agendas of such self-referential poseurs really are. But as a lifelong audio enthusiast, I find the peripheral sniping and dogmatic posturing of some high-end types to be unsettling in the extreme. Such is hardly the impression to leave with potential consumers, starved as they are for good, affordable hardware and software, because it makes it that much harder for us to preach outside of the immediate congregation. Or so it feels when trying to spread the good word about high-resolution audio. Rarely are we given a second chance.

Which calls to mind a disturbing scene from the classic 1951 film noir version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, featuring Alastair Sim. Marley's Ghost beckons Scrooge to stand beside him before an open window, the night aglow with spectral menace. Scrooge is horrified to see all manner of spirits wailing helplessly about the figure of a homeless woman and child.

"Why do they lament?" Scrooge asks.

"Because they have lost their power to act for good in human affairs," Marley's Ghost replies with tremulous foreboding.

As an audio enthusiast, there is nothing more satisfying to me than to see that glint of recognition and enthusiasm well up inside a neophyte as she or he realizes the profound pleasures of real audio: that it can be every bit as satisfying an investment as a new Lexus or Rolex, yet needn't cost a fortune; and that the love of good music and the allure of high-resolution, high-value aural reproduction aren't antithetical pursuits.

High-resolution audio is fun, whether you're enjoying the solitary glow of a late-night Chopin recital or firing up some James Brown for a gathering of friends. Good sound—like good music, good wine, and good fellowship—is meant to be shared.

So why is it that, instead of sharing pertinent information with consumers looking to explore system synergy, we often end up debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. We end up debating the agony instead of promulgating the ecstasy, and in so doing squander an opportunity to reach out to new-minted MP3 devotees with lifelines to even better audio experiences. In the process, we marginalize our joyous little aural nook.

Which is why, inevitably, when a major media piece comes to the fore, the message is so muddled. In a recent New York Times "think piece," a vainglorious audiophile spoke in high-hat terms about his $11,000 speaker cables, while an outraged engineer portrayed "perceived differences" as so much snake oil. There was no discussion of system synergy, such as mating a warm preamp to analytical speakers (or vice versa) to achieve a well-balanced musical presentation; of the interactions of speaker cables with other tweaks and components when voicing a system; of the relationship of room anomalies to speaker performance; of how the thoughtful matching of components can be more telling than simply throwing a lot of money around.

All a neophyte would gather from this screed was a vague sense of excess and indulgence, rather than a clear sense of how you get what you pay for, and how to make the compromises work for you. This from a newspaper bursting with ads selling and articles about the priciest real estate and cost-no-object cars, furnishings, watches, wines, kitchenware, food, clothing, and sundry knickknacks.

Turning for succor to the earthly remains of the late Audio magazine, I recoiled in horror as an ill-informed, self-inflated critic was allowed to revel in the sound of his own voice while acting as an unwitting hit man, bashing away at an unsuspecting manufacturer's new solid-state integrated amplifier because it didn't sound as bright and edgy as the department-store model he'd been listening to for the past 15 years. Perhaps the assigning Pooh-Bah thought that publishing such a hard-hitting "negative" review would build credibility among the readership for "editorial integrity."

Which begs the question: Why create paper tigers when there are opportunities aplenty to focus anew on the pleasures of immersion in good sound? Why convey to potential devotees a muddled message that implies that this is some sort of exclusive club for the privileged few?

Let's minimize the posturing and concentrate on being inclusionary by sharing the joys of high-resolution audio. We professional listeners aren't all that different from first-time buyers, save that we get to enjoy extended conjugal visits with all of these way-cool toys. Ultimately, we're panning for gold, just like you—washing tons of sand through our shallow pans in the hope of discovering some nuggets of hi-rez, high-value gear we can wax enthusiastic about and accord a place of honor in our listening shrine.

Music is a healing force; we need to keep elevating the level of discourse lest we risk turning off the very people we should be working to attract.