Home Theater vs High-End Audio

A hot topic for discussion in recent issues of Stereophile has been the impact Home Theater has had on the High End. Some of the magazine's contributors—J. Gordon Holt and Corey Greenberg, for example—have written that the advent of Home Theater means that we should expand the audio context of the magazine to include reviews of video components (footnote 1). Others, including Bob Harley, Tom Norton, and myself, feel that we should stick to what we know and love—audio—and enter the new field only to advise Stereophile's readers on how to achieve the best sound from a Home Theater system. However, missing from the debate in our pages so far have been any comments from those in the business of selling and demonstrating high-end products and, increasingly, Home Theater systems. Accordingly, this month I am running a guest editorial from a man who perhaps typifies the high-end, specialist retailer: Ken Gould of Audio Nexus (footnote 2). Please note that Mr. Gould's opinions are his own and do not represent those of the magazine.John Atkinson

High-end audio is a very, very special calling. It has been said many times that those who are involved in the design, manufacture, or sales of high-end components do so for the love of it, not in any expectation of getting rich. This love of the field is both the strength and weakness of the High End. No mega-giant, mass-market electronics manufacturer whose products are designed by committee for trendy appeal and price-point targets will ever be able to produce components worthy of the designation "high-end." Yet the small, dedicated audiophile/designer/manufacturer who endeavors to produce the ideal audio product usually lacks the business acumen to have a major impact on the worldwide electronics marketplace. However, as long as he's good enough to stay in business, and as long as he is faithful to the standards that permit high-end components to give superior performance to those of the mass market, those other things don't matter.

It is critical to understand that the strength of the High End resides solely in adherence to this vision of perfect music reproduction. That is our playing field; that is our home game. If we stray from that fold, we will be eaten alive by the mega-manufacturers who can do everything better in the electronics world except design perfectionist audio components.

Against this backdrop of basic "truth and beauty," we now see emerging from the wings the newest market forces: Home Theater and multi-room remote systems. I want to make it clear right now that this is not going to be a diatribe against either of these formats. They are valid additions to the world of 20th-century electronics, and there is no reason why people should not enjoy them and get more use out of their audio-component investment by tying them together. That has never been the issue. But for some reason a change in attitude has overtaken the high-end industry.

In the past, commercial considerations have never been able to sway the vast majority of high-end designers and retailers from their goal of bringing superior music reproduction to people's homes. Not car audio, 1970s-style four-channel stereo, bells and whistles over performance, or any other style-over-content audio trend has succeeded in making serious inroads into our beloved High End. But now this has changed.

Our best, stellar designers are now designing for Home Theater in ever-increasing numbers. And they are doing so in the full knowledge that these Home Theater products are a serious sonic compromise over what these designers would normally produce. Their justification for this compromise is, inevitably, that while this Home Theater product is not as good as traditional high-end products, it's still the best available in the Home Theater genre. One speaker manufacturer known exclusively for his design of world-class products told me that his in-wall speaker was the most successful new product introduction he had ever had! And he admits, unblushingly, that this product's performance is not the equivalent of his traditional loudspeaker designs.

My god, what is going on here? The people who define and maintain our unique high-end industry are being seduced in ever-increasing numbers into the commercial world of monetary success, a success which inevitably must come with a sacrifice of high-end standards. So what is the harm, one might ask, in our best designers raising the standards of Home Theater? The harm, my friends, lies in the seduction of our irreplaceable high-end personnel into commercial ventures in which monetary success becomes more important than "truth and beauty." Once you ally yourself with the dark side of the force, you can rationalize just about anything.

And what are the consequences of this pact with the devil? The first and most obvious is that a designer who is spending his time designing for Home Theater is not spending his time trying to eke the next, minute increment of performance out of his (formerly) beloved amplifier, preamp, or speaker design. He is busy trying to make audio standards for an inherently inferior audio medium. And I do hope that no one will be lulled into a false sense of security by believing that there will always be a new, idealistic perfectionist waiting to take the place of those who have abandoned the High End. The continued vitality of our industry relies upon a delicate "music triangle" of high-end designers, high-end stores, and high-end listeners. If this triangle is broken at any of the apices, it will collapse. A few designers tinkering around in their basements will not be enough if the balance breaks down. The second consequence is that, if the trend continues, we will sacrifice all of the specialization that keeps our industry alive. Let me explain why I believe this is so.

When audio and video are combined, audio inevitably takes a back seat to video. That is why the audio standards of the video industry have been execrable for so long. The sound is always a second-class adjunct to the picture—never, never a coequal partner. People's concentration and attention are directed primarily at the picture, and the sound is merely in the background. That is not to say that many people will not appreciate improved sound along with their pictures, but it will never be a priority for the vast majority of viewers. (Please note that I said viewers, not listeners. When did you ever hear a television watcher described as a listener? Even the English language is constructed so that I have difficulty in describing a video participant without words that allude to sight.)

Most people would immediately admit to being able to choose the sharpest, clearest picture from a group of TV sets, but most would not believe that they could hear differences in audio components until it were proven to them that they can. With most audio stores concentrating on Home Theater demonstrations, there will be fewer and fewer stores capable of educating those potential audiophiles. Most of the money invested in improving Home Theater systems will inevitably go toward improving the picture, not the sound. Yes, the sound that accompanies the picture in future video systems will be better than it is today, but it will never even approach true high-end sound for the vast majority of users.

What will most Home Theater installations sound like? Most of them will sound like most of today's mass-market audio systems; maybe not even as good. Some "audiophile" theater systems will be better, but they will never have the ultimate performance of a purist, high-end audio system. Audio will again take a back seat to video. And to achieve this nebulous improvement we will have sacrificed the uniqueness of "vision" that made the High End possible. And then the Japanese and the mass marketeers will have accomplished with dollars what they could never have accomplished with their ears.

Is this all too melodramatic? I don't think so. The pressures on manufacturers and stores are enormous and impossible to resist. Virtually all of the competing stores in my area have metamorphosed into Home Theater exhibits, and the day is not far off when our own store will have to install its first theater exhibit as well. I am being told that the audio-only store will go the way of the dinosaur, and that only a handful of audio tweakers will want non-video systems. Well, perhaps that is so. I can assure our audio customers that we will continue to do our best to make our high-end music systems as extraordinary as possible, even as we do our best to bring as much high-end sound as possible into our theater demos.

I only hope that, a few years from now, extraordinary advances in high-end products are still being made for us to incorporate into those video systems. Who knows? Maybe the dinosaur will evolve into a beautiful bird instead of becoming extinct.—Ken Gould

Footnote 1: See "As We See It," March 1993 and June '93, p.7; "Industry Update," May '93, p.41; and "Letters" in this issue, in May '93, p.15, and in June '93, p.18. Corey Greenberg's views were also posted in the CEFORUM section of the Compuserve computer bulletin board in May.—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: Mr. Gould is President of high-end retailer Audio Nexus of Summit, NJ: www.audionexus.com.—John Atkinson