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Positive Feedback ISSUE 13
may/june 2004


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Auroville 28 - Business as Usual
by Srajan Ebaen

This about sums up a certain core mechanism that precipitates High End audio. At the heart of our collective obsession lurks the desire and expectation to be emotionally moved by a piece of inanimate hardware. That in itself is a wholly irrational pursuit when you think about it: How to get feeling stimuli from machines. Consequently, the rules of engagement resist verifiable proof. Results are wholly individual from listener to listener. In simplistic terms, we pick equipment based on whether we like the way it sounds and how that makes us feel. Pretty nebulous.

We do not select appliances based on such emotional parameters. We select them on features, price, reliability, objective performance and appearance. Think washing machines, toasters, lamps and cars. While each contains an element of like or dislike that becomes part of our selection process, the majority of decisive factors are pretty rational and verifiable. The car either accelerates from 0 to 60 in 5 seconds or it doesn’t. It either goes 23 miles on a gallon or it doesn’t. The toaster is either easy to clean or it isn’t. Do we need 15 different spin cycles or not? How much water is consumed? Does this brand have a good rep on reliability?

Low-Fi audio too is bought and sold like a commodity or appliance. How loud does it play; can it fill the backyard with tunes; does it fit into the shelf; how much does it cost. The intangibles of emotional involvement play a far smaller if any role.

Accordingly, mass merchandisers of such audio products sell them like appliances—on features and price. Chain stores also acquire lines based on cold and hard profitability, supply guarantees, incentives and all manner of conventional business considerations that are standard procedure in retail. It’s a commodity’s trade, plain and simple. Do you believe for one moment that Mr. Circuit City auditions amplifiers and speakers to decide which line to carry?

When a car dealership opens, do you imagine that its owner is free to cherry-pick the model lineup and refuse to display certain ones because he doesn’t like the way they feel? Do you think that three years down the road, he’ll drop his automotive line to replace it with another?

Now think High End audio. To get into a dealership, you need to dispatch samples. If the owner and/or salespeople like the way it sounds, you might stand a chance of surviving the following negotiations. But make no mistake—the # 1 hurdle is of an emotionally reactive nature. It is based on subjective likes and dislikes. Is it any wonder that High End audio in general often appears to be run on enthusiasm and evangelism but not on solid sustainable business practices? Whenever certain outfits actually make a concerted effort to run themselves like a regular business, audiophiles attack them for having sold out. Pretty ironic if those same audiophiles offer lip service about the poor health of the industry.

No matter how much a manufacturer’s representative might disagree, he can’t prove that his amplifiers sound superior if a prospective dealer demo elicits lukewarm or negative responses. Instead of asking themselves whether they can sell his products profitably and long-term, such dealers ask themselves first whether they want to sell this product based on personal likes and dislikes. This type of reaction is what audiophiles actually expect of their dealers. But is this good or even usual business practice?

Consider reviews, too. The major hurdle any audio manufacturer faces when submitting a review loaner is whether the reviewer will like it. Doesn’t this strike you as a rather vacuous aim? How to go about this? What exactly do we mean when we say like and sound and how it makes us feel?  If you were Ford Motor Company and submitted your latest pickup to Car & Driver, you’d be assured specific exercises resulting in hard, verifiable data. If you’d done your home work and knew the competitive status quo, the uncontrollable variables of positive or negative reactions from the testers would be rather contained - certainly far more so than in audio.

When you consider this contextual framework within which much of High End audio operates, certain ailments begin to make sense. This also includes over-the-top pricing. The whole irrational agenda of bona fide High End audio (which measurements can’t rationalize) extends to the acceptance of pricing that mirrors that of Fine Arts galleries. "True art is priceless" essentially becomes the disclaimer. Exclusivity, sex and jewelry appeal, pride of ownership and mythical under- and overtones about exalted subjective performance now become the overriding factors. As rational and verifiable parameters are abandoned for being too mid-fi, proletarian, scientific, business-based and thus ‘anti-art’, the irrational priceless machinations kick in.

$30,000 speaker cables are elevated to art status and thus escape from the confines of rational justifications. That’s plainly how this level of business is done. Precious little connects it to the sales floor of a Circuit City or Best Buys with their extended service warranties.

Business as usual is plainly not what High End audio is all about. Could that be part of what’s gnawing at it right now?

Visit Srajan at his site

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