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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 10
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Auroville 25 - On margins and marginalizing
by Srajan Ebaen

It seems most pundits of our High-End audio scene, self-appointed or bona fide observers, agree that this thang of ours has gotten bloody marginalized. One of the reasons is the relative dearth of groundbreaking technical advances, of the sort which, in the guise of first CD and then DVD, revolutionized how music and video software was delivered. People are willing to embrace true progress in either manifestation of performance, convenience or, better yet, both. Just consider the explosion of cell phones, PDAs, laptop computers, portable MP3-related devices.

It takes little convincing to grasp their significance of progress, from downscaled sizes to accelerated performance, from science-fiction-type features to attainable affordability. Pentium 4 HP screamers packaged with 17" screens and printers—yours for $799 at Walmart.

Trouble is, audio is still waiting for the next big thing to turn the tides as DVD did for video. For most end users, the difference between DVD (and SACD) vis-à-vis CD as an audio medium is marginal, with no added convenience, price advantage or useful extra functionality. They’re discs sized just the same as CD, just more expensive and with a different alphabet-soup acronym. Add the complexities of on-screen interface menus; and CD-as-audio-carrier looks to actually enjoy the advantage.

As far as the bigger picture is concerned, nothing truly earthshaking has occurred in loudspeaker or amplifier land. Mention Tripath, IcePower, 1-bit or Toccata digital power processing and the eyes of all but the initiates glaze over, never mind that their extended-time cell phone model may soon be powered by Tripath modules. While cognoscenti hail the latest iterations of digital power amplifiers as price-to-performance breakthroughs whose sonics stake out new ground between the traditional tube and transistor lines, the fact remains that despite their operational inefficiency, conventional amplifiers work just fine—and looking at their faceplates, a Jeff Rowland IcePower, Bel Canto Tripath or TacT Toccata/TI amp doesn’t telegraph ‘different, hip, cutting-edge, must have!’

Speakers? From MBL’s pulsating spheres to Acapella’s ionic tweeter, Anthony Gallo’s clever CMD tweeter to Impact Technology’s next-gen Linaeum film drivers, engineering savvy pushes boundaries that remain mostly invisible where it matters—end-user awareness. Start talking flat-panel wall-mountable speakers, however, and eyes light up: Modern cool mirrors the new flat-panel television and computer monitor awareness. Now you’re talking, bubba—and never mind performance.

While these examples are merely the tip of the iceberg, you get the idea. High-End’s prior bastion as the lone defender of technological superiority has been ransacked and replaced with a new castle-in-the-cloud mansion of excessive pricing. If you can’t differentiate yourself with demonstrably obvious performance, feature or convenience gains, become exclusive to suggest, by simply removing yourself from the bustling marketplace, that you must be rare and special.

Once end users catch on that audible performance is not better by leaps and bounds, High-End’s credibility is irreparably undermined. Manufacturers and press respond by becoming more esoteric, inventing new hairsplittin’ terminology to artificially inflate their perception’s shrinking margins of actual superiority. Readers and owners react to this transparent maneuver by further distancing themselves from the loons and snake-oil charmers of which the High-End is clearly guilty by stamping out its version of the 10,000 terra-cotta warriors—or so it would seem to them.

With slower and shrinking sales, the High-End responds by introducing statement products which allow substantial margins, and of which only few need to ever be sold to offset the wholesale losses elsewhere. This rise of the—expensive—machines doesn’t prompt mass hurrahs for excess of Schwarzeneggerian proportions but rather condemns High-End for really having lost it.

Actually, the next truly radical advance might be around the corner in just a few years. The appearance of 1GB digital camera memory cards signals what to expect. Recent breakthroughs in microfilm coding indicate that mass storage such as required for full-length CD data can eventually be accomplished on such cards, banishing moving parts, lasers, transports and optical errors forever and bridging the actual gap of the much-heralded convergence for good.

In the meantime, what is High-End to do? In the wake of my recent visit with Richard Bird of Rives Audio and his client Jacob Heilbrunn, chronicled in the industry features of 6moons (http://www.6moons.com/industryfeatures/rives/rives.html), I thought of asking Richard how many acoustical consultancy projects they handled per month. "About 20", was his immediate unrehearsed reply. Pause for a second to let that sink in. We’re talking professionally blueprinted jobs involving a staff of three full-time bona fide acoustical engineers, from a company that’s been on the map for barely longer than a year when you consider their official and noted appearance in public. With Level-3 fees clocking in at ca. $10,000/ea., this is an impressive turn for a start-up business.

