Just What Is High End? Page 2

Robert Pirsig expressed these ideas so well in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when he said, "Care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing." Because the high-end designer cares, his products have more quality---or, in audiophile-speak, are more musical.

What high-end products do that mass-market products mainly do not is to produce a powerful intimacy with the music. The mediocre product never passes the threshold from good sound to creating magic in the listening room. Why not? Because in their development, the designers didn't listen, tweak the design, and listen some more. Other projects needed their attention. The circuit measured well, sounded acceptable---why beat it to death? The mid-fi designer may enjoy music, but he lacks the obsession that drives the high-end designer to push the limits of performance just a little further (footnote 1).

Conversely, the caring designer continues his quest until he is absolutely sure that no more improvements can be made. His mind is at peace only when the product satisfies his high expectations of how it should convey the music. At the last stage, he will often include an expensive part that adds to the raw materials cost, even though he knows the retail price won't increase. The additional cost will come off the bottom line, but the designer can't bear to think of the product performing below its potential. He knows how much better the music will sound to dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of music lovers. And that matters to him.

At the Atlanta AAHEA meeting, I looked around to see a room packed with this type of designer, a veritable Who's Who of high-end audio. As I considered the sheer amount of design talent in one room at the same time, I felt a wave of gratitude toward all high-end audio designers. They are people who had a vision---that they could make products that furthered the art and science of reproducing music. Because there are people in this world who care so deeply about music, I and thousands of other audiophiles and music lovers experience far greater joy when the lights dim and the record starts. Our lives are enriched immeasurably by their talents and devotion. To understand the impact of a relatively few individuals on our enjoyment of music, imagine a world in which we had no choice except to have our favorite music subject to products designed by people who consider an audio system just another household appliance.

High end isn't a prestigious brand name, or the type of store in which it is sold, or cost, or faceplate thickness, or a positive review. It is the relationship between the designer and his product---a relationship that produces a similar relationship between the user and the product. High end can be an inexpensive product, provided that the designer's goal was to best convey the music. Indeed, a modestly-priced product that squeezes the last drop of musical performance from the parts cost is more high-end than an elaborate design that isn't fully realized. Again, the difference is in the designer's attitude: how much he cares about music determines how good the product is within the cost limitations. These qualities can exist within an individual designer in a mid-fi company; we wouldn't call the resulting product high-end, but maybe it will be a little less mid-fi.

The antithesis of high end is the designer who purposefully makes a product---such as an inexpensive loudspeaker---that will impress during a brief showroom demo, knowing full well that it will disappoint musically in the home. Similarly, the mid-fi ethic may call for making the component look good on paper, without regard to how it sounds. Another technique, anathema to the high end, is overly compromising a design. Rather than use a better part that makes the product far more musically satisfying but slightly increases the retail price, the designer cuts corners and compromises musicality to meet a "price point" determined by the marketing department. All designers must be price-conscious, but this last technique is definitely not part of the high-end ethos.

Many of these observations apply to high-end dealers as well as designers. The true high-end dealer will put his customer's musical satisfaction ahead of this month's bottom line. He is a professional who uses his skill to select a combination of components he would want to listen to himself---at any budget. The most savvy dealers know that if they provide a musically satisfying experience, the customer will be hooked and keep coming back for more over the years.

The term "musicality"---often associated with high-end components---bears discussion. The word has become a lightning rod for criticism by audio "objectivists" and the mainstream press because they erroneously believe that musicality implies some sort of euphonic coloration. Moreover, musicality can't be measured, quantified, or communicated by linear symbols, thus making its existence questionable to some who haven't experienced it (footnote 2).

Footnote 1: This is not to say dedication alone will produce a truly high-end product. Technically brilliant and musically sensitive designers sometimes fail in their efforts to produce musical components.

Footnote 2: The need for actual experience rather than a description of the experience was expressed so well during a "60 Minutes" segment in which Mike Wallace asked Count Basie, "What would you tell us about your music? How would you characterize it?" The Count looked at him with that round smiling face and said serenely, "Just pat your foot."