Glory Days

The drive home from Montreal and the Salon Son & Image show is smooth and uneventful. The snow kindly stops just as John Atkinson and I climb into his Land Cruiser, the woman at Customs lets us into the US with little fanfare, and, there isn't much to set the heart racing. Every fifty or so miles, the highway's long dividing guardrail is punctuated by some enormous brown bird—a once majestic body that owned the sky is now slung awkwardly and pitifully over cold steel. It's sad that something so beautiful and strong can die so quietly. But quiet abounds out here. The sky seems to move nearly as fast as we do, clouds cling to tall mountains, and winds tug at the Cruiser's tires.

The scene is a lullaby, and I am exhausted from working on the show blog. The only thing keeping me awake is my promise to JA that I would keep him awake. But I'm little help in this regard. Instead, JA holds several brief conversations with his GPS navigator. Every 10 minutes, he scans the screen of his Palm Treo and announces our progress and estimated arrival time: "Two-hundred-forty miles to your home. She says we'll be there by 4:16pm."

"Hmm. Not bad."

We drive on in comfortable silence. A large bird (a hawk? an eagle?) soars overhead.

"Two-hundred-eighteen miles to your home. She says we'll be there by 4:14. We gained two minutes."

"Ah. We're flying."

"I hope you don't mind the quiet. It's just that after the show, I don't feel the need for music."

"I don't mind at all."

Yet all I can think of is getting back home and listening to my LPs. The show has proved inspiring. I can say with certainty that the 2009 Salon Son & Image was the friendliest, most relaxed, most enjoyable hi-fi show I've ever attended.

How many of these things have I experienced? Not many, really. That said, I did hear many other, far more experienced showgoers express the same sentiment. People commented on the "nice audiophiles," the "less aggressive vibe," the "laid-back atmosphere." While all of this praise was welcome, one attendee saw it differently. Responding to the closing entry of our show blog, he reflected on the relatively small number of exhibitor rooms: "This is an industry in deep crisis. All manufacturers these days face the same dual problems of dwindling customers and little available credit. The easy money from cheap mortgages and home-equity loans is gone, leaving the high-end companies vying for those few remaining wealthy customers with good cash flow and a desire to buy. I have no doubt that, just like the auto industry, the high-end business will look nothing like it does today after this recession is over."

It's hard to argue with this analysis. But while it sounds gloomy on a cursory inspection, perhaps there's a bright side. If that reader is correct—if, after the current recession, high-end audio is to take on a new look—let's consider the possibilities. What shape will the next incarnation of high-end audio take?

I, of course, like to think that it will be an even stronger, friendlier, more enjoyable High End—a High End approaching "The Glory Days" that JA is so fond of, a High End in which your local dealer throws wide his doors and functions not only as a trusted resource for value and service, but also, through music and entry-level gear and patience, as a gateway for younger audiophiles. Let these hard times of recession remind us of the inviting times of development and hope.

On the first day of Salon Son & Image, JA and I visited the suite occupied by Simaudio and Dynaudio, where Sim's Costa Koulisakis explained the company's new "Reach for the Moon" trade-up program. For up to a year following an initial purchase, customers interested in moving up the Sim price ladder can return their well-maintained component and receive a 100% credit applicable to the list price of a new component. "It's a way to stimulate the economy," Koulisakis enthused, "while building brand loyalty." This strikes me as a very good thing. Indeed, it's exactly what our new high-end world needs.

In their suite, Simaudio was playing their new entry-level Moon CD.5 CD player and Moon i.5 integrated amplifier, along with Dynaudio's new Excite X12 standmounted speakers—a refreshingly underwhelming partnership, in that the entire system could easily fit in a small dorm room or office. Each component, including the pair of Excite X12s, has a retail price of $1200—not exactly cheap, but certainly a price that can be swallowed by all but the newest audiophiles, a price that can be striven for and eventually attained by planning and saving.

Sizes and price aside, the sound was outstanding. Perhaps this is another goal for our new high-end world: sound that is consistently more impressive than size or price. Can you imagine? In our new world, the definition of high-end will be closer to that of quality than of expense. As I mentioned to Koulisakis during our meeting, when the high price of a component is more impressive than its sound, something is very wrong. And as JA mentioned in his coverage of the Bluebird Music room, which showcased a $7500 system comprising Exposure electronics and Spendor speakers, "You get used to hearing expensive over-the-top systems at an audio show, but the real delight is discovering more affordable setups that sound better than you expect."

We need to return to our Glory Days, opening our eyes and our ears to all that we have forgotten. Our special little world doesn't need another underachieving mega-priced loudspeaker, or another backbreaking amplifier. It needs more gateway products at gateway prices. We need more good reasons for building enduring audio relationships based on trust and loyalty and marked by pure enthusiasm, passion, and fun. Lest we wind up like the poor dead hawks at the side of the road—once majestic, now left to rot—entering and enjoying this little world of high-end audio should be no more intimidating or painful than crossing a friendly border on your way home.—Stephen Mejias