Positive Feedback ISSUE 69
september/october 2013

 

Sonic Satori - What is the Future of the High-End Part VI: Can't We All Just Get Along?
by Michael Mercer

 

I've been writing this series for years in an effort to offer some informed commentary on the Hi-fi landscape while making observations and suggestions with regard to nurturing the growth of that landscape. Admittedly I'm not in the "no worries mate, Hi-fi will always be here" camp. So I feel obligated to try and help in any way I can to spread the gospel of high fidelity by any means necessary. Now, I don't think high end audio is dead like CNN (check out The Death of the Home Stereo) but I think, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, that the niche market has separated itself so far from consumer culture that we need to find common ground with end users currently fueling the billions of dollars flowing into the consumer electronics industry! I see this as vital for high end audio's long-term survival. I mean, how many apprentices do you know working for the incredible men and woman behind these very specialized Hi-fi companies? Where's the next generation of product innovators? I'm not merely pondering the future of the consumer here. Where are our Harry Pearson's coming from, our Jim Thiel's, or Bill Johnson's? Well, believe it or not many of them will come from consumer culture! As long as we nourish their curious nature and thirst for new things we can find a sustainable future for this community and industry through our present-day and would-be customers. But one of the many keys to keeping them interested, and then sticking around by connecting with them; not by alienating them, patronizing them, or making them feel apart from the in-crowd. After all, we're the music addicts and audio freaks! We're the ones with multi-thousand dollar speaker cables and high-end portable gear that sometimes resembles the plastic walkman-era! Luckily however, when it comes to the latter, things are looking much cooler, much slicker, more modern. The aesthetic of personal audio today has a fashion-forward element that lends itself more easily to the average consumer. Not to mention that many of the music sources used today in personal audio (and in high-end two-channel for that matter: such as DAPs) are commonplace with even the most unaware would-be audiophile. They use their smartphones every day, hell, every waking minute, and they're on their computers (Mac or PC) for a larger span of time than we'd all like to admit. That's half your battle right there.

 

As I mentioned in my Common Ground essay earlier this year for Audiohead.com: A major barrier problem facing high end audio before was familiarity. It was a difficult task for a high-end audio dealer to convince Joe Consumer that he needed that bulky stereo system in order to enjoy his music! The biggest obstacle high-end audio faced for years was that many consumers didn't keep their stereo systems from the seventies and eighties. Many settled for boom-boxes and other "mini-systems" and such. The bigger, more obtrusive gear slowly became less and less fashionable. Slim became the new norm, and form factor became more than a mere after thought. Then came MP3 files and über-convenience and everything went pear-shaped. Many consumers were content with their Bose systems and all-in-one Yamaha home theater-in-a-box's. But now there's a backlash to all of that, to MP3-quality music and shitty, plastic speaker systems that look more like a lamp or a room ionizer than a loudspeaker. People are buying vinyl again and major media outlets have been covering this phenomenon. Hell it makes for a great story: Whole Foods selling vinyl! Do you know who the largest retailer of vinyl is in the United States? Urban Outfitters. Now there's a golden opportunity: appeal to the people shopping there. Shit Urban Outfitters sells TDK, Crosley, and all sorts of cheap wanna-be Hi-fi gear—but in some stores they also sell Music Hall! The barrier is slowly being blown to pieces. But those patrons aren't going to come over to high fidelity without being shown the way.

The bottom-line: it's important to share your enthusiasm about high fidelity. It used to represent a lifestyle, an element of coolness, and we're getting that back. Between a bunch of Eames-looking personal audio gear to some of the most stunning designs in high end two-channel today: stereo can be cool again.

Part of that means migrating our energies from the many "vs." debates that have taken up our time for years. You know the ones: analog vs. digital, loudspeakers vs. headphones, and on and on. There's plenty of room (well, not so much actually: one of the reasons headphone sales are exploding) for all of these formats and methods of music delivery to coexist. Not to mention the fact that having all audio markets healthy is better for everybody in the long run. We can choose to shift our energies to the wonders of music playback today. These days we're able to achieve a level of sonic integrity in an inexpensive sound system that we couldn't even dream of just a few years ago. This doesn't have to, nor does need to exclude the more expensive audio component industry either. After all, there's always a level to aspire to! 

