||20 Years of High End by Myles Astor
|Thirty years ago, a recent college
graduate walked into Audio Exchange, a high-end audio retailer then located
on 8th Street in the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village. Until then,
this music lover only had heard the likes of audio equipment stocked by
Tech Hi-Fi, and nothing could have prepared him for the sensory kaleidoscope
ahead. It was love at first listen. Never had he heard reproduced sound
like that! Eager to learn more about high-end audio, he left the store
with a copy of the then fledgling audio publication, The Absolute Sound
(Issue No. 9—and he still has it!) in his pocket. Oh, by the way,
the high-end system that launched him on the quest for the Holy Grail
was a then state-of-the-art audio set-up consisting of a Linn LP-12 turntable,
and Audio Research tube electronics driving a pair of original Quad ESL
As they say, the rest is history. This poor cancer lab technician, earning
all of $8,800 per year, scrimped and saved many, many jars of pennies,
eventually purchasing some used high-end gear. His first audio music rig
consisted of Dahlquist DQ-10 speakers, a modded Hafler DH200 amplifier
and 101 preamplifier and a Rega Model 3 turntable equipped with a JVC 7045
arm (with adjustable VTA!) and an AudioQuest cartridge.
Much has changed in both this audiophile’s life and in high-end audio
over the last 20 years. Both have matured and grown wiser with age and
both continue to always look for new areas to explore. The high-end audio
industry has gone from being a group of small entrepreneurs building equipment
on kitchen tables to real companies replete with factories, P&L statements
and marketing arms. Consumers have gone from being Beta testers to knowing
that the equipment they buy won’t blow up.
As one reflects back on these 20 years, it’s clear that certain
events helped shape the course of high-end audio as we know it at this
moment in time. Some of these events are truly positive; others, not
so. The balance of these events is what has determined the present state-of-affairs
of high-end audio and includes some of the following historical occurrences.
#10: Failure of the Academy for the Advancement of High-End Audio (AAHEA)
A golden opportunity to promote and popularize high-end audio was frittered
away by the manufacturers. Originally the idea of Harry Pearson, founder
of The Absolute Sound magazine, AAHEA was formed in large part to gain
high-end audio recognition within the electronics industry, most notably
CES and EIA (in part because, at that time, CES was considering eliminating
high-end audio from its electronics shows). While high-end audio garnered
some degree of respect within EIA, AAHEA also failed miserably at gaining
market share within the consumer electronics market. For instance, why
the industry couldn’t host its own high-end show
instead of relying on a magazine escapes many to this day. The answer most
often given: High-End manufacturers didn’t have the expertise and
resources to host a consumer show. Sorry, but if Stereophile could produce
high-end shows (with a couple of bumps along the way), so could the high-end
#9: High-End Audio Publications
Computers, printers, scanners, software, media storage devices and
web presses have revolutionized the publishing industry—one look at
newsstands reveals how modern publishing techniques have allowed magazines
to proliferate. As a result of these technological advances, printing
costs have dropped dramatically. Given these technological advances,
the layout of many high-end audio magazines appears to continue to be
downright amateurish with graphics that are borderline unreadable. For
example, the inappropriate use of kerning (squeezing letters together)
and ledding (the space between lines) to shoehorn articles into an issue
is out of control (thank goodness we’ve worked past using 20 different
type styles on a page!). Of course, the competition for market-share
has become stiff. The tremendous costs involved in running, assembling,
designing and printing a small, hobbyist audio magazine have paved the
way significantly for less expensive, internet-based, virtual magazines.
Sending hard copy to the printer
is but a distant memory. Gone too, it seems, is the enthusiasm of the
early days. In its stead: an industry-wide pervasive negativity and unhealthy
skepticism. Magazine publishing is now a real business, as it must be,
but where is the love of labor high-end audio publishing should be? (Ed.
Note: You’re holding it, dear reader!).
#8: Failure to Preserve the History of the High-End Audio Industry
This is simply an inexplicable mistake. High-end audio is replete with
a wonderful, rich history, full of fascinating, quirky and brilliant
individuals and stories. Save for the occasional book such as Ken Kessler’s history
of Quad, our industry’s history remains largely an oral tradition.
