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Sex, Drugs and Letters to the Editor

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by Josh Ray on January 27 '06

  Issue23 Images Ipodweed
If the response to my article "Sex, Drugs and High-End Audio" is any indication, there's massive interest in seeing high-end audio flipped on its head, not to mention massive frustration with the big dogs in the audio establishment. Reader Matt sent in a great letter with a number of thoughts about what's wrong with this industry and ways to fix the problems. Click [read full article] to check it out:

Hey Josh,

I was thinking a lot about the subject of you article, even before reading it today. I am an unashamed audio geek in my twenties. However, I have a girlfriend, lots of friends and I like to party. In other words, I don't think I really conform to the stereotype of the typical, white guy audiophile. I do think there are ways to attract new blood into the hobby, but it's going to require a lot of changes in an industry basically dominated by a bunch of old guys.

I'm a film editor by trade and I guess years of calibrating monitors and tweaking things to look and sound their best helped breed my love of high end sound. Mostly though, I love music and I have thousands of albums (mostly vinyl). I have an iPod (well, two really) but I listen to all my music in lossless codecs. Anyway, here's some humble thoughts on why high end audio sucks:

Most reviewers and sales people listen to shitty music : I've gone to the opera twice and fallen asleep both times. I enjoy some classical, but very rarely. Mostly, I like music that rocks and I don't limit myself to any genres. I listen to everything; freak folk, minimal techno, punk, noise, dub, classic rock, etc. Most reviewers stick to classical and nobody my age cares. With all due respect, its time to spin some tunes that are more relevant. Not everyone cares about realism and "hearing the hall." Hell, even synthesizers sound better on high end systems, let's embrace music that isn't "realistic." When I go into a store, most sales folk put on some awful mid tempo dad rock. Yes, it's well recorded, but its also lame. Ditto for those horrible world music discs that showcase your subwoofer so well. I've learned my lesson and bring a crate of vinyl with me when I audition something. People won't care about your equipment unless they feel it can bring something to the music they like. The one audiophile store I go to in my town sells great vinyl from labels I like, Merge, Drag City, Dischord, Kill Rock Stars, etc, and because of that they've won my trust and business.

This hobby ain't cheap : The fact is, most people will never be able to afford $2000 for a CD player, let alone $500. That being said, there are ways to make the hobby more affordable. When Sony debuted their betacam tape format (the professional one, not to be confused with betamax). They were up against a number of other formats, like MII, from Panasonic. Betacam won the format war, and became ubiquitous in every post production house in the world. It wasn't because it was technically much superior (although it was very good), it was because Sony offered great financing options. People could buy a $50 000 deck without a loan and begin to earn right away, paying back in monthly payments with the money they were making using the gear. Perhaps some kind of generous financing strategies could help the industry? Credit card interest rate is insane. Why not offer you customers zero interest payment plans so they could enjoy the gear and pay it back like they would their internet bill?

Most audiophile magazines are full of shit : I've had sales people I trust tell me flat out that they know many reviewers who admit to not even opening the boxes containing there review samples they write about. Stereophile lists $2000-$3000 equipment in their "budget" components (maybe they've gone even higher?). Most publications suffer from bad layout, photography or editing. The music reviews are almost always horrible. The industry needs a relevant, contemporary publication that is first and foremost about music and secondly about the gear. It also needs braver people who are willing to call bullshit on all the cronyism and hucksterism in the business. We need to hear more from people enjoying music on their systems. I'm sure there are lots of musicians and celebrities who are into good gear, let's interview them. Many of us listen to a lot of music in our cars, why not ask the question if it is possible to have enjoyable, hi-fi sound while you are driving? (maybe it's impossible, but it is worth trying). Great tunes bring you into life and so should great gear. It shouldn't lock you away in a listening room somewhere. I'd also like to hear concert reviews where the reviewer talks about room acoustics or the mix. Great shows can be ruined by crappy sound. I'd like to know about where the best venues are to see a band.

The industry needs a reality check: I recently read an article online which claimed that cables make no difference to the sound of your system:

Audioholics article

This article cites some studies that show that people tend to hear what they expect, in other words, if they figure that a more expensive cable will be better, than their subjective listening will confirm that. Of course, the article failed to mention that if people expect a cheap cable and a very expensive one to sound the same, they'll probably find a way to hear NO differences! I disagreed with the article because I CAN hear the differences between two cables, but when you read crazy, hyperbole laden reviews of expensive cables, you understand why people cry bullshit. Have you ever read a review that admits that two products are basically the same? Or a review that admits that a more expensive loaner is worse than the cheaper unit they own? At best, they'll say it is "different." I'd like to see some courageous reviewers actually try some blind listening tests.

There are too many product lines: I know magazines generally review products they like, but maybe more negative reviews might help the business. There certainly is no shortage of manufacturers out there and if some bad press kills off a few companies, all the better. Right now you could go to every audiophile store in a major city and barely scratch the surface of what's out there. I don't think this is a good thing. Brand saturation makes things pretty overwhelming for the beginner. Not to mention the fact that I've never read a review where the critic's system is anything like mine. How can I judge their opinions? Sales of "separate" components are tanking. Its time to purge all this overpriced, mediocre junk from the market.

