Snob Appeal

A number of recent letters have accused us of snobbishness and elitism because we devote so much space to reports about components that "common folk" can't afford. We are "snobbish" because we seem to look down on anything less perfect than a Wilson WAMM speaker system or an Audio Research SP-10 preamplifier. And we are "elitist" because we seem to show little interest in any components which fall short of state of the art. Far from being chastened by these letters, I am proud, to declare that they are right on target.

The recent report on our deteriorating educational system decried the fact that we no longer pursue excellence, and everyone applauded. "Let us be excellent!" the people shouted. But they didn't really mean it. We Americans don't in fact like excellence, because it is so undemocratic. We prefer to believe that all people are created equal, and the person who excels who rises above the common herd of average, undistinguished nobodies is a discomfiting reminder that some people are born with more success points than others. That's why elitism—admiration of superior persons, or things—is so unpopular. It keeps reminding us of just how undistinguished the rest of us are.

The pursuit of and admiration of excellence are what elitism is all about, and personally, I'm all for it! Without it, neither a society nor a technology like high fidelity can improve. Yes, we are elitist, because excellence is what high-end audio is all about, and excellence is what elitism is all about. We heartily approve of both.

Snobbery? Okay, we're guilty of a certain amount of that, too. A snob is a person who scorns anyone (or anything) that he sees as being of lower social, cultural, or economic station than himself. We at Stereophile don't really feel this way, but on the other hand, there are a number of things we do hold in utter contempt.

For instance, we look down on audiophiles who talk up live music like a storm and never get to hear it when the opportunity arises, and dealers who proclaim their sincerity to serve the customer but sell by profit margin rather than by sound quality. We look down on component manufacturers who let their customers do their field testing for them, and ones that don't bother to check out a product before sending it to us for testing. We are also scornful of high-priced products which sound terrible. (Did the designer ever listen to this thing?)

But we do not necessarily look down on low-priced products which sound less than excellent; many of them make no pretense of quality. We just find them very boring, which is why we rarely request a cheapie for testing. But show us a low-priced product that offers decent sound, and we're delighted to give due credit—especially when it can give a pretty good accounting of itself even when compared to an astronomically priced "unaffordable."

The reader who bitched about our seeming disregard of the satisfaction and "listening pleasure" that a mediocre system can bring is missing the point. You can get pleasure from even the worst system if you are indifferent enough to its shortcomings. Professional musicians, for example, are notorious for listening to the worst audio systems imaginable, probably because sound is just not one of the things in reproduced music that musicians listen to (footnote 1). The rest of us, who have decided that sound is one of the things about music that we like, find it much harder to excuse the imperfections of mediocre systems. Our biggest problem, in fact, is that the more we listen the more attuned we become to the various kinds of imperfections in audio and the less tolerant we become of them.

Yes, it is possible to get "satisfaction" from a music system that is less than state-of-the-art, but the degree to which one can do this is as personal as one's sexual preferences. We all listen for different things in reproduced sound, and we judge a system according to how well or how poorly it does those things. Listener A may consider soundstage presentation to be of paramount importance, while listener B may value accuracy of midrange above all else. If a system does not do both well, there is no way it is going to satisfy each of those listeners.

Generally, the better the system—and better usually implies higher-price—the better it will do all things, and hence the more listeners it will satisfy To acknowledge this, and to give consistently higher marks to the components which do more things better, is not snobbery; it's just common sense. Since we can't divine our readers' individual preferences in reproduced sound, but are nonetheless expected to write reviews which will be of value to all readers who are considering component purchases, we have no choice but to favor products which have many strengths and to downrate those which have few. And if that happens to look like snobbery, so be it.

It is all too easy, when faced with harsh economic reality, to forget that high fidelity has always concerned itself with the pursuit of perfection, and that the best sound attainable, regardless of cost, has always been the yardstick against which lesser components are judged. We must be preoccupied with what is going on in the audio stratosphere, because that's where the frontiers of music reproduction are being advanced. And while "trickle-down" may not work as a national economic policy, it has always worked in audio, with bonafide design breakthroughs eventually finding themselves embodied in more modestly priced components.

Stereophile has always sought out those outstanding values in lower priced components and brought them to our readers' attention. But if we can't get as excited about them as we do over a $2000 preamplifier which performs up to its price, it is not because we hold them in scorn, but because we hold the better one in higher regard. We too judge music reproduction by the satisfaction it brings us. The fact that no modestly priced system can satisfy us as does a no-holds-barred one is not snobbery on our part, but simply an acknowledgement of the eternal verity that quality costs, and the highest quality costs the most. Those of us who can't afford it can still find less expensive systems which satisfy without resenting the fact that there are better ones out there in audioland that we can't afford—and without being irritated by a magazine which acknowledges that those better components exist.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 1: There are of course musicians whose taste in reproduced sound is extremely demanding. James Boyk of Performance Recordings is one such person, and I'm sure there are many more.—Larry Archibald