Sadly, the founders and leaders of high-end audio aren’t getting
any younger and unless something is done soon, much of high-end audio’s
history will be lost forever. Those who forget the past…
#7: Vinyl Record Reissues
Without a doubt, Classic Records, Analogue Productions, Speakers Corner,
Cisco Music and a handful of other record labels (and even some of the
major labels but not necessarily for altruistic reasons) single-handedly
rescued the analog turntable business from the brink of oblivion. The
original vs. reissue sonic debate aside, these companies have done their
best with the sources available and not only preserved but discovered
many excellent recordings that would never have seen the light of day
on CD. To boot, they’ve also issued recordings of new artists and
all at reasonable cost.
#6: Quality of Audio Parts
No list of events tracing the history of high-end audio over the past
20 years is complete without mentioning the seminal works of Jung and
Curl on capacitors. Their in-depth research into dielectric absorption
not only resulted in successive new generations of audiophile grade capacitors
(an entire mini-industry unto itself today), but also a complete reassessment
of the effect on a product’s sound of passive parts inside every
electronic component or speaker. Today in high-end audio, every part
in and out of the circuit, including resistors, diodes, capacitors, wires,
soldering technique, volume controls, circuit board construction, passive
parts used in power supplies, connectors and chassis resonances, is carefully
selected so as to optimize sonic quality.
#5: Equipment Prices
Guess I’m starting to sound like my parents! Twenty years or so ago,
I was hemming and hawing over the purchase of my first high-end audio interconnect,
the Super Litz MF-1, for the then unheard of price of $47! Later on, Grado
raised the industry’s and consumer’s eyebrows alike when
he released a transducer topping the $600 price point. To show how much
things have changed in the last 20 years, SOTA cable and cartridge prices
now top $10,000 and electronics and turntables are close to or over $100K.
On the plus side, the performance of some current inexpensive high-end
audio products tops what was considered state-of-the-art 20 years ago.
#4: Home Theater
Competitor or adjunct to high-end audio? The verdict is still out. Home
theater has yet to achieve the promised convergence of auditory and visual
senses for music reproduction. Unfortunately in the vast majority of home
theater systems, musical realism takes a back seat to the spectacular and
the sensational. Well then, at least audio companies are selling more channels,
wire and speakers.
#3: The Internet
Every industry has been touched by the internet—and high-end audio
is no exception. Where does one start? One could begin with how the internet
has created a worldwide community of audiophiles who exchange pleasantries
on forums such as audioasylum.com, individual websites or audio blogs.
Then there’s the speed of information dissemination through individual
websites or audio blogs (of course, there’s always the downside
of malcontents and trolls stalking the ethernet). Finally, Ebay, audiogon.com
and a handful of other sites make buying or selling equipment or software
On the business end, equipment manufacturers’ websites offer everything
from information and specs on current product lines to a product history
to the ability to download equipment owner’s manuals. On the magazine
side, the internet has, for better or worse, opened the door to a new generation
of virtual high-end audio magazines. Allowing for greater and more diverse
viewpoints, these magazines still haven’t realized their ultimate
goal—bringing a review to fruition much more quickly than print
magazines. The bottleneck for both bricks and mortar and virtual magazines
is still the time needed to properly review a piece of audio gear.
#2: The Absolute Sound magazine
This is the magazine that gave rise to the modern era of high-end audio.
This is the magazine that introduced the world to then unknown audio
manufacturers such as Audio Research, conrad-johnson, Mark Levinson (the
man), Infinity, VPI, Magnepan, etc. (as well as many that folded, remaining
forever part of the history of high-end audio). The original The Absolute
Sound, affectionately known to its readership as TAS, set the standard,
especially during its Golden Years in the ’80s, by which all other magazines were judged.
In its heyday, TAS, guided by the vision of the intrepid Harry Pearson,
resonated with an unbridled enthusiasm, a sense of adventure and appreciation
of music. Could another magazine recapture TAS’s early visions and
success? The answer is as simple and complex as this: Time and place are
just as important as the idea when it comes to hitting a home run. That
time may be at hand again….
#1: Digital Recording
Not a lot needs to be said here. For better or worse, the advent of digital
recording technology has revolutionized the recording, music and high