A Concise Course in High End Audio’s Fourth One
– By Misha Kucherenko, Etalon Sound’s Marketing Director
I. THE PAST
1. THE EMERGENCE OF HIGH END AUDIO AS A PHENOMENON
As a solid commercial proposition, the industry called High End Audio began to emerge at the end of 1970-ies and the beginning of the 1980-ies.
Its emergence was preceded by two main events.
On the one hand, the demand for “high quality” audio equipment has been a reaction of dedicated music lovers to the full domination by Japanese audio manufacturers, which by that time almost completely squeezed off the preceding generation of some “decent” audio equipment produced in the USA (and, to a some degree, in the Western Europe).
On the other, mainly due to preceding relentless efforts by two independent American publications – The Stereophile and The Abso!ute Sound – a new “sound ideology”, which was named in those publications as “High End Audio”, had already propagated itself within the most active groups of enthusiasts of music and “sound”.
Briefly speaking, in their products’ positioning and promotion on the market, the Japanese audio manufacturers fully relied on substitution of “primary” quality aspects of their products by some “secondary” ones.
If you want to gain an access to the market via referring to the equipment’s inherent sonic properties, you would need a lot of resources to be spent on demonstration rooms in some specialized commercial facilities. However, in addition to that, you would also need a quite costly methodology of direct interaction with potential customers through the latter’s extensive education and training.
Instead, to dominate the marketplace and to increase their sales, the Japanese audio corporations tried to avoid as much as possible such an expensive and monumental effort, so, instead, they applied their resources in the direction of supporting the influence that the specialized media of that time, controlled by them, exerted on its readers.
The media, now on a Japanese payroll, had desperately tried to find an effective method to influence its readership’s decision-making. So, it found one in a representation of audio equipment’s “sound quality” in terms of some sets of (mostly, disconnected, and because of that, mostly meaningless) “objective” technical specifications and measurements.
Accordingly, by the end of 1960-ies, the vast majority of specialized media in the world, in the conspiracy with the Japanese manufacturers, started to apply such a system of “objective” sound quality representations as a universal method to push through their own interests.
Such a substitution of values – from symptomatic sets of some primary, familiar and comprehensive musical impressions during direct auditioning of music while choosing audio equipment in specialized audio sections of some department stores (or specialized “audio boutiques”) to an “onslaught” of some “raw” and indigestible (to the ordinary folks) technical data has had an obviously negative effect. Instead of constant improvement of products’ “sound quality”, there was its gradual deterioration.
An “enthusiast” community reaction to that stagnation, and their burning aspiration to resurrect the priority of true “sound quality” values had become the driving force behind ever so increasing popularity of – initially pure “garage” – High End Audio industry.
To that historical moment of home High End Audio industry’s very emergence moment and to the reasons behind its substantial future growth, we will come back at the end of this story, when we would be analyzing the demand vs proposition context for the contemporary music and sound “enthusiast” community.
2. “WE ARE WHAT WE LISTEN TO”
As a saying goes, “Everybody is listening to music they’ve being listening to when they were 14 years old”.
If you would try to comprehend its meaning, then, one aspect of it is that, the same way as an individual has no control over the choice of his native verbal language, the same way he has no control over his native “musical language”.
That is, if you are born and everybody around you speaks Russian, then you would inevitably start to speak Russia, if everybody speaks English, then you would inevitably speak English, Chinese – then you would speak Chinese, etc.
The idea here is that, by the same chance occurrence and in the same manner, as your native verbal language, you would “soak with your mother’s milk” your “musical language” which inhabits your surroundings during an appropriate and a very critical moment of your personal formation.
Let’s say, that was a hard rock music, which your big brother has been playing relentlessly on a turntable. Or, let’s say, that was some well-known songs by some Russian pop bands like “Pesnyary” or “Samotzvety” which were constantly on TV at the times when “We didn’t have news in “The Truth”, and didn’t have truth in “The News” (“Pravda”– “The Truth”, and “Izvestiya” – “The News” were the two major newspapers in the USSR). Or, if you are terribly lucky, and the “window” in your head have opened at the most appropriate moment, that could be The Fifth symphony by Prokofiev which was playing at The Conservatory where your mother had brought you by hand.
There are some solid psychological studies, which indicate that some fundamental personality traits can be formed within a period of just a few minutes, after which that particular assimilating “window” to the outer world in your head shuts down forever.
So, it all depends on your luck. If you happened to be at the right time at the right place, then throughout all of your life you’d be enchanted with the music by Brahms and Beethoven, or, if you out of luck, then having reached the age of gray hair, you would be still attracted to the music for pimpled teenagers.
It should be noted that when that native “music language” “window” in your head is finally closed for good, then to learn a new (“foreign”) “music language” would become as much of a problem than a task to learn a new (foreign) verbal language. Having reached that age, to gain a new linguistic skill would require a lot of concentrated and conscious effort, a methodology, an access to some additional technical means, and so on.