I know purists on both sides will continue to pontificate the concept of this vs. that; meanwhile the rest of us will be kickin' it, havin' a blast, listening to tunes and spending time with each other! Look, we're living in a world where it's not even easy to discuss the fact that human beings don't decode digital information with the average consumer! That's a scary thought I know, but I experienced it while working for HRT at the Convention Center during CES years ago. The "zoo" as we called it; not as an insult to the patrons, rather the amount of people being led around that place like sheep. We were trying to explain to many of them what an "iDevice DAC" was while being based in the iLounge: a place for all sorts of iDevice gadgets and cases! There were a few occasions where somebody said to me something like "but why would I wanna change it back to analog, digital is better." I would then explain the fact that we don't process 1's and 0's like a computer chip, that as we were talking we were communicating in analog. Therefore, any electronic component they owned that played music, including their cell phone, had a DAC as part of its design. They would often act stunned. Like this was new information. Now I'm not calling the average consumer an idiot, as much as it may seem like I am. This is the result of the bullshit they learn about electronics (or lack thereof). So, however they experience their music—through an iPhone and headphones, plus a Bose speaker dock at home (I know I know, please forgive me) or a turntable and vintage receiver with forty-year old B&W's they inherited from their parents—we now have incredible solutions for all of them! Who gives a shit about the delivery mechanism? As long as we give them a taste of something better, and that something better is related to their every-day, we're in good shape. After all, the goals, aims, and treasures of personal audio and high-end two-channel are very similar. I've been considering this for a long time now.

What do I seek in a high-end in-room audio system? A deep connection to my music. The ultimate goal for me is to get the system to disappear: Get out of its own damn way. That's why words like "transparency" and "coherency" are thrown around like mad. We're all (at least many of us are) looking for that grand connection to the art-form that drives all this. So if your true aim is indeed connecting with the music, you shouldn't take issue with the delivery method of somebody else's system… if their choice is different from yours. Everyone has their preferences. We all interpret differently, but that doesn't mean anyone's method is necessarily better than the other. By whose standards? Shit... this seems so obvious when I think about it. We're all involved in the fine art of music reproduction. Music is not an art-form that can be quantified or tabulated. Well, mathematically I realize you can do that, but you won't find the soul of the music there; that thing that gets you in the gut when you're listening. That experience is at the heart of everything we do in high-end audio, be it personal or in-room; whatever damn distinction me make. The biggest difference now is that generations of new music hardware consumers have been raised experiencing their music through headphones, and there's an example of some common ground that we need. Like it or not, those over-priced and insanely marketed Beats By Dre headphones brought the concept of better sound (even though the early designs sounded like bass-heavy garbage to me) back to the masses. I'm not saying they brought back better sound. I'm saying they marketed the concept behind better sound to sell their products as part of their brand. The irony is those products gave birth to a whole new generation of better products! The proliferation of high performance personal audio has sparked a global awareness of the sonic properties of consumer electronics that I've never seen before on the same scale! I see more people comment online about their experience with the sound and the music now, than I ever have before. And most of those comments are coming from the headphone community.

People young and old are gathering at places like Head-Fi.org in record numbers, communicating with like-minded hobbyists while helping an industry grow! That's progress for everybody in-action. A major difference between the online community—places like Head-Fi and some of our older audio-related online communities (at least in my experience)—is the lack of straight up venomous bullshit some people toss around merely because somebody wrote a review of an audio product they didn't like! Having differences of opinions will always happen, and it happens everywhere, but sometimes people take this shit so seriously it's maddening. We're writing about stereo gear dude. Have some fun for Christ's sake. There's always a place for whatever a person needs to keep them interested, whether it's a graph of bench results in Stereophile magazine or a long thread on Head-Fi, there's enough room for all of us to play and we don't have to be in one camp or the other. I have just as much fun playing my CEntrance HiFi-M8 and Audeze LCD3 magnetic planar headphones as I do my E.A.R gear and Zu Audio loudspeakers in my reference system. Whatever keeps me listening in this non-stop world of constant communication. Even if that's what drives you the most—the escapism of a pristine stereo system—so be it. We can turn a smartphone streaming music at 320kbps into a transcendent experience! Granted, some expensive gear would have to be involved—sound familiar? It's time for all of us to raise our game a little bit and take a step back once in a while. We all really need to see the field.

For example: I love having tea outside with my wifey every morning. I would honestly be happy with my Sonos system or my Peachtree deepBlue on our side-porch, where we have our tea, but I recently learned that one of the only features I love about iOS7 for my iPad(2) is that I can use the CCK (camera connection kit) with my battery-powered ALO International headphone amplifier! This meant experiencing my Audeze LCD3's outside in beautiful wine country. Well, my wifey and I proceeded to listen to Matisyahu's Live at Stubbs while we drank our tea, basking in the early morning beauty. Like I said, I would've been happy with my Sonos system playing out there, but being able to have this amazing sound coming from my iPad (+ ALO International + LCD3) while sitting on our porch was amazing. We didn't have to settle for convenience. We took our high fidelity with us, outside, and now I can do the same whenever I travel. I've said it before and I'll say it again: it's a brave new world out there. The cool thing is there's a piece for everybody.

