By Misha Kucherenko, Etalon Sound’s Marketing Director
As I stopped to be actively involved in home version of High End Audio already many years ago, visiting an audiophile show allows to me to look at it from a bystander’s point of view. Not a common bystander’s, of course, as I did spent quite a few years being at the very epicenter of the whole phenomenon, but an “interested” one’s [the most of my thoughts below are fully applicable to the portable version of High End Audio too].
A few weeks ago in September I ended up at the Rocky Mountains Audio Fest in Denver, CO because Etalon Sound has been exhibiting there:
Having carved a few hours in between of my booth shifts, I’ve been wandering at the show trying to figure out the current state of world audiophilia presented over there.
From my “interested” bystander point of view, the most obvious feature of the industry is its continuing lack of tight focus on its inner processes.
That is, on the both sides of its sales counters’ barricades I can see a lot of confusion regarding the exact nature of the industry’s products.
It looks as under the common audiophile hobby umbrella there exists a whole assortment of completely different phenomena.
For instance, some of the exhibits pointed in the direction of studies of how sensitive the human hearing mechanism is, the others catered to anal retentive complexes, then there was a certain niche of products intended to elevate their customers’ self-esteem, tech savvy visitors could find amusing some of the cutting edge novelties, and then there was a whole plethora of means to polish “the steam engines” of audio.
If I already formed a habit to take all the hoopla for granted,then I could clearly see how confusing it could look to the uninitiated.
And I guess, that this confusion is the biggest reason why we don’t really see too much “new blood” coming to High End Audio.
It doesn’t happen also because the “new blood” needs some clear-cut answers to some obvious questions, like, for instance,
– How can you relate to an industry which still didn’t formulate its raison d’etre in clear-cut terms?!
– How relevant is retrieving – with a help of, let’s say, a $150 000 turntable and a $15 000 phono cartridge – of the last bits of music carriers’ info (like a subtle air conditioner’s noise during a recording) can be in a grander scheme of things?!
– Is it really necessary to pay, let’s say, a $1 000 for a “first press” LP or, say, $500 for an open reel “master” copy to fully enjoy the recorded music?
– Is the only intention behind the “audio jewelry” to elevate the customers’ self-esteem because the audiophile hobby is their last resort, or are there any other reasons for the 24K-gold plating of some of the tonearm parts?
– How important are all the latest hi-rez “bells and whistles” in appreciating the most subtle musical thoughts and messages?
– And, finally, even if there are many reasons to proclaim that “the audio’s future is in the past”, then what should we borrow from that past to the present (and what should we leave there to rest in peace forever)?
Really, these are these questions that would inevitably pop up in any bystander’s mind when they would see such an audiophile “circus” to pass them by.
It goes without saying that I haven’t seen any signs of even slightest attempts of clarifications on these subjects coming from the exhibitors at this show either.
On numerous occasions in the past I expressed my own thoughts on the High End Audio’s possible true mission, and also elaborated on the answers to the questions above.
In there, I proclaimed that the main functionality of True High End Audio systems is “educational”, that is such audio systems are the tools to master the skills in some new musical languages (and then I went there to some further details on what would that mean in terms of such True High End Audio’s demonstrated main instrumental properties).
The latter statement is confirmed with my own experience: usually, the people who use such systems gradually obtain some new musical language skills and move to some new musical terrains; while the people who don’t care too much about audio, as a rule, continue to listen to the music they’ve been listening to “when they were 14 years old”.
I remember when I was 14 year old, and lived in a tiny city of Snezhinsk in Ural Mountains, a young engineer who just started to work over there at a nuclear research facility, would invite a group of his friends to some “listening sessions” at his 10 square meters dorm room. He purchased the best audio equipment that was only available at the time in the Soviet Union, and he’s being treating his guests with the best classical vinyl recordings he could only obtain.
One day, when he’s been seeing off some of his guests after prolonged auditioning of the Bruckner’s symphonies, walking alone the dorm’s corridor, they overheard Jimi Hendrix blasting from another dorm room.
That guy’s disdaining comment was: “If Stalin were still in power we would never hear this crap”.
It’s not that at the time I had appreciated his comment, and it’s not that it did stop me from continuing to listen to Jimi Hendrix for quite awhile after that moment, but what that first true audiophile in my life was referring to – and, definitely, not to Stalin’s purges per se but to the advantages of the early USSR’s cultural policy of enforced enlightenment/education of its masses – actually, strongly resonated with all the reasons why I’ve been later so obsessed with the opportunities True High End Audio provided me for my personal musical growth.
