Just What Is High End?

A man who had just looked through his very first Stereophile---April's "Recommended Components" issue picked up at a newsstand---recently called to ask my advice on a certain inexpensive CD player made by a large mid-fi company. I told him I hadn't auditioned the player and thus couldn't comment on its worth. The man then proceeded to read me the player's specifications, finally informing me that the player "had the new 1-bit thing"---all in the belief that I could make a recommendation based on what he'd just told me. He apparently had been conditioned to believe that not only was "the 1-bit thing" superior, but that choosing a CD player was merely a matter of evaluating technical specs.

I suggested he read Lewis Lipnick's review and my Follow-Up of the similarly priced ($400) Rotel RCD-855, as well as audition both units himself with his favorite music. After asking a few questions about the RCD-855, he seemed a little uncomfortable with this suggestion: Why should he spend the same amount of money for a machine that lacked the "latest" technology (1-bit) and had fewer features? Not only that, but the RCD-855 was made by a company a fraction of the competing manufacturer's size, and presumably had far more modest development and manufacturing facilities. What could Rotel do that the international electronics giant couldn't? How could Rotel possibly make a better machine?

Within the context of a phone conversation in which the man wanted nothing more than a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the 1-bit machine, I found myself attempting to explain to him---with missionary zeal---nothing less than the entire high-end audio credo.

We'll come back to our fledgling audiophile, but let's cut to Atlanta, Georgia a few weeks later at the first general meeting of the newly formed Academy for the Advancement of High End Audio (AAHEA). During the meeting, someone suggested that we define the term "high end." Since the association's goal is the advancement and promotion of "high-end" audio, defining "high end" would seem like a logical---and very simple---task.

After about one minute of bandying about various definitions of high end, it was apparent that the question "What is high end?" was more complex than anyone realized. Although the members' suggestions embodied some aspects of what makes some audio components high-end and other not, there was no definitive statement as to what high end really was. Short on time, the meeting moved on to more pressing topics. After I returned home, however, the question nagged.

What is high end?

We all know what it is, but a concise definition is elusive. I discovered this when I tried to explain---in 30 seconds or less---what high end was all about to the potential purchaser of the 1-bit machine. It's easy to describe some aspect of high end without really summing it up entirely. I could throw out a list of company names and most of us would agree, with surprising unanimity, which companies made high-end products and which didn't.

Since we all know high end when we see it, an important distinction is whether high-end components are incrementally better than mass-market products, or if they are qualitatively different. If they're better by degree, where does one draw the line beyond which a product can be called high-end? If high-end products are fundamentally different, how are they different? These questions parallel the debate over human intelligence. Some have argued that human intelligence is the same as primate intelligence; we have language, art, science, and civilization because we simply have more intelligence. Other argue that humans have a unique and special form of intelligence that bears little relationship to animal thought processes. Is high-end audio merely improved mid-fi, or is there something unique and special about high-end products?

I propose that high-end audio products are fundamentally different from mid-fi products---not only in their physical, electrical, and musical characteristics, but, more importantly, in the relationships they share with their designers and users. From genesis to application, a high-end product bears little similarity to a mass-market component.

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.

To the high-end designer, electronic or mechanical design isn't merely a technical undertaking---it's an act of love and devotion. Every possible design aspect, technical and musical, is examined in a way that would surprise an engineer not accustomed to such commitment. The ethos of music-reproduction equipment design goes to the core of his being; it's not a job he merely shows up for every day.