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/).

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Computing

Nvidia’s new GPUs look amazing, but that doesn’t mean you should buy one

Nvidia's GeForce 2080 is a powerful graphics card that supports ray tracing to deliver real-time cinematic renderings of shadows, light, and reflection in games, but unless you were already planning on upgrading, you'll probably want to…
Music

Bolster your HD music catalog with the best high-res audio sites

Music connoisseurs relish HD audio, but scouring the web for all the best streaming and downloading sites can be a pain. Luckily, we've done the work for you. Check out our list, and let the high-resolution good times roll.
Home Theater

How to buy speakers: A beginner’s guide to home audio

From the difference between bookshelf speakers and monitors to the proper way to audition, our ultimate speaker buying guide has all the information you need to create your own home audio nirvana.
Home Theater

Make your vinyl collection really shine with one of the best phono preamps

Whether you're looking for a quick fix to set up your first turntable or a long-term audio upgrade for higher-quality sound, here are the best phono preamps you can buy that won't empty out your wallet.
Home Theater

Learn how to calibrate your home theater speakers for sheer audio bliss

Make your home theater rumble just right with our manual speaker setup guide, a simple, step-by-step walkthrough to getting the most from your audio equipment without needing to rely on imperfect automatic calibration.
Wearables

New Wear OS smartwatches have arrived! Here’s why you shouldn’t buy them

The likes of Skagen and Diesel have unveiled new Wear OS smartwatches at IFA 2018. You shouldn't buy them, because they're utilizing an old processor. Qualcomm is expected to announce a new wearable processor next month.
Movies & TV

Bored with Netflix? As it goes global, the selection is about to explode

Netflix is going global. And even if you never leave step foot outside America, you should be excited. More subscribers abroad means more original, diverse content, and plenty to watch when House of Cards gets stale.
Home Theater

8K is the next big thing in TVs. Get over it

8K is the next big thing in TV. At least, that’s how LG, Samsung, Sony, and Sharp would have it. At IFA 2018, Samsung announced it would begin shipping its gorgeous Q900R series series 8K TVs this year. LG arrived with a glorious 88-inch…
Features

Opinion: Apple needs to modernize its antiquated annual app update routine

While Google updates its core Android apps frequently through the Play Store, Apple saves up core app updates for its annual iOS unveiling. Perhaps it’s time that Apple took a new approach.
Photography

Canon and Nikon’s new mirrorless cameras impress. Should Sony start worrying?

Canon’s EOS R and Nikon’s Z mirrorless systems are coming out of the gate strong, incorporating features that took Sony years to implement and refine. But Sony still has a lead, and may have it for some time.
Mobile

XS Max? XR? Apple’s new iPhone names are a confusing mess

Apple's new iPhone range has the most baffling set of names we've seen in a while, and it's not good news. The phones may be great, but the confusing names shift away from the one brand name everyone knows.
Apple

OPINION: Apple’s new iPhones show off its best tech, and also its greed

We’re just as enamored by the new iPhones as the next person, but with fast charging an extra cost and the removal of the headphone dongle it feels like Apple is gouging us on accessories.
Smart Home

The Google Home Hub doesn’t have a camera. Here’s why that’s a good thing

Bucking the smart display trend, Google's new $149 Home Hub smart display surprisingly doesn't have a camera. We think a camera-less Google smart speaker with a screen is a good thing, and here's why.
Mobile

It’s the phone equivalent of a Bentley. So why does the Pixel 3 look like a VW?

Google has got 100-percent of the Pixel 3's specification and technology right, so we're annoyed that it only got 50-percent of the design right. In a year of fabulous-looking phones, this is a problem.