A Brief History of the Lost

Children, for the most part, are normal human beings who like to make believe that they're extraordinary, just for fun. Adults, on the other hand, are delusional creatures who enjoy pretending that they're normal, simply for their own peace of mind.

Of the latter, hardcore audiophiles such as you and I are the most extreme: We wish we could return to the womb of normalcy, if only to hear "She Loves You" again for the first time, with all the wonder and astonishment and full-body glee that has been beaten out of us by disease and baldness and unpleasant companions.

We want to go back—so, naturally, we mash our foot on the gas and surge forward. Last year's audio breakthrough didn't do the job? Tomorrow's will surely be better. The sums we've spent have left us unsatisfied once again? The answer is clearly to throw even more money at the problem. We drive ourselves crazy, buying and assembling music systems that are more and more complex, less and less like the wonderful machines that brought us such joy in the first place—and then we brood and we insult each other on the Internet and we wonder why our children are happier than we are. What fools we mortals be!

* * *

Here's another of our crazy ideas: The longer we live with a given technology, the better we expect it to be.

That works well enough with some things. It's common, not to mention reasonable, for people to expect that cars will be safer, more efficient, and more pleasant to use this year than last, or that the medical arts will keep us alive and feeling well for longer, or that next summer the local Dairy-Freeze will provide an even bigger and grander selection of flavors.

But that works only when the technology in question has made things distinctly, unambiguously, and inarguably better than they were before it came along. And in audio, the surplus of products that ought to be obsolete but are not—far from it, in some cases—has reined in our enthusiasm for the future. Yes, despite the doleful predictions of John Philip Sousa—he believed that, in a world where everyone had access to recordings made by world-class musicians, average people would no longer have any wish to sing—recording and playback technologies have improved people's lives, making it possible to hear music that was once utterly unavailable to them. But unlike the automotive arts, in which performance goals are unambiguous and enjoy nearly universal agreement—chiefly to get from Point A to Point B—domestic audio has yet to succeed to the satisfaction of all concerned. In hi-fi, there is no Point B.

We're smiling on the outside—loveless though we remain, we surely have the best-looking inflatable dolls on the planet—but a few of us disappear from time to time. Those are the ones who, having conditioned themselves not to expect too much, finally lose interest altogether. For them, the glass is still half full, but it's half full of something that tastes funny.

* * *

And yet . . .

Every now and then the fever breaks and one of us comes to and says: I just took a wrong turn somewhere, that's all. I'd like to go home now, please. And off they go.

I've seen how they do it. (At least, I've seen how some of them do it.) They simplify. A few of them even cheapify—but only if it makes sense to do so. For the most part, people get back home by deciding that it makes more sense to have a relatively small number of very good things rather than a room full of crap. They decide that they cannot, for the rest of their lives, cart around all that junk they've accumulated. They're right.

For some, the most appealing road out of nowhere is to buy one very good, timeless amplifier—perhaps even one very good integrated amplifier—and then be done with it. For others, it will be that last record player, or perhaps even CD player (footnote 1). Some of the smartest money will be spent on loudspeakers that their prospective owners, in their most serene moments, simply know they can live with forever. (Hint: Those speakers will be subtle and elegant in appearance, and they won't look out of place in a room full of records, books, and pictures of loved ones. They will be, literally, speakers for life.)

Our industry continues to make things that are worth having. (I have far greater hope for us than for the music industry; while the former continues to try, the latter has poisoned itself with the excreta of its own greed.) Even if domestic audio never catches on with the young—unthinkable, I know, in the face of all our bloviation on that topic!—it will continue, for a while, to serve our own efforts to make tangible sense of an intangible art form. Our success at that, and not our sad attempts to pretend we understand and enjoy their music, would be the thing that finally makes listeners out of our children.

Footnote 1: I believe there is still room in the marketplace for perfectionist-quality CD players. But I also believe it's now the duty of anyone reviewing such things to ask every one of their manufacturers: How many disc transports and converter chips have you set aside so that those expensive machines can be kept in service for more than a few years?

kennypc's picture

Has anyone heard these towers?smiley

Ariel Bitran's picture

The best place to ask this question is in our Forums and hopefully someone there will have a response: http://www.stereophile.com/forum

sgibson389's picture

Good column Art. I have wandered for too long, but am still bogged down and haven't been able to break through.  I keep trying.........