High-End Audio is Here to Stay!

It was 2am on January 8, 2000, and I was sitting at the bar of the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas. I'd just arrived for the Consumer Electronics Show and was recovering from a stressful day of travel. The airlines have a new computerized ticketing technology called the "electronic ticket": you get a reservation and a confirmation number, but no physical plane ticket, itinerary, or the feelings of security that accompany those pieces of paper.

When I arrived at my designated departure gate on the morning of January 7, I was informed by the attendant, "Sorry, I don't have you scheduled for this flight."

"I have a reservation. Here's my confirmation number."

"The computer shows your reservation for tomorrow."

"That's impossible! I have a hotel reservation for tonight, a rental car reserved for tonight. There must be some mistake."

"Without an itinerary or a ticket, there's nothing I can do. This flight and your connecting flight are booked."

"I want a manager now!" My voice was loud, angry.

She walked away, and returned 10 minutes later. "I can give you a standby ticket on both flights. You have priority seating. Don't worry---you'll get a seat. We always have no-shows."

Luckily for my traveling companion and me, there were seats available on both flights and we were able to sit together.

Back at the bar of the Paris Hotel, I'd ordered my favorite cocktail and was trying to forget about the airlines' inefficiency and their "new" computerized ticketing, when suddenly I was surrounded by three young men.

"Where are you from?" asked the large guy with the southern drawl.

"I'm from New York."

The tall, slender guy said, "I'm here for Mobile; we manufacture chips. What about you?"

"I'm into high-end audio."

It was the Asian guy's turn. "How many MP3 players have you sold?"

It was late, I was tired, and the Cosmopolitan I'd just drunk was taking effect. "I'm into high-end audio---speakers, amplifiers, quality stereo systems."

"Yes, but how many MP3 players do you sell a month?"

"Do you know what an MP3 player is?"

The Asian guy: "I just know it's the newest thing."

At that point the bartender interrupted. "Are these guys bothering you? I'll get rid of them."

A few minutes later they walked away.

The technology tornado is picking up speed, devouring everything in its path. Pick up an audio-video magazine and look at the cover. "the future is here," it screams in big red letters. Inside are stories about a refrigerator that buys its own food, a floor that cleans itself, and stereo speakers that adjust themselves to a room's acoustic.

The cover of a computer magazine brags about 100 useful websites. You flip through a few pages and stop at a black-and-white photo of a beautiful woman. There's something strange about her, and after a few minutes' study you realize that her pupils have been replaced by a pair of digital camcorders.

That image remains implanted in your brain as you turn the page in search of the cover article. On the very next page is a large photograph of the back of a man's head. He has very short hair and a 64MB hard drive attached to his skull.

Your mind fills with images from Terminator 2 and the battle for survival between humankind and the machines: The earth is a burning, smoking, barren wasteland. It feels as if a knife is stabbing you between the eyes. Your ears ring from the excruciating highs, your head pounds from the sounds of war. The chair is vibrating from the rumble and boom of the bass. Your heartbeat races and your entire body begins to shake.

Stop everything. Turn off the HDTV with the ear-splittingly painful self-adjusting speakers. Shut off the computer with its plasma screen and metallic, digital, distorted sound system. Turn off the lights, open the curtains, and take a deep breath. Watch the trees blowing in the breeze and enjoy the moment.

Walk into your listening room and close the door. Savor the sounds of silence, the peace and quiet, the joys of acoustical tiles and sound treatments. Take a few steps over to the preamplifier, turn it on, and set the dial to Phono. Flip on the mono tube amplifiers and watch the tubes glow. While the system warms up, flip through the pile of LPs on the floor and choose your favorite album. Study the playing surfaces. Are they scratch-free and clean? Yes. You smile as you admire the symmetrical beauty and technological artistry of your custom-made turntable. Carefully, you place the record on the platter and set the mechanism in motion. You drop into the soft comfort of your listening chair and are surrounded by beautiful music.

It's the year 2000, and the sound quality of audio equipment has improved greatly over the 50 years since the dawn of hi-fi: The build quality is better, the parts are hand-picked and custom-made, the technology has grown simpler and purer. But the goal has remained the same: The raison d'être of high-end audio is the beauty of the music.

Close your eyes and you're transported to the concert hall of your dreams. The soundstage is wide and deep: violins on your left, woodwinds on the right. You recognize the style of your favorite pianist. The emotion of the music takes you on a roller-coaster ride of crescendos and arpeggios, and ends with a roll of the bass drum. You open your eyes---the orchestra disappears, and the steady lights of the preamplifier faceplate and the glow of the amplifier tubes appear before you.

This is better than virtual reality because, in its purest form, music is the divine spark of creativity. Music elevates the spirit, touches the soul. No technology can replace that feeling. As long as it stays connected to the music, high-end audio is here to stay.

Footnote: Gigi Krop is married to that Dark Knight of the Internet newsgroups, Steve Zipser. Together they run high-end audio retailer Sunshine Stereo in Miami Shores, Florida.