But it’s truly just the very beginning. As Rives’ dealer network expands, it will be brick-and-mortar or CEDIA-type dealers who handle the sales pitch, the actual on-site measurements, the overseeing of the final installation once Rives has created its diagnostic and remedial reports. Envision a dealer coming to your home, setting up a calibrated professional test-kit and, via his laptop monitor, walking you through what exactly ails your room, showing you in plain English why you’re having problems. Audio docs making house calls—that’s what it boils down to. These white-kilted dudes & dudettes now provide a level of add-on service that’s addressing the core issue of where knowledgeable assistance of an audio specialist can make the demonstrable, stunning, I’ll-be-damned difference which High-End audio products on their own have long since relinquished to mass-market kit.

Despite rumors to the contrary, CEDIA-type dealers with numerous certifications to vouch for their custom-install skills, backed by a staff of architects, interior designers and acoustical engineers, are prospering, often without fancy show rooms or deep inventories. They instead offer the kind of real and necessary service that’s completely immune to the Internet-sponsored changes that affect all levels of retail. Because old-fashioned audio dealers have not embraced Home Theater or custom install, balked instead at retraining to become lighting experts, general or electrical contractors, multi-room whole-house automation wizards—requiring annual update courses to stay ahead of the curve—these dealers have lost what once set them apart as the go-to specialists. Pushing boxes with fancy rather than everyman names on ‘em that cost and weigh more did not turn out to be a recipe for successful competition in today’s commodities’ market.

As Richard Bird confirmed, those dealers who embrace the need for proper training in room acoustics, speaker placement, system setup and comprehensive calibration, are gaining a very formidable edge that once again puts them in the driver’s seat of offering quantifiable services and results that simply cannot be gotten elsewhere or otherwise. When you think about it, this is a truly groundbreaking concept—developing an army of audio mechanics that can tune your system for optimum performance in your own four walls where it matters. It’s a popular saw to pay lip service to the room as the final frontier. It's as easy as proclaiming that Samsara and Nirvana are one, something you read somewhere but which took him who first uttered it years of intense practice and sacrifice to realize. However, actual implementation of the practical steps required to doing something, about this final frontier that is the room, have been far and few in-between. Talk’s cheap, they say.

Granted, Michael Green, RPG, Echo Busters and others have offered room treatments for years. But unless you knew exactly what you needed, sticking triangular pillows into your ceiling corners didn’t go very far. Auditioning Jacob’s room which had been designed and calibrated by Rives proved to me what’s possible—running massive Magneplanar 20.1s in a 13’ x 19’ x 8’ room with flat in-room performance to 25Hz, and no sense of the speakers overpowering the space or otherwise suffering from crowding. In closing, if my nutshell diagnosis of High-End audio’s status quo had any merit whatsoever, it appears that a return to the service ethos of yore would be one of the vital paddles in today’s shit creek—service that goes far beyond delivery, unboxing and wiring up a rig; to scientific, highly accurate on-site measurements and the professional response of engineers trained how to design award-winning, multi-million dollar recording/mastering facilities and no-compromise ‘civilian’ sound rooms.

If the room truly were the invisible overlooked component we’re all hip to mouthing off about, why not act as though this statement was true and accurate? And if so, why put the whole research burden of the process on the customer who, after all, comes to you, the dealer—his guru, priest, confidante, therapist and helper—for advice and ability?

Lack ability, you say? That’s easily remedied once you make the honest prognosis. Check with Walter Swanborn of top-shop Fidelis (http://www.fidelisav.com) in New Hampshire how to go about it. Walter’s just about to open the doors to a Rives-optimized demo room, which will serve not only to conduct uncompromised auditions but also to introduce the concept, aesthetics and benefits to consumers. What an idea, eh, to demonstrate what you sell?

Come on, if it’s specialist know-how you’re selling, make sure you’ve actually got it - that precious, expensive know-how which you claim sets you apart from Circuit City and Ebay. If RT60 don’t ring a bell, you can be damn sure you ain’t got it. So get with the program, sport, and stop singing the self-inflicted Blues. Those who have seem to be doing just fine.

Visit Srajan at his site www.6moons.com

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