Its too hard to get a home audition. In my experience, lots of sales staff balk when you ask them to take something home. How can I judge a piece of gear when it is being driven by a turntable 10x the price of mine and a tube amp 20x the price? Retailers need to make it easier and even encourage folks to try gear in their home systems.

In general, we need to take things down off their pedestal. When my girlfriend turns on the TV, she expects to hear sound, not to have to call me so I can explain that I swapped out some cables I've been re-soldering and that she needs to follow a simple five step procedure to get the damn thing working again. Most magazines and products pitch themselves towards a realm so far removed from life, no wonder most would be readers are alienated. For me, some of my best listening is done when I invite some buddies over, we guzzle booze and rock tunes all night. That's where the hearts and minds of the new audience is, not in some $1500 dollar isolation feet.

Best,

Matt

Comments

This is fantastic stuff Josh. And Matt’s response was great too. Looking forward to more articles and responses. Similarly to what you have been saying, if great sounding gear that’s cool to look at (important!), can hit the price point between say $400 and $2000 (the price range between a new Xbox 360 and Apple MacBook Pro for example) for an entire sound system, then the iPod generation would be game. I would really hope this to be true... I would wager that the style of the components will be more important than the sound quality. I have lots of gear flowing through my system as I review for Dagogo.com. 9 out of 10 visitors remark on the looks of the gear first and have trouble hearing the subtle qualities that would distinguish this gear (pricey in comparison) from mainstream mid-fi. High-end audio equipment manufacturers need to create whole systems in the price range mentioned above and concentrate as much if not more on look then on absolute sound quality. I am positive a great audio company’s lowest-end sound efforts will noticeably sound better than mid-fi home-theater drivel. The appeal of Apple products, the Sony PSP, The Razr cell phone, Flat-screen TV’s... are as much (if not more) about style (and trend) as quality. What are some examples of companies making high-end audio gear... whole systems even better, who are truly creating physical product designs that equal the cool chic of the iPod? Perhaps Sonos: http://www.sonos.com/ .Firestone Audio makes some neat small hip components, but no speakers: http://www.firestone-audio.com .Eclipse makes some cool speakers with a beautiful dedicated amplifier: http://www.eclipse-td.com/e07_307/index.html .And a company named Olive makes a sleek looking CD player that combines a hard drive and wireless transmission... That’s a smart technology bundle in a cool looking unit (no amp or speakers though): http://www.olive.us .What others? So price range, style, ease-of-use, fun, and a way to create a trend, hi-fi as a trend. Maybe that’s part of the plan?
I agree with every word but I have to point out that this very case keeps being brought up. Ever since I've been reading hifi magazines and buying equipment this is a frequent complaint. A similar 'attack' is made by those older and more conservative than the bulk of hifi sales staff and reviewers (many of whom used to be sales staff). I think one definite improvement would be music shops that sell equipment and vice-versa while still providing proper listening facilities. I hope this time your rallying call will be heard. It just takes a few high profile mainstream voices to take it up and keep repeating it long term. I think that's happening with quality headphones and the shift in music away from the major labels. Jeremy Close
Sandy, you're absolutely right about style's dominance over pure sonic qualities. People have to live with this stuff because who the hell has a dedicated listening room anyway? There needs to be movement made in this middle ground between the high-end and Bose. Now that I think about it, we should have some kind of strong push towards near-field listening, which is where the vast majority of fresh blood will come into the game. Computer-based 2.1 systems done right. It's out there, just not taken seriously. And, Jeremy, I like your idea about music shops selling gear. Unfortunately, music shops in general have been closing their doors at an alarming rate. Maybe Apple stores should start carrying hi-fi gear. I should look into that... The real issue in all of this is simply getting people to believe that, yes, they will hear a difference. Recently trying to boil the whole problem down to a friend, I explained that the hifi industry is obsessed with the last 5% of performance. If Bose is the first 5%, there's hardly anything being done in that giant 90% area between the two extremes. There's equipment in that price range, but it's still perceived as tweaky stuff only people with hyper sensitive ears can appreciate. And, yes, headphones are doing all kinds of good business, really showing that a high-end industry can make movement with the average joe. Of course, headphones are dead simple while matching components is a major pain in the ass...
In Australia most physical sales of music are at stores which also sell hardware the music-only store is a dying breed - most sell DVD movies first and CDs second. But the stores that sell hardware along with music do not allow demos (of music or hardware) and are either just barns flogging boxes at cheap prices or department stores. The flipside of this is (in Adelaide at least) every hifi store will have at least two different SACD/DVD-A players yet only two stores have any of the discs to demonstrate. (also true for turntables and LPs)The SonyCentral stores were instructed NOT to stock music. This Sony Music/SCE rivalry has done a lot to harm the image of the quality music (hardware and software) industry and unfortunately those hardware firms with their own labels (Linn, Naim etc) do not get their music into the general music stores. Manufacturers, stores, and some magazines for that matter, need to realize that consumers need both the music AND the hardware and history shows they'll follow the music whether that leads to the local concert hall or to illegal downloads and buy hardware that supports that. Jeremy Close