And, by the way, the same ideas regarding gaining personal linguistic skills can be also applied to a process of forming of an individual’s “native” “sound” language.
Not to dwell on the details here, it’s suffice to say that the adherents of certain “sonic characters”, be it tubes or solid state electronics, electrostatic or horn loudspeakers, vinyl turntables or digital gear, etc., as a rule, never change those particular propensities.
The initially formed biases in their head and their “inbred” propensity to comprehensively appreciate only corresponding sound presentations of music accompanies them throughout the whole of their life. And to re-tune them to a different sonic communication channel would require, as in a case of any other process of obtaining new linguistic skills, a lot of their own conscious personal efforts.
Then, the inevitable question is: but why would you really need to learn a new (that is a “foreign”) “musical language” (and/or “sonic” one, for that matter, too)?
The answer to this question lies in the domain of a conscious awareness for a need for a personal spiritual growth.
During the last several thousand years, music has been always one of the most crucial means of a deep and meaningful human connection, and because of it, the most important music heritage contains a vast potential for such a spiritual growth.
To gain an uninhibited access to the full capabilities of that potential you need a full and a deep communication with a corresponding domain of an emotional intellect that can be realized only via fluent skills of an appropriate (to a certain music genre) “musical language”.
It should be noted that for a vast majority of the common people their “native” “music languages” are formed, as a rule, in a very primitive (from a perspective of a need for a personal spiritual growth) communication environment.
In that latter sense, there is a very high probability for a typical “native” “musical language” to be formed (due to its application needs) as a pretty primitive one.
In addition, there is another common saying, “We are what we eat”.
The last saying can be easily adapted to our case, and then it would sound something like, “We are what we listen to”, or, more to our point here, it would go as something, like, “We are what we can hear and what we can appreciate”.
A personal ability to “eat well” and to “digest” well (particularly) “healthy” music with a help of appropriate “musical language” fluent skills is as much of a positive trait of an organism as a positive trait of an ability to eat well and to fully digest some (particularly) wholesome food.
* footnote #1: Actually, there are some strictly scientific studies, which fully support a positive effect of a “serious” music on a well-being of an individual’s body, and in that, the effect operates at the physiology level. *
Therefore, however trivial that might sound, but the same way as a good quality food will facilitate positive dynamics of a given personality’s growth and development, the same way high quality “spiritual food” will do. Moreover, via “psycho-somatic” mechanisms these two aspects of ever-changing personality states will momentarily and directly affect each other.
In conclusion of this “food” section, I would like to present here another culinary analogy.
Let’s imagine that we are looking at a plate with some food. Then a presentation of a typical “mass market” audio product would be as if we would concentrate on “the dish” visual appearances and on its descriptions in some technical terms: of its physical properties, of its shape, of its weight, of its temperature, etc., without going into any details regarding the quality of its (fast food) content. High End Audio’s presentation, on the opposite, would insist on the highest quality “contents” of its (high cuisine) “dishes” without caring too much regarding both the “dishes’” appearances and the description of their concrete physical properties, especially expressed in technical terms.
Even if from outside these two types of “dishes” would look almost indistinguishable from each other, essentially, we are talking here about two completely different types of products, and, at that, these two types of products don’t even have any (significant) correlation between their intrinsic scales of price/performance ratios.
Correspondingly, the same goes for “the sound quality”: if would eventually agree that mass market “hi-fi” equipment and so called “High End Audio” equipment are, in essence, two different types of products, then it should follow that their sets of “quality” criteria within each class of the products should be also completely different from each other.
3. WHAT IS HIGH END AUDIO’S FUNCTIONALITY?
If we would accept a notion that High End Audio is not just a “luxury” tier of home audio market (where the super expensive hardware is nothing more than just a status symbol), then, obviously, we’ve got no choice but to justify the value of its propositions. We can do this only by establishing a direct connection between their properties and some clear-cut definitions of what constitutes the infamous “Sound’s Final Frontier’.
To start with, despite all the main foundations of High End Audio’s sound ideology having been formulated by Stereophile and The Abso!ute Sound magazines in 1970-es and 1980-es, regarding their practical applications, both within the audiophile community, and without it, there always have been a lot of heated debates.
*footnote #2: The two main foundations of High End Audio’s ideology are the following. First, in its context, the zero ground of all sonic evaluations is a comparison between the sound of a given component (or a given audio system) and the “live” sound of some acoustic instruments playing in “a real acoustic space”. And, second, in total disregard of all “objective” technical data or some measurement procedures, the final conclusions about the sonic properties of a given audio gear are solely based on “subjective” verdicts by some reputable and recognized reviewers/experts in the field.*
Precisely these heated debates regarding what constitutes great “sound quality” within the audiophile community, which had started from the very first days of the industry, especially concerning its exact definitions and criteria, have allowed Japanese corporations in the 1960-ies and 1970-ies to formulate very successfully their own marketing position. The latter was based, on the opposite, on an, allegedly, unquestionable and a very strictly formulated methodology of completely “objective” technical specs, which, again, allegedly, directly correlated with the most important manifestations of the best “sound quality” (and which were supposed to fully support their own claims of the superlative qualities of their products).
