He sat there, eyes closed, with an almost beatific expression upon his face as music flooded the demonstration room.
He sat there, brows furrowed, lips curled into a barely-contained sneer as music flooded the demonstration room.
Both men were sitting next to each other, and looking at them you couldn’t help but wonder what it was they were hearing that elicited such markedly different reactions to the same song being played.
Welcome to the world of audiophiles where every cable swap, speaker re-positioning, or pre-amplifier purchase can herald sonic nirvana or aural disappointment – depending on who’s doing the listening. High End in Munich was a show of many firsts for me as I navigated my first European high fidelity event, and undoubtedly the world’s largest gathering of it’s kind. There’s something that happens when you step out of your cultural sweet spot, and sit down in a listening chair 8,500 kilometres from your own – at least something happened to me. I started looking at everything that was going on around me with a fresh set of eyes (and ears) as I took in the massive MOC complex that High End calls home.
I must have visited at least 80 rooms in three days – and this was but a cross-section of what being shown – and I was once again struck by how varied the approaches to specific execution in hifi are by so many. So many types of turntables, tonearms, and cartridge designs all doing the exact same thing: pulling music from a record groove. DACs? Ditto. SACD/CD? Same, same. Speakers? Please. What about cables, isolation platforms/footers, room treatments? Most of these components are designed to do one thing, and do it better than anyone else if you had the time to digest every brochure, advertisement or salesman that trumpets these claims.
While some manufacturers seem to be able to carve the largest niche for themselves in their chosen disciplines due to some shared listening gestalt that happens en masse, all the others seem to be doing quite well too. Millions of audiophiles around the globe, and almost just as many points of view on what sounds right, true, accurate, musical. How do they know? Is it just a natural inclination that one gravitates towards a certain type of sound, or method of recorded playback? The fact that you could most likely have as many different answers to the question of “how does the system sound?” as people that are listening to it is problematic to say the least. But it is the engine that ceaselessly drives this business. Is anyone more right than another in their opinion of what constitutes great sound, or great gear?
Do sales matter? Number of units moved? What price point should we give the most credence to in defining “popular,” or “the best?” $1,000? $20,000? $250,000? Should these parameters be arbiters of both taste, and proper appreciation? Does a system have to cost more to truly be better?
I’m not sure I have an answer, but I do believe in the law of diminishing returns on high-fidelity investment. As someone who earns a living writing about their personal experiences listening to music I do find it odd at times that anyone listens to me. I could just as easily be the man with the smile, or the sneer during a listening session. It’s up to you to decide if you agree with me, disagree with me, or are somewhere in the middle.