Are Audiophiles Music-Lovers?

"Like many audiophiles I have often sped home from a concert to fire up the audio system, and then, to the sore vexation of my wife and guests, spent the rest of the evening plunged in the morbid contemplation of what, exactly, was missing."

That's how I led off a piece for Stereophile a few years back (Vol.11 No.4, p.58). Live, unamplified music---the sine qua non, the benchmark, the mantra, no?

Most of us desperately want to believe in this "absolute sound," but is it possible that for the majority of our tribe it remains a ritualistic chant, intoned by many and practiced by few? There is fresh and troubling evidence. Peter McGrath, a friend, fellow high-end dealer, and noted recording engineer, estimates that, as a group, audiophiles spend 100 hours reading about tone cones, speaker cables, and audio miscellany for every hour spent in the company of a flesh-and-blood orchestra, chamber ensemble, jazz trio, or blues group. Says one industry guru, who insists on anonymity (nearly all of them insist on it), even disgraced televangelists show more integrity: They may have trash cans full of empty booze bottles, and bimbos scattered around town, but at least they show up to church every Sunday.

Dealers like McGrath, Jim Smith of Audition in Birmingham, Alabama, and speaker-maker Richard Shahinian are easy to cite for their deep, active involvement in live concert music precisely because each must be considered, in the purely statistical sense, a rare bird indeed. Industry-wide, there is a shortage of concert-going and a surfeit of finger-pointing. High-end dealers complain that their suppliers never listen to live music anymore, and that even the factory's listening rooms have fallen into desuetude or been converted to sales offices. The manufacturers grumble that many of their dealers are merely merchants in the merry position of having clienteles with expensive habits (footnote 2). High-end dealers and manufacturers concur---usually over drinks and out of earshot of the press---that most of their customers wouldn't know the sound of live music if it reached up and bit their earlobes. For their part, consumers grumble that most dealers are hardware hawkers, not music lovers, then shuffle off with their audiophile magazines and devour every page, footnote, and ad while the concert halls fill up with their neighbors---the ones who've never heard of Mark Levinson or J. Gordon Holt.

These charges and countercharges have been woven into the industry's background noise ever since it transformed itself from garage roots to status as big-bucks business a decade or so ago. For the last ten years of my involvement in the industry I parried the growing grousings with faith and platitudes. "Put your customers in front of the real thing and you'll see them blossom. You might even sell a few more good power amps because of it. Take charge. Lead the way. Get involved in live music." I told them I kept my bass trombone in the store for an occasional reality-check when no one was around. I told them I was serving on the board of directors of the Sacramento opera, and had a standing store policy of refunding the price of any ticket to the local symphony, opera, or ballet. I always beamed when I told my pals and peers about that policy, and exhorted them to follow suit. After dinner one year, another dealer, a stubby, hard-bitten entrepreneurial type, took a ceremonious puff off his cigar and fired back, "Ever had a customer take you up on it?" His brazen insolence struck me dumb. When I recovered my composure, I had to reply that, well, no, no one had---but give them just a little more time. Maybe I needed to spread the word a little better. In the meantime, here was this scrofulous character delegitimizing high-end audio from the inside out. He made his living off the high end---and a very handsome living, from the smell of things. He made my blood boil. And he filled me with a resolve.

In 1989 I undertook to set things right-side up, to do something that had never been attempted in the history of audiophile retailing: I designed and built an ambitious, state-of-the-art, high-end facility around a real live concert venue. Not a concert hall pieced together from leftover scraps of space in some remote corner of the building, nor merely a regular shoebox-style soundroom with space for 20 or 30 folding chairs that masqueraded as a concert hall, but a real, up-front-and-center, built-from-scratch Concert Hall. Accommodating up to a dozen performers and an audience of 140, my concert space was the store's centerpiece, its cynosure, its core. With input collected from concert-hall acousticians, computer models, and my own background in playing and recording live music, it took the form of a laterally symmetrical, fan-shaped affair with a stepped ceiling and deep, diffusive side-wall niches. To break up image-blurring ceiling reflections, I hung a massive, complex, triangular diffusor-soffit over the middle of the hall. To keep fan speed low and noise down, I shock-mounted six separate heating/air conditioner units on the roof, each controlled by a master touch-screen computer to keep the 7600ft2 space at just the right temperature under concert conditions. An acoustical engineer specializing in low-noise HVAC systems was retained to oversee installation of the ducting.

Note about the author: Keith Yates was a founder-owner of both Keith Yates Audio, a high-end retail store in Sacramento, California, and Audio Vaeritae Recordings, a small classical record label, from March 1981 through April 1991. He now designs Home Concert Halls and advanced Home Theater systems (website,) and works as a consultant to high-end audio/video retailers and manufacturers nationwide. His writing has appeared in Stereophile, Audio, and many other magazines.

Footnote 2: An importer of very highly esteemed gear used to invite his dealers to Chicago's Orchestra Hall to hear the CSO every year at a June CES; interest was so low he finally abandoned it. A few years ago a well-known turntable manufacturer invited me to spend a week at their UK factory. Despite the company's rhetoric about "humming along with the tune," my hosts and the rest of the dealer group except one preferred pub-crawling to my repeated suggestion that we spend an evening in a concert hall or jazz club. The exception, Jim Shannon, is now with Madrigal Audio Labs [and in 1998 is with Wadia Digital---Ed.].