The newborn High End Audio industry, in its own attempt to resolve the discrepancies in interpretations of “what in sound is good, and what is bad”, has proposed its followers an alternative orthodox methodology based on actual “subjective” equipment auditioning. This methodology, which was also augmented by a system of main “subjective” criteria for such sonic evaluations, has allowed the industry of High End Audio – in its defiance to Japanese mass-producers – to build its own position in the market place.
It goes without saying that both “objectivist” approach and “subjectivist” one are both vulnerable, and each one is in its own way.
Not to dwell here on the trans-national corporations vulnerability, it’s suffice to say that in its future development, the High End Audio industry immediately run into the problems associated with the other side of its core (militant) “subjectivism”. Despite commonly accepted basis of main propositions of audiophile ideology, formulated under the auspices of Stereophile and The Abso!ute Sound magazines of that era, in High End Audio’s economic and practical superstructure its players’ private interests started to cultivate a new wave of heated “subjective” debates. Which were related to concrete sonic evaluations of some concrete technologies, some concrete audio components and some concrete audio systems.
Unfortunately, there were some solid historical, technological and conceptual reasons for why these inner contractions within the audiophile community were never to be successfully resolved.
Historically, “pure” audio is the oldest branch of Consumer Electronics industry. However strange it might seem but the audio technology’s most fertile period (except for its digital segment) happened to be just before The Second World War, after which the main focus of Consumer Electronics had already shifted to video and television technologies. That’s why when some people say that, in terms of sound quality, “the future of audio is in the past” (that is an average sound quality of some “old” audio products can be much better than of the current ones), you can’t deny that there is a lot of truth in it.
In addition, the period of audio’s most rapid development happened to be in 1930-ies and 1940-ies. From a technological standpoint, both the knowledge base and the measurement tools of that era were still highly undeveloped to allow creation of some complex procedures and all the necessary equipment to support an adoption of a commonly accepted audio standard for “sound quality”.
(That situation is drastically different from the video/television industry, when roughly twenty years later such technological conditions had been already fully achieved. That is why a video image quality has been “objectively” fully specified and, eventually, standardized. Fully established video standards for the image quality, in a total contrast with audio, is the main reason for the video technologies’ rapid development and for video image quality never ending and steady chain of improvements).
Due to the both of the above preconditions, the exact definition of “sound quality” – in a total contrast with “video quality” – as some “objective” concept, was never strictly formulated. And as a result of it, up until now (!) the exact substance of it continues to be a subject for an arbitrary interpretation which can depend on, either, a concrete way of a marketing promotion – please, see above, or a concrete application context – please, see below.
*footnote #3: Such commonly accepted arbitrariness of interpretations of “sound quality” created a set of conditions to allow “pure” High End Audio to position itself on the brink between technology and art, that is to allow its “objective” technological aspects to become no more than a set of tools to create some “objects of audio art”. Which can’t be “measured with a common yardstick” and “the quality” of which can be evaluated only by resorting to “subjective” opinions of some expert reviewers (while huge corporation would never even try to step from their strictly “objectivist” positions to such an unsteady ground as “subjective” opinions of some god forsaken “experts”).*
Correspondingly, the closest analogy for the High End Audio gear should be the most exclusive hand crafted music instruments. Their manufacturing procedures do include some technical means, expertize and considerations, although the quality of finished products cannot be evaluated by some abstract technical measurements, but can be evaluated only by subjective opinions of some certain experts in the field).}
Nevertheless, there was a huge “hole” gaping in the center of both of these approaches – both the “objective” one and the “subjective” one. Namely, in neither one nor another, the main functionality of the musical hardware was explicitly defined.
If in a case of mass produced audio its functionality were more or less obvious – that was just consumer audio electronics for “listening to music”, then in a case of High End Audio the lack of common awareness of its clear-cut functionality has eventually lead the industry to the dead end of its later years.
After all, if High End Audio is that different in its sonic properties from the Far-Eastern mass-market products then it must support some additional functionality. Otherwise, what’s the point to shell off that extra amount of money (and that extra effort)?!
(Again, I would like to point out here that we hold that the true High End Audio is supposed to ignore any status symbols attached to the hardware.)
Then we would logically arrive at the following question: which new, or, different consumer needs High End Audio products can satisfy, that ordinary – and sometimes as much expensive – mass produced equipment cannot?
