I felt small.
I’m six-foot-two-inches tall, but making your way around The High End Show at the colossal MOC in Munich can be a humbling experience in spatial ratios. While some system set ups were of the manageable living-room size, many were of the gargantuan variety that would require dedicated listening rooms, and a most tolerant family, spouse or partner to accommodate: the Silbatone room would require a separate home.
The throaty roar that these altars to high fidelity were constantly being summoned to release rumbled, and reverberated throughout the building from hall to hall like thunder, and had show attendees lined up 10-deep in some rooms to experience this aural thrill that 99% of us can only hear at shows like High End.
This got me thinking about conversations with some audiophiles I’ve spoken with, or heard from who are openly condemning, or questioning the veracity of large, megabuck systems as being “removed from reality.” I for one absolutely respect, and endorse this pursuit for large-scale playback, and a cost-no-object approach to research & development of ultimate hifi reproduction. I liken it to science, and medical developments: without pure research there is no growth or fundamental progress. Think about areas like loudspeaker enclosures, amplification circuit-pathway optimization, driver materials, tonearm design, resistor construction, DAC architecture – these are some of the foundations to what all the music being played in the world is predicated upon, without it things would get quiet very quickly for many of us.
To do this research, to build, develop, and implement new technology, or optimize, and update old technology takes money, usually lots of it, and if you want to pursue the ultimate in sound – or anything for that matter, be it automobiles, watches, art, wine, etc. – it takes deep pockets, and a passion to acquire the best. “But what about the rest of us?” I’ve been asked, those whose pockets may not be five zeroes deep? There are more affordable systems than ever in reach to audiophiles, or music-loving consumers, but that shouldn’t make anyone dismiss the high end or vilify it in my opinion.
Without these ubër sound systems that shake the foundations of high fidelity with their audacious watt production, stygian bass, python-thick cabling, ostentatious polished gold chassis, 20-layer deep gloss wood finishes, and mirrored-chrome fascias I firmly believe there would be far fewer mid-priced or budget products that sound as great as they do. It’s the trickle-down theory to me. And while I don’t think it works at all in economics, I think it’s the basis for true growth in high fidelity, and not just recycled designs with a few shiny bits tacked on.
Please continue to check back as we publish daily updates from Munich, and enjoy the photo gallery of big systems from Friday at High End.
Rafe, what was your favorite system and why?
It’s hard for me to say (as a non-industry-insider) just how much of this tech trickles down. Though I’m sure that *some* of it does. But even if it doesn’t, even if these big systems are just alters to their own ultimate performance (and/or excess) so what? I have never understood the absolute a**holes in this “hobby” that seem to just live to dump on other peoples’ passion. Even if I never own (for example) a pair of MBL X-treme speakers or a Berkeley Reference DAC, I think that the fact that gifted designers like Juergen Reis or Pflash Pflaumer have the opportunity to push themselves and their art as far as they can is awesome and exciting. I equally think that some lucky audiophiles get to live with and listen to these masterpieces is just as awesome, even if those lucky ones are not me. Why… in… the… world would I (try and) make myself feel better about my circumstances by making them feel worse for chasing their dreams? Sure, some of the ultra-systems I’ve heard don’t seem to justify their mega-buck price tags (indeed, some have sounded downright terrible), but value-for-money, is a completely different issue from the “out-of-touch-ism” upon which Mr. Arnott touches.
The fact that a maxed out Tidal rig can weigh in at well over half a million dollars doesn’t make your safe-n-sane rig sound any worse. Not any more than a Richard Mille RM 56-02’s existence will cause your Zenith (or, indeed, Patek) keep any worse time. Or that a Porsche 918 will make your Prius any less of a car. Indeed, I know of no other (admittedly, “luxury”) industry (as Mr. Arnott says, “automobiles, watches, art, wine, etc.”) other than audio where there is a significant and vocal haters section that seems to do nothing more than hurl invective at those producing the aspirational products that drive so much of the fun and excitement in ours (and, indeed, any other) industry.
If you don’t want to buy a Nordost Odin power chord, here’s an idea: don’t. If someone else wants to (or, indeed, if Nordost has the temerity to actually produce such a thing), here’s another idea: don’t worry about it. For those who seem to be unable to do either, here’s one last idea: screw ’em.
In general, scientific advances “trickle down.” The best examples are computers and NASA. However, I am not sure that “trickle down” applies to high-end audio. Very few of the companies that develop and patent new audio technologies also make budget-conscious systems. The two universes do not seem to overlap.