The Tragedy of High End Audio Page 2

The first problem is one of marketing. The high end tends to sell its wares to the same people over and over again. The guy who bought a Symphonic Bombast 101 amplifier last year is encouraged to buy the Bombast 201 this year—and advertising money will undoubtedly be spent trying to get him to buy a 301 next year. Instead of "fishing in the same hole," high-end manufacturers should make expanding the high-end audio market their primary concern.

I'm not talking about promoting certain products—I'm talking about making the very idea of high-quality music playback in the home known to the general public. If people don't know how good music in the home can be, they have no choice but to be relegated to a life of poor sound, completely ignorant of the pleasure and joy a topnotch audio system can bring into their lives. Unfortunately, the industry is too small to launch a national advertising campaign, even with a concerted effort among manufacturers.

Whenever I meet someone and am asked what I do for a living, their reaction is, without exception, shock that American-made audio products even exist, never mind that they are among the finest in the world. No one knows.

The second problem is one of presentation; those people inclined to own good music playback systems are often alienated by either the high end's technical complexity or its snooty attitude. Many music lovers just want good sound without technical confusion or elitism. We should remember that they are music enthusiasts, not equipment junkies. Furthermore, appealing to a person's sense of snobbery to increase the amount of a sale—something I've experienced firsthand—is equally distasteful to the music lover. The industry should promote, rather than hide, the fact that many musically satisfying high-end products cost no more than mass-market mid-fi.

The following experience exemplifies the presentation problem. When I taught a college program in recording engineering, I assigned the students—who knew nothing of the high end—to go to any high-end store and hear some music reproduced correctly. I told them to say up-front who they were, what their mission was, and to tell the salesperson that they had no intention of buying anything that day. They were also instructed to visit the stores during the slowest business hours.

They came back to class angry and frustrated. Many met with this response: "I'm not going to turn anything on for you if you're not buying anything." Others were treated condescendingly, the salespeople expressing a haughty, snobbish attitude: "This equipment is too good for you." Virtually all the students were turned off by the experience. Some were quite outspoken in their disgust. The few who did hear good demonstrations with enthusiastic salespeople, however, came back to class transformed. Just that one experience made them converts—as I knew it would. Their zeal seemed odd to those students who hadn't heard a high-end system. What was the big deal?

It is unconscionable that the rest were treated so churlishly. I found myself apologizing for the very same industry whose tenets and products I so enthusiastically endorse. Although I'd had similarly unpleasant experiences, I thought the stores would enjoy the chance to show off good sound—especially to recording students. Instead, they revealed just how shortsighted they really were (footnote 1).

How much better engineers would those frustrated students have become had they been given good presentations? How much money might they have spent on high-end equipment after graduation if only they'd known how much better music reproduction could be? How many other people's standards would they have raised in the course of their lives and careers in recording and music? How many other people have been turned off to the high end by similarly bad experiences?

Everyone in the high-end community—in any capacity—must take advantage of every opportunity to enthusiastically present high-end music playback to the uninitiated. This is why hi-fi shows are so worthwhile and why Stereophile devotes so much time and energy to organizing them: the general public can experience how good music reproduction can be, as well as get a taste of the participants' enthusiasm and dedication that make our industry unique.

Every person who listens to music he or she cares about through a mid-fi system represents a failure of the high end. How can we get the message across to tens of millions of potential customers that home music reproduction can be much more than they ever imagined?

I wish I knew.

Footnote 1: There was one notable exception: Havens and Hardesty in Huntington Beach, CA. They graciously accommodated the students, and it was always a pleasure to visit the store. I once took a friend there who was interested in Vandersteen 2s, but could not immediately afford them. Despite telling Richard Hardesty he was not going to buy that day, Richard spent the entire Saturday afternoon playing music for us through different equipment. My friend ended up becoming a more enthusiastic and dedicated audiophile after that experience.