In fact, by a difference in “quality” of some consumer goods we always presume a difference in corresponding sets of the goods’ properties that would satisfy the corresponding number of consumer requirements. Those could be long-term vs short term of use, the presence of status symbols vs the absence of them, reliability vs lack of it, comfort vs lack of it, and so on.
In the absence of commonly understood and accepted ideas about High End Audio’s concrete functionality and utility, and, therefore, in the absence of an opportunity to evaluate the equipment by conformity to those, the “militant subjectivism” of its ideology had led to a gradual erosion of commonly accepted ideas about “what constitutes great sound and what does not”. The “subjectivism” which played a positive role at the inception of this industry, including its role in justifying the industry’s opposition to Japanese “objectivist” mass market approach, as time went by, the same way as every other unruly anarchy of private interests and opinions, lead to a chaos.
*footnote #4: At its onset, the High End Audio ideology, although with a great effort from all of the industry’s sides, was fully and commonly accepted within the audiophile community. Then due to the subsequent uncontrolled entropy – when under the paradigm of the “militant subjectivism” an opinion of an every novice can be of the same value as an opinion of a distinguished veteran – the consolidation of views inside of the community has started to deteriorate. Especially, when more and more of suchlike “not scared neophytes” had entered the audiophile ranks, and immediately started “to order with their money some completely different “music””.*
Here is another analogy. Before we would even start to evaluate the quality of a car, and before we would even try to make any comments on it, we really need to define its utility and functionality. Are we talking about a racecar, or are we talking about a truck? The answer to these questions would fully define our future evaluations of a given vehicle. The same goes for any “sound quality” evaluations. Any conversations on this matter should start, first and foremost, with clarifications regarding the utility and functionality of a given audio gear.
If, for example, the functionality of a given audio system is “… to grasp the soul’s noble bursts”, then we would evaluate its “sound quality” from one sonic perspective. If, on the opposite, the intent is “to flow the downstairs neighbors with a melted Heavy Metal”, then, we would, definitely, do from another. And if the intention would go as far as to try “to expropriate the expropriators” (that is via selling them some “audio jewelry”), then, again, we would approach the last sonic evaluations from a completely different, and downright another, third, angle.
That’s why, if we want to define a concept of the true High End Audio’s “sound quality” evaluations, we can’t avoid but to find an answer to the main question: so, what is the original functionality of High End Audio?
To provide the answer we have no choice but to get back to the roots of the whole phenomenon.
As I mentioned above, High End Audio’s ideology was initially developed by its originators in the context of reproduction of “serious” acoustic music performed in natural acoustic space. This type of equipment was intended to be used by “serious” music lovers for reproduction of that kind of a repertoire.
However, to be used for which purposes? What is a specific set of utility features that High End Audio equipment has got and that the mass-market “hi-fi” hardware completely lacks?
In a socio-cultural context of 1960-ies and 1970-ies, the vast majority of the customers for High End Audio were very cultured, educated, respected and “advanced” professionals, which had been brought up according to all the traditions of that period’s system of values. Therefore, at the time, the question about High End Audio functionality would have been a rhetoric one, and that is why, during that era, the answer to it have been always taken for granted.
In our times, due to all the social, demographic, economic and other changes within our societies, which took place since High End Audio’s inception, if we would want to define its main utility, then the answer to that question would become an absolute necessity.
And, so, here we are: the main functionality of High End Audio is an educational one, namely, this class of an audio equipment is a tool to facilitate the process of mastering some new “musical languages” (or, to facilitate the process of constant advancement of a level of that skill).
Nevertheless, some vagueness in the following statement notwithstanding, I’ve got nothing against the commonly declared cause of High End Audio (in Mark “Dr. AIX” Waldrep’s wording) as “to deliver the [maximum] fidelity and the musical intent of the artist without adding [any] distortion, coloration, or in any other way diminishing the quality of the sound”.
However, we, still, would need clarifications for what should be our purpose, and what should be our intentions, which would give us an enough incentive to apply such ideal criteria for the audio hardware evaluations.
Especially, considering the fact that the sound quality of the vast majority of recorded music is determined by the sound quality of car music stereos, where most of it would be consumed and appreciated. Therefore, if the quality of the most of the pop recordings sucks, there is no way we would gain anything significant while reproducing them through some of the most no-holds-barred stereo systems.
Accordingly, the only way to justify an additional expense and an additional effort for High End Audio is to play some well-recorded music, but – to cut the long story short – most of it is some “serious music”, which can be appreciated only when you speak its “language”. Which, as I already mentioned above, as a rule, is a new one to the vast majority of population.
Now, if we would touch upon the historical specifics of High End Audio’s intended use, then it should be noted that, what the vast majority of the earlier generations of High End Audio adepts were mostly engaged in has been already an “advancement” of their skills for some “appropriate” “musical languages”. While the current generation of audiophiles, as a rule, “soaked with their mother’s milk” a “language” of some primitive pop music. Therefore, in relation to the process of learning “the languages” of some “appropriate” music (for instance, some complicated jazz or some serious classical music) we have no choice but to assign to the latter a much more complicated task of inevitably “starting from a scratch”.