On the other extreme, because the current Consumer Electronics Industry seems to be perceived by all the parties involved as the Consumer Entertainment Industry, some All-Encompassing High End Audio – with its wettest dream to rub its shoulders with all the CE Big Boys – for that reason always preferred to stay ambivalent about this “educational” aspect of it, blowing up all its pure entertainment and, its shallowest, sides out of all proportions.
… To eventually crash down now “between all the chairs” listed above.
When I read some heated arguments at the audio forums about various products, I can see below their surface that they are almost never about the gear per se, but about some different personal reasons that lead to the applications of it.
I mean, below vinyl vs streaming, analog vs digital, home audio vs portable audio debates, let alone some petty arguments which gadget is a better one, I just usually see personalized clashes of representatives of some different strains of audiophile hobby, which are simply on interpersonal level are totally incompatible with each other.
That’s why the arguments are so fervent and with no chances of reconciliation: because the participants’ original reasons to be involved in the hobby are also so incompatible (or, not comparable) with each other too.
And it’s not that I see some of the reasons better than the others, or, it’s not that I would think it would be reasonable to argue who’s true audiophile, and who’s not, the same way as it’s of no use to argue about what’s better – the apples or the oranges (actually, “the apples or the steaks” analogy would be even more appropriate).
The astonishing level of open hostility at audiophile forums has everything to do with that pressure of forced coexistence – under the same current “roof” of All-Encompassing High End Audio – of such incompatible personal convictions, goals and the reasons to be involved in the hobby.
If you would put in a similar chat room a Muslim, an Orthodox Jew and a Christian you would probably witness the same uncompromised zealotry in action, which would be very close in its intensity to what you would routinely encounter when some audiophiles would discuss their preferences for, let’s say, a brand of a speaker cable.
Incidentally, a complete awareness of the overall audiophiles’ community of the reasons for its different fractions’ forced coexistence under All-Encompassing High End Audio’s umbrella would help to resolve not only almost all of the contradictions within the former, but also to pacify almost all of its internal turmoils too.
Therefore, if the current epitome of All-Encompassing High End Audio is intended to stay productive, it must to openly declare its main and fundamentally common mission; otherwise such a differentiation of its various strains’ current goals and purposes, which pulls its core appeal in such totally different directions, would completely tear it apart and would move the whole industry closer and closer to “shuffling off its mortal coil”.
Which will inevitably happen under the circumstances when a multitude of, in essence, totally unrelated products and phenomena are covered by the same moniker and the blurry vision of everybody involved is totally confused; which, in its turn, leads to a situation when the “right” customers are completely incapable of finding the appropriate dealers and manufacturers, and the vice versa.
Cycle after cycle of that stagnation would inevitably lead to the full collapse of the whole industry.
It’s obvious that not everybody, even who claims it so to himself and all the others, in reality, does need True High End Audio gear, which, let’s suppose it here for a moment, defined in some similar terms to what I came up with above. Then the aforementioned lists of personal motives for the hobby can provide some clues for some appropriate alternative designations for those various strains of the “advanced” audio systems.
For instance, if you insist on listening to music for the pimpled teenagers and have no plans to refine your musical tastes and music listening skills, then you don’t really need a True High End Audio system. And if you’ve got a lot of disposable income, you would, probably, need something else; let’s tentatively call it a Big Bang Audio system.
Or, alternatively, if you’re permanently struck with some bouts of nostalgia for “Those Were The Days, My Friend”, then you would need, let’s say, a Golden Era Audio system.
And, so on…
Without that appropriate re-labelling of all those strains of “advanced” audio enthusiasts’ communities and their demands, the whole motley crew of their current players, instead of cooperating with each other (as it’s implied “by the community spirit”) to create a consolidated proposition, will continue to work against each other’s interests by endlessly trying to teach each other some completely irrelevant lessons.
… All the while totally confusing the potential new comers’ marketplace as, on the one hand, the various strains’ confrontation will continue under a common “High End Audio” banner, but, on the other, a juggling in front of the potential customers’ noses with some completely mutually exclusive ideas will unlikely look too attractive from outside.
In the latter case, from the perspective of current High End Audio’s potential “new blood” representatives – the bystanders of the audiophile scene, which are the only ones that can save it from its coming collapse – the High End Audio Utopia is inevitably becoming a Dystopia.
And not because the former’s various fractions’ potential goals and purposes are not fully reachable, actually, they are.
It will become a Dystopia only for a single reason: because these goals are still not tightly focused, and, as such, are not seen at all.
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