I almost "collect" favorite writers, like I collect pictures or records. I have favorite writers in many fields I'm interested in. Fred Kaplan, who is one of my favorite writers on music, recently held forth on Slate in an interesting and characteristically cogent defense of audiophilia.
What's audiophilia? Basically, the hobby of putting together expensive stereo systems, ostensibly but not always primarily for music-listening. As usual, Fred gets off to a vivid launch:
Nearly 25 years ago, I walked into a "high-end audio" store for the first time. I intended to write an article exposing the enterprise—$10,000 amplifiers, $5,000 turntables, and the like—as a fraud. Could this souped-up gear sound that much better than mass-market stuff at one-tenth the price?
After a few seconds of listening, my agenda—and really, my life—took a new direction. I'd never imagined that recorded music could sound so good, so real. The difference between the mass-market stereos I'd been hearing up to then and the high-end gear I heard now was the difference between bodega swill and Lafite-Rothschild, between a museum-shop poster and an oil painting, between watching a porn film and having sex.
I'm glad Fred had that epiphany lo these many years ago (he and I are the same age) because I've enjoyed his writings for a long time—his writings on music, primarily, but sound too.
I'm not sanguine about the "high-end" industry, however. Its problem, I think, was touched upon in an essay by economist Paul Samuelson in NEWSWEEK about, of all things, beef. Samuelson noted that America's decline in beef consumption was always put down to rising awareness of health issues (this was back in the "fats are bad" days, before the "carbs are bad" craze). Nonsense, he asserted, noting that America's consumption of virtually everything else that was unhealthy, from sugar to cocaine, had gone up in the same time period.
Performing a more subtle analysis, he proposed that beef consumption had actually declined for two converging reasons: 1) it was too expensive, and 2) it was an unreliable product in terms of quality. People like beef, but they like good beef. When you pay $20 for a steak that turns out to be inedibly tough and flavorless, it does tend to put a damper on consumption (in both senses of the word!).
The same is true of audio, in my opinion. In my adult lifetime (and Fred's) we've seen "acceptable" and "average" prices for audio components rise tenfold, if not twenty-fold—far outpacing inflation. When the two magazines he mentions straightfacedly "recommend" things like $15,000 interconnect cables, $60,000 amplifiers, and $125,000 pairs of speakers, we're in a realm that has little to do with sound...degrees of "proximity to the music" be hanged. It makes the prices we pay for rare prizes in our field, like the Canon EOS 1D Mk. III and the Canon iPG5500 pigment printer, look paltry in comparison. Twenty years ago I bought a pair of speakers that one writer called "very expensive for a small speaker"—for a price that would land them into the "affordable" (maybe even "budget") category today. A healthy percentage of the individual components reviewed by Stereophile and The Absolute Sound exceed the average cost of their own readers' entire systems!
But even this might not put a damper on the industry, if it reliably delivered on its promises. It doesn't. The fact remains that you can spend $5,000, $10,000, even $50,000 on a stereo system that just doesn't sound very good (I know, I used to install them). That's the industry's real problem. I can count the number of truly good systems I've ever heard on my fingers and toes, with digits left over, and among them there was only a faint, fugitive correspondence to cost—I've heard really expensive systems that sounded like crap and, less commonly, inexpensive systems that sounded very much like music. In any case, spending $2,500 for an amplifier that sounds good only under certain conditions, hums, and ends up breaking (sadly, I'm describing a real-life experience), is analogous to that inedible $20 steak. It will indeed tend to drive people into the waiting arms of MP3 downloads, hard drive storage, computer speakers, and iPods....
...Because once bitten, twice shy. "Audiophilia" is complicated and expensive. The time it takes to learn enough to put together a good system is excessive. Dealers are few and far between, and good dealers are an order of magnitude more rare. It's laughably expensive; the rewards are uncertain, the value for money potentially wretchedly low, and the possibility of totally wasting large sums of money is regrettably very real.
I've tried hard to wean myself away from the audio hobby. Most recently, my ambition has been to switch over to a hard-drive and powered-speaker system based around my computer, and shed my "big rig," which rarely gets fired up any more. But although I do 80% of my listening sitting by the computer (sometimes I wonder if what I'm really doing with my days is actually blogging, or if blogging is just an excuse to sit and listen to music), I can't quite bring myself to jettison the big system. Maybe the day is coming, but it's not quite here yet.
Fred and I agree that great jazz through a great system is worth the cost and hassle. Obviously, though, to a lot of people it's not—and, unfortunately, that makes perfect sense.
Copyright 2007 by Michael C. Johnston—All Rights Reserved
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