It goes without saying that from marketing and promotion’s standpoints the true nature of High End Audio is a “double-edge sword”. The industry has been always trying to avoid “scaring the scarecrows”, and even a slight suggestion of a necessity of any efforts involved as part of the total audiophile “package” has been always a source of a lot of anxiety for the manufacturers. In fact, this is the exact reason why the industry – however contradictive that might sound! – has been always trying not to propagate its main mission. Especially, when, from the perspective of the vast majority of the industry’s big players, the manufacturers have been always trying to appeal with their products to the Consumer Electronics’ customer base, where people are expecting no more than just to be entertained. Consequently, during the last many years, such an ambivalence regarding the basic utility of the industry’s own products has been always the biggest obstacle for High End Audio’s further development.
Anyway, having just defined in a concrete way the functionality and the utility of High End Audio products, we are fully capable now to start the discussion of some actual “sound quality” criteria for this class of audio equipment. Moreover, after all the elaborations above, now we can do this in a much more defined and in a much more coherent context.
4. SOUND QUALITY FROM HIGH END AUDIO’S PERSPECTIVE
To start with, the word “stereo” in Greek literally stands for “solid” (e.g. “stereotype”).
The reason Alan Blumlein used a word “stereo” to name the invention in his patent for a two-channel audio recording/playback process in 1930-ies was due to the fact that he presented a new technology which was capable of recreating “solid” (that is fully palpable) sonic “images”. During reproduction of such material, the latter would be positioned within a “soundstage” created by a pair of loudspeakers.
Therefore, if we would get back to “the roots” of the traditional “stereo” recording process (and, historically, that is exactly whence High End Audio’s legs grow), then “The Holy Grail” of the whole “stereo” industry is a recreation of a three-dimensional sound field of an original recording filled with tightly focused (“solid”) musical “images”. As a side note, this is applicable to the realistic scenarios that are within complete mobilization of the full capabilities of corresponding technologies.
Of course, the most up to date multi-channel recording or spatial emulation technologies are much more powerful in recreating realistic three-dimensional sound fields than the venerable two channel “stereo” one. However, their current practical adoption is still so negligible, especially for portable use, that there is no doubt that the most typical music listening experience is still happening in “stereo”.
By the way, this is why, in designing our own audio products, achieving the most vivid sonic “holography” effect in the “stereo” mode is our top priority.
All the rest of the “sound quality” aspects, the ones that the specialized media tout as the most representative, namely, such sonic properties, as timbre, dynamics, resolution, distortion, etc, should be no more than just some auxiliary tools to facilitate recreation of the most fundamental event: the effect of the three-dimensional “stereo” music reproduction.
Only after that main effect is maximized as much as possible during a product’s development stage or during an audio installation process, all the rest of the sonic parameters should be taken care of…
Thereby, a degree of manifestation of that primary effect of sonic “holography” should be, by the original definition of the “stereo” technology, the main criterion of the (“stereo”) “sound quality”.
Here lies the reason why you do need a “subjective” auditioning to evaluate the quality of the best audio gear: up to now, there are no technical means to evaluate a degree of such sonic holography effect except with our ears (and our brains).
We still do not have any thoroughly established and commonly accepted standards regarding the methods of registration of mechanisms of our real time spatial hearing processes which can be used as a benchmark for any kind of technical measurements. In the absence of such standards, if we would use the “sound quality” criterion above, any technical measurements are completely incapable of validating, in any “objective” way, a “sound quality” level of a given sound system or an audio component. Because, for strictly practical purposes, any technical measurements, in principle, are useless beyond their active role in establishing new standards, the means to conform to them and the testing of that conformity in a given situation.
This is why we can claim that the path of true High End Audio, whose ideology is based on a qualification method of “subjective” auditioning, is the only way to revive the original “stereo” technology. Also, in the above formulation of the main criterion for the “sound quality” there lies the reason why we would call the shift of sonic priorities by the “objectivist” mass-marketers as “a shift from “the primary” to “the secondary””. Moreover, this is the exact reason why – in the true “stereo” context – any audio products mostly relying on the “objective” data of their technical specs for their sonic evaluations are all “second rate” by that definition.
In essence, to balance some auxiliary, or, secondary, sound aspects is a relatively trivial matter. For instance, by applying some relatively simple means a manufacturer can always change the sound timbre of its own products by adding or rolling off some bass or high frequencies. Or, resorting to some relatively elementary circuitry techniques it can “on-the-fly” either to “open”, or to “compress” the products sound’s “macro dynamics”. And so on. Therefore, an explanation why the manufacturers of some mundane audio equipment has been always trying to divert the public’s sonic priorities “from the main one to the secondary ones” is plainly simple.