Find out about this brave new world if this is news to you. Ask your friends or get online and do some research. Outreach is the key to growth, and that's true of anything. The Los Angeles & Orange County Audio Society just hosted a fantastic event that I was psyched to attend at Audio High in Los Angeles. We had the Astell&Kern boys show their gear and King Sound brought their fantastic electrostatic cans with tube and solid-state amps, plus their new electrostatic loudspeakers! The manufacturers spoke about their products, and I spoke about my love for personal audio, coming from the high-end two-channel world! It was a great event that mixed things up a bit, bringing different audio worlds together under one roof. But we were all like-minded music and sound addicts. I saw people go from doubting a foreign music delivery concept to embracing it; all in one afternoon! So what it comes down to, and I hate to be a dirty hippie about all this, but let’s inject some enthusiasm back into audio reporting. I'm not advocating abandoning technical intel either, people like my friend John Darko at Digital Audio Review and Brian at Audiohead are great examples of writers who present both sides of the audible looking glass. Just remember: people respond to excitement and enthusiasm above all else. Sometimes I'm told to dial it back. I admit it. But I honestly can't fuckin' help it. So what can I do? I try to excite others about great sounding music as I embark on my own sonic journey. We need to cultivate and grow our collective army of music addicted sonic adventurists. In order to do that, we need to be inclusive, not exclusive.

Don't knock your buddies’ earbuds or your customer’s silly-ass bass emanating from their car stereo. Take off your superiority cap for a moment and figure out a way to better their experience, not just yours. Spend a minute here or there talkin' about it when it comes up. Be a part-time ambassador for great sound, and don't push the negative. I was on a fifty-minute flight recently to Los Angeles and I brought my CEntrance HiFi-M8 (a portable battery-powered iDevice DAC/headphone amp combo unit) and Mr. Speakers Mad Dogs (closed ortho-dynamic headphones) on the plane with me. A young couple sitting across from me asked about the components sitting atop my tray table. I proceeded to explain what the HiFi-M8 did. Then I played a track for each of them from my own library in my iPod Classic, using the DAC and headphone amp in the HiFi-M8. After they listened they were blown away. But I didn't stop there. After all, how did I know what music they liked? So I asked them to pick a song each from their own iPhones and plugged them into the HiFi-M8. This way they got to experience music they're familiar with in a completely different listening environment. They were hooked. The gentleman asked me how much the HiFi-M8 cost ($699) and I was surprised when he didn't scoff at the price! But then I thought: he experienced it before the hard question came. He dictated the info into his iPhone via Siri when we landed and said he was going to buy one. Now, do I know if he'll actually do it? Of course not. But I do know that I offered him a new listening experience and it affected him (and her) in some way. I know the result was positive, because they were nice enough to notice that I forgot my Audeze road case in the luggage rack above and rushed it out to me in the airport! I was grateful to say the least. That led to further conversations about Hi-fi and music. I knew they were bit by the high fidelity bug, and it felt great to present them with that experience.

With the help of a little sharing and enthusiasm I think the industry will live on. But only if people shake their elitist bullshit. This sounds like an impossibility, but I refuse to believe that. Who cares if the next guy walking into your store is wearing baggy pants and sporting earbuds. Don't judge a book by its cover. Though terribly cliché, it's true, especially in audio. It's time to bridge the damn generation gap on a larger scale. Hell, I'm living proof it can work (well, I hope so anyway). At 38, I got my start in this thing as a teenager at The Absolute Sound. I saw equipment there that looked like something from a NASA lab. Things have changed a lot since then. Embrace it, find the good parts. You can get jaw-dropping fidelity for a fraction of what it cost just a couple of years ago. Be prepared, whether your customer has an iPhone, laptop, memory sick, or a vinyl LP. Check out music and tech magazines like Under the Radar or Filter and Wired to see what's hot in the music and gadget scenes. Be the enthusiast! That's how your business will grow. We just have to remember not to take ourselves so seriously. It always comes back to the music… no matter what. And if you've lost interest in that, perhaps its time to look into another career choice. Plus, what I love the most about the high-end audio industry and community are its people; I've met some of my most cherished friends later in life through Head-Fi and personal audio! What could be bad about that? Again, I'm not trying to sound like a dirty hippie here, but let's find a way to shift the energies away from the in-fighting and never-ending battles that plague this community. Let's think about the next generation, and welcome them in with open hearts and minds. We'll all be the better for it.

 

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