Why High-End Audio Matters

If you work for the audio industry?or just write about it, as I do?these are disturbing times. Here?s the good news: Sales of audio products grew by 29 percent last year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Now here?s the bad news: Component audio sales actually fell by 16 percent. The growth in sales was driven almost entirely by portables, led by the skyrocketing iPod.

Why is that bad news for an audiophile? Because high-end audio?the good stuff?is a subset of component audio, not portable audio. As the high-end market has withered, a whole generation has grown up without knowing what the good stuff sounds like. CEA reports that 56 percent of consumers ?say they have never even heard what they’d consider a great sounding audio system.?

No matter what you listen to, you can have a closer relationship with music only if your equipment makes a closer relationship possible. And until you?ve tried high-end audio, there?s not much alphanumeric magic I can whip out to make you feel it. You just have to bring some favorite music into a well-equipped listening room and experience it for yourself.

Audiophiles and the industry that sucks up to them are infamously self-defeating. We act as if household budgets didn?t exist. We blather on about specs. We hype high-end cables, which are 25 percent helpful, 75 percent mystique, and nearly 100 percent overpriced. The latest fad is high-end power cables. I?ll have to stir up that wasp nest another time.

Great sound is not an exclusive club that you have to be a millionaire or a genius to join. An Outlaw receiver (in surround or stereo) costs way under $1000. If you want to pay five figures for a Jeff Rowland amp and preamp, that?s as legitimate as buying a Mercedes or a Saville Row suit. But you don?t have to be rich to afford a musically competent audio system. And you don?t have to be Albert Einstein to pick one you like.

I have two sets of reference loudspeakers and neither is huge or expensive. The Paradigm Studio/20 costs $400 per speaker. I use a 5.1-channel set to review surround receivers, and when I tell manufacturers of receivers what speakers I?m using, they breathe a sigh of relief. The Studio/20 is from the Reference Series. If you?re on a tight budget, step down to the Monitor Series. For the best build quality, step up to the Signature Series. The Canadian company?s institutional design goals, which cut across all product lines, are to provide relatively even frequency response and good off-axis dispersion no matter what you buy.

I?m also high on the even smaller Era Design 4, at $600/pair, in my desktop system. I reviewed them, sent back the review samples, got lonesome for them, and ended up buying another pair from the manufacturer for my desk.

Good software is as important as good hardware. There are things you can get from an LP that you can?t get from a CD, and things you can get from a CD that you can?t get from a 128kbps MP3. Likewise, a superior recording has advantages in any medium. Yes, I?m mulling over buying a monster hard drive and filling it with FLACs. But hard drives crash, and a shelf full of treasures, as my friend Mikey says, ?is like comfort food.?

What makes high-end audio better? As I said earlier, it has to do with your relationship with music. Mediocre audio has a distancing effect. It affects the quality of listening. You might not be aware of this, especially if you have no high-end experience for comparison. But music lovers with both good systems and large libraries lead different listening lives.

A critical listener has a zest for listening, an emotional range, a willingness to experiment, a compulsion to collect, and a desire to share (and I don?t just mean file sharing). A casual listener may have some of these qualities but they?re not as prominent, not as fully developed. He has fulfilled only part of his listening potential.

Portables, to a greater or lesser extent, bring the same distancing effect. Now look, I don?t want to insult your iPod. I love my little nano, and if you?re looking for something better, I recommend the JVC Alneo. But even with good headphones?which by the way needn?t be expensive either?a portable device can take you only so far. It may get you off the ground but it won?t reach the stratosphere.

One of the more pernicious effects of the iPod is that iPod-compatible docking systems may be hastening the move away from high-end systems. Sure, the iPod Hi-Fi is a great substitute for a boombox, or even for a mini-system, but I wouldn?t let it become my whole source of nourishment. That would be sort of like living on pizza. It might be really great pizza?personally I prefer to get my pie from Patsy?s in East Harlem, the last coal-fired oven in Manhattan. Sinatra used to have them sent to him in Vegas. It says so in my restaurant guide.

However, as my doctor would be the first to say, an all-pizza diet would be fatally unbalanced. He?s happier when I make room for fish and veggies. And I?m happier when I make room for crab cakes or lamb chops or some fabulous limited-edition ravioli, with a nice glass of Riesling or Frascati. That?s what birthdays and dinners with friends are for.

It was a friend, in fact, who hooked me on high-end audio. We were college students and his part-time job was at a hi-fi store. I couldn?t afford a great system in those days, but I got to know what one sounded like, and the one I did have would still sound quite good by today?s standards. Getting into sound was a logical extension of getting into music.

When you have a closer relationship with music, you listen to it differently. You?re more likely to give it your full attention so that it penetrates deep into your heart. You might even stop using it as background noise. Halfhearted listening isn?t good enough for me. Given a choice between iffy sound and silence, I?ll choose silence every time.

Sure, I use my iPod, but mainly on planes, where I can give it my undivided attention. When I?m standing in line at the supermarket, I don?t mind being alone with my thoughts. On the street, I prefer to be sensitive to what?s going on around me. Later, when I get back in front of my system, whatever time I spend with it can be relaxing or intense?but never apathetic.

One admitted contradiction in my basic message is that I?m into home theater, which is the union of video and audio. In the golden olden days it was easy to find room for two speakers, amp, and turntable. Now we have to coordinate the sweet spot with a plasma and a 5.1- (or God forbid, 7.1-) channel surround system. That takes a little more work. Which is why I relish the Era speakers in my 2.1-channel desktop system. They?re positioned to generate a good soundstage from virtually location in my living room.

Is high-end audio dying? No, I think it?ll always be around to a greater (preferably) or lesser degree. But you, pal?you?re not going to be around forever. If you?re young and healthy and have two good ears, find out what a great audio system sounds like.

Mark Fleischmann is the audio editor of Home Theater and the author of Practical Home Theater (http://www.quietriverpress.com/).

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