Because, from a technical standpoint, to achieve a relatively “correct” timbre, a decent “macro dynamics”, negligible distortion levels, and all the rest of it, is the path of the least resistance. While to arrive at some profoundly vivid “stereo” effect manifestation requires much more sophisticated (and, accordingly, much more expensive) designing and production techniques.
Consequently, because of all the complications and all the cost involved in realization of the most fundamental property of the “stereo” systems to recreate the “holographic” sound field, the mass market manufacturers have been always so eager to shift the public attention from this “primary sonic aspect of true “stereo” systems to their secondary (and indirect) ones”. In this way, they have replaced the original version of the technology with a surrogate one.
Briefly speaking, in the context of High End Audio, those secondary “sound quality” aspects should be carefully selected and tuned for each particular installation. Correspondingly, any manifestation of a “subjectively” outstanding “holography” of a “stereo” effect should be an indication that in this particular installation (and only in this one) all the secondary “instrumental” aspects of the “sound quality” are optimally chosen and correctly aligned with each other.
(The opposite is not true: a strict adhering to some broad “objective” concepts of “ideal” parameters for the secondary sonic aspects such as timbre, “macro dynamics”, levels of distortion, or anything else, would never allow us to predict with any certainty, especially, for a particular installation, a degree of holography recreation of that primary “stereo imaging”).
Then it follows that an access to the sets of tools for maximizing the “stereo” effect in a particular installation, and, especially, in a particular listening room, via addressing those secondary aspects of “sound quality”, should assume an access to some minimally sufficient sets of adjustments “on board” of every home “stereo” system.
However, the opposite is true: the vast majority of the currently manufactured home stereo systems, and even of the highest caliber, do not have any such tools and adjustments available. Which proves with all the certainty that not only mass market, but also the highest segments of the audio industry gradually started to be completely forgetful about its roots, and ended up “not seeing the forest for the trees”…
Anyway, as soon as we managed here to declare a degree of sonic “holography” as the main “sound quality” criterion for the most advanced “stereo” systems – the ones that truly belong to the High End Audio’s domain – my all extensive (and seemingly odd) elaborations above will also, hopefully, start to converge immediately into a coherent whole.
First, regarding the process of formation of individual new “musical language” advanced skills, then also, who might need that and why, and, finally, which role in all of these can be played by the infamous High End Audio.
5. FORMING OF NEW “MUSICAL TEMPLATES”
To start with, there are numerous scientific studies that prove with all the certainity that an efficiency of learning a foreign language is substantially increased if the teaching sound is three-dimensional (be it a speech of a “live” instructor, or some recently developed specialized “linguaphone” systems which can deliver “3-D” sound via either headphones or ear monitors).
*footnote #5: Lorr Kramer of “Smyth-Research” confirmed in my interview with him in 2008 that a starting point for the company’s “3-D” sound via headphones series of products, called “Realizer”, happened to be a discovery of this very important phenomenon.*
This fact would allow us to presuppose that historically formed “old” brain language templates seem to allow certain “genres” of sonic information to be perceived with no loss even via poor sound quality communication channels. For instance, we can still fully decipher a verbal message in our native language via “poor cell phone line connection”, the same way as some “familiar” musical messages presented with the sound quality of “as bad as via a phone speaker” can still allow us to fully enjoy our favorite music. However, to form some new language templates (including the musical ones), an access to the best sound quality – the main manifestation of which is the sonic three-dimensionality – is the most crucial factor which determines the efficiency of the whole process.
It is very possible that the reason for such an increased efficiency has everything to do with a fact that in natural surroundings our brain is accustomed to deal with only “three-dimensional” sound. Therefore, to form the new language templates in a quick and an efficient manner it does need a direct and a “familiar” access to all the relevant “phonetic” cues.
To illustrate the latter statement concerning the elevated efficiency of forming new “musical templates” via an access to the best possible sound quality, which, actually, gives a license to live to High End Audio, I would give here a couple of examples. One of them directly supports it (although, “from somewhat opposite side of it”), and the other one provides an anecdotal evidence of its practical implementation.
First, I have never met a single “serious” academic musician who has purchased a High End Audio system (as they, probably, don’t need them because they form their musical “templates” in conservatoires). In addition, I’ve never met a single seasoned music collector-“meloman” who would do the same (they seem are not interested in anything sophisticated in audio terms as they would usually meticulously collect a very narrow segments of a certain genre of music whose templates they’d already formed for good and all during some previous circumstances).
Here I am talking about the people who’s got enough of well to do individuals within their ranks, which could’ve easily afford to buy a fairly decent true High End Audio system. They simply are not interested, as it seems that all the “musical templates” they might need are already fully formed inside their brains, and regarding forming the new ones… they just didn’t care.
