The Tragedy of High End Audio

As I walked through Stereophile's Taipei High-End Hi-Fi show (see the full report next month), I was startled to see four ladies in their 50s carrying Stereophile bags full of brochures. They'd just left a demonstration of Martin-Logan CLSes driven by Aragon electronics and were talking animatedly among themselves as they busily made their way to the next exhibit room. My surprise was repeated throughout the show as I saw an amazingly diverse group of people who had enough interest in high-end audio to get themselves to the Taipei Hilton and pay the show's admission price. Young couples, old couples, entire families, and women were all there to see and hear high-end audio. This was in sharp contrast to the narrow demographic group seen at US and European hi-fi shows: predominantly young to middle-aged males to whom audio is a hobby.

I got to thinking about why I should be surprised to see four fiftyish Taiwanese women enthusiastically prowling a high-end hi-fi show. Are they inherently any less dedicated music lovers than anyone else? Do they intrinsically care less about playback quality than young male hobbyists?

Of course not. Any such presumptions are utterly groundless. Then why should I consider the four ladies' presence unexpected?

My surprise is symptomatic of the tragedy of the high-end audio industry: its failure to appeal to music lovers instead of just audiophile tweakos. We don't expect those four ladies to debate the audibility of nitrogen-filled rhodium relays in the signal path, yet we would not at all be surprised to see them at the concert hall. This juxtaposition throws into sharp relief the high end's fundamental inability to encompass music lovers who don't care about technical matters, but would enjoy music so much more with a high-end system.

High-end audio needs to mature beyond its technically oriented hobbyist genesis. It must expand its scope to appeal to the music lover who has no interest in equipment for equipment's sake, but just wants to recreate the musical experience in the home. The pursuit of musical realism should not require an immersion in audiophile technical minutiae. I believe there are vast numbers of music lovers with the financial means to own high-end equipment, yet listen to mid-fi either out of ignorance of its very existence or because of intimidation by the technical side of high-end audio.

An example: Someone I know worked as a personal secretary for a wealthy couple who were ardent music lovers. The couple had spent 15 years in Italy and attended the opera there weekly. In addition to contributing to the symphony, they enjoyed live music at least once a week. Without a doubt, music was a big part of their lives.

Part of the secretary's job was to pay the bills. She told me about one particular bill from a mid-fi audio emporium for a $269 receiver—a replacement for the couple's old receiver. Why did this music-loving couple buy a cheap, poorly performing audio system when they had the financial means, time, and musical inclination to own something that would bring them far more joy than what they had come to expect from a music playback system?

They had never been told about the high end. Had they ever heard a topnotch system playing their favorite music in a comfortable atmosphere, and presented the right way, I'm convinced beyond any doubt that they would have immediately bought the system, or at least begun investigating what other products the high end has to offer. But they were never given that chance.

The tragedy of this episode is that everyone loses: the manufacturer who would have increased his yearly gross, the retailer who missed a big sale, and, yes, the magazine that may have gained one more reader. Moreover, all high-end consumers suffer too: a larger market would bring prices down as the economies of scale went to work.

Far more tragic, however, is that this couple will never know the joy of selecting a piece of music and having it performed before them with a realism and emotion they never thought possible. The issue goes far beyond the financial health of the industry: it's a matter of altruism. It's such a shame to think of that couple—such ardent music lovers—listening to mid-fi and thinking that this is all recorded music can be. The high end has failed them just as much as it has failed itself.

The high end's problem is twofold: the public doesn't know it exists, and many who do know are intimidated by the technical jargon or turned off by the elitism that sometimes accompanies the high end.