Second, I’ve been a witness to numerous audio demonstrations at various trade shows by one of the High End Audio’s founding fathers, Arnie Nudell (of Infinity and Genesis Loudspeakers’ fame), during which he has been always furious when he was asked to play some rock or pop music via his demo systems. He refused to play that “stupid” music with an implication that he built his speakers for a completely different purpose (now we already know for which one!). That is why he’s been always resisting to the attempts to make him “drive the nails with a microscope”, and instead he would invite the show visitors to be drawn in intoxicating sounds of classical music.
Therefore, the raison d’etre of true High End Audio is in satisfying his adepts’ need to master some new “musical languages”. Which would allow them to appreciate – at constantly deeper level and with more and more advanced skills – the most subtle meanings of the most distinguished musical thoughts by the most outstanding composers, expressed in the most remarkable way in the most appropriate language by the most distinguished of the musicians.
So that the appreciative listeners will be able to capitalize on the colossal potential of spiritual growth which resides within the world profound music heritage.
6. AWARENESS (AND CONSEQUENCES FROM LACK OF IT)
Through the years, I have been asking my colleagues in audio business one and the same question: “What is the meaning of the word “stereo”?”
In return, I would always get a puzzling glance: “…-??!…What do you mean?”
Then I would repeat my question again: “What is the literal meaning of the word “stereo”?”
And through all these years, nobody, I would repeat, nobody, including some key figures from the most reputable audio manufactures, their distributors, their dealers, the audio journalists, and, obviously, ordinary audio consumers, could provide me with a correct answer.
It’s simply unbelievable!
As a rule, all participants in my survey would roll their eyes and would demonstrate a complete confusion, and then, usually, they would provide me with an answer that, “if “mono” means “one”, then “stereo” is supposed to mean two, right?”
Unfortunately, they were always wrong (please, see above).
And that lack of awareness that all of them would usually demonstrate regarding the basic meaning of a subject that they having been dealing with all their life, have gradually led, both a to lack of focus (sic -!) through their equipment’s stages of development, production, presentations, sales, and to the same “muddy eye” at its “sound quality” evaluation. Here I am referring to not only to both manufacturers, and to their gear’s end users, but, also, to both the specialized media personalities, and to the readers of the latter’s content.
In response to their confusion, I would usually recite them an old joke regarding why the Soviet Union fell apart:
“Due to the secrecy, the CIA officers wouldn’t know what their colleagues in the next room have been working on; the same classified information regulations wouldn’t have allowed the MI-5 officers to know what their colleagues at the next table have been working on… While the KGB officers, out of total secrecy, wouldn’t even know what they have been – themselves – working on”.
Usually, I would finish that mise-an-scene with a following conclusion. “Unfortunately, in a similar fashion, in audio industry, having “overwritten in vain” all fundamental definitions, we all lost our vision of the most urgent agenda, and again, like in that old saying, “we ceased to see the forest (of deliberate fundamental ideas) for the trees (of some unconsciously perceived as the most significant details).
In the “chicken and egg” scenario of the correlation between proposition and demand for the best audio equipment, the absence of such an awareness – at that, from both sides of the market “barricades” – is a main reason why some clear-cut ideas of what constitutes the High End Audio’s system of values started to erode. The latter, in turn, led to an awry situation in which the “stereo” industry gradually started “to sit between two chairs”.
That is, on the one hand, hitting a stage of complete amnesia regarding its basic functionality, utility and the system of values (including those, which defines its main quality criterion – “the sound quality”), the home High End Audio did not manage to become something else. For instance, it didn’t manage to become a proper status symbol (you can’t really wear a loudspeaker, or a cable costing a few thousand dollars, on your wrist like an expensive watch).
The same lack of awareness became the main reason for a gradual commercial degradation of the whole industry (at its peak with worldwide annual sales of roughly five billion dollars), and of its final decline of the last several years.
So, after almost fifty years since its beginning, having gradually lost in vain all its awareness regarding its main cause, the current home High End Audio industry have just completed its full cycle of development (and of degradation – “there is nothing permanent under the moon”). And as a result of it, it turned into a “gene-modified” version of its own vis-a-vie epitomized by the big Japanese corporations of the end of the last century, a reaction to irrelevance of which to the true fans of music it became at the time.
Under, apparently, significantly changed current circumstances, it’s High End Audio’s turn now to be discarded from the public view…
And to a large degree, due to the fact that in the current situation of elevated demand for mindfulness within the strata of the most “advanced” younger generation, which is totally exhausted by the ubiquitous consumerism, the historically happened industry of High End Audio cannot meet – persuasively and meaningfully – that demand.
II. THE PRESENT
7. PASSING THE TORCH OF “OLD” HIGH END AUDIO
From a technical standpoint, to realize the current unprecedentedly high potential of achieving the best “sound quality”, we entered the best times ever for the audio industry. The most promising technologies, especially, the digital ones, have stepped far forward, any music, especially in “hi-rez” formats is available at “your fingertips”, and despite the degradation of the industry, some of the best equipment is still being produced. In addition, there are tons and tons of highest quality used gear (which is still in perfect condition, and which can be bought for next to nothing), while all the relevant info can be easily found via Internet. And so on…
Nevertheless, you can’t resist a feeling that home High End Audio, as an industry, is going through its very last days…
Some additional details on the subject can be found here:
If we want to highlight the most important reasons for that decline, then the three of the most relevant for this elaboration are: a recent change in the technologies, a recent change in the demography and a recent change in the significantly increased general population’s mobility.
Therefore, if we would suppose – and we have no doubts about it – that the main functionality and the main essence of the “old” (home) version High End Audio is still in demand, then a very burning task – from a commercial perspective included – can be a task of “how to pass a torch of the “old” home High End Audio to the new generation of audiophiles”.
In fact, the twenty years ago – at the heyday of the most exuberant home audio – all of us were talking on the landline telephones. And now, all of us are using the cell phones (with no loss in communication and with a much more diverse spectrum of communication options). The same way, at the moment, we can raise an issue of how we can transfer the main functionality and the main utility of High End Audio from a “home” platform to a “mobile” one (again, with no loss in the quality of communication with our music, but, on the opposite, with a much more extensive list of communication possibilities).
This transfer can be vastly facilitated by a very important condition in the “portable” context: as the most expensive (and the most complicated to deal with) component of an audio system – the room – is taken out of the whole “sound equation”, such a shift, with no doubt, would substantially increase the new “price/performance” ratio.
This is the reason why it is a common knowledge that a comparable sound quality can be realized via portable audio systems for ten times less money than via home ones.
In addition, such a transfer of High End Audio to a portable platform would allow, finally, to realize its unfulfilled potential of “democratization” of its appeal (with the according commercial gains). Moreover, it would allow to those selected few who are “apprehensive” of complete dependence on Chinese goods to stop their fears that they will never be able to “kick the habit”. The same way as, at the outset of High End Audio industry, its products’ almost 100% Western origin became such a relief to the American and European audiophiles because that fact allowed them to be saved from a total dependence on the products made by big corporations from Japan.
There are two main reasons why the current audio industry of the highest caliber as a whole does not see this opportunity and does not set up a goal to move to a portable platform.
First, their possible best intentions notwithstanding, the vast majority of typical portable audio manufacturers do not have an appropriate background and experience. As a rule, either almost all of them would enter the highest segments of the portable audio industry from mass-market parts of the Consumer Electronics industry, or they would end up there from the “Pro” music industry (which caters tool ware to professional musicians). As most of them “has never tried anything sweeter than horse radish”, in terms of a lack of exposure to the sound quality delivered by the greatest audiophile system, the sonic qualities of their products still dwell on a fairly mediocre level, the one which has been very appropriately called within the audiophile community as “mid-fi”.
The second reason why the portable audio is still running around in “mid-fi” circles is an unbelievable inertia of the typical representatives of the “old” generation of the home High End Audio industry. They’ve got all the necessary qualifications and all the necessary manufacturing capabilities, but what they are not capable of is to wake up to reality and to grasp the (urgent!) necessity “to tune to a different frequency”.
Nevertheless, the same way as a half of a century ago, when a few outstanding individuals with a vision, whom you can count on your fingers (J. Gordon Holt, Harry Pearson, William Johnson, Mark Levinson, Jim Winey, Dan D’Agostino, et al), created from a scratch a home High End Audio industry, now, we’re on a brink of a new emergence. Namely, when some new progressively thinking visionaries (quite possibly, including ourselves) will be able, at long last, “to pass the torch of true sonic values from “home” High End Audio to a new generation of “portable” audiophiles”.
… While simultaneously creating – as their direct predecessors did fifty years ago – a new industry with a new moniker, like, for instance, “The Portable High End Audio”.
*footnote #6: J. Gordon Holt – the founder of the “Stereophile” magazine, Harry Pearson – the founder of “The Abso!ute Sound” magazine, William Johnson – the founder of Audio Research Corporation, Mark Levinson – the founder of the eponymous company, Jim Winey – the founder of Magnepan, Inc., Dan D’Agostino – the founder of Krell Industries.*
*footnote #7: It should be noted that we define “portable audio systems” by their two main features. Not only we define that class of products by its products’ obvious “mobility” feature, but also, which is equally as important, by these products’ capability to isolate – as much as possible – the ears from the external noise. Therefore, for example, as the vast majority of the best headphones on the market are of, so called, “open” design, that is, their principle of operation, on the opposite, relies on the lack of the isolation, then the audio systems based on such headphones are not “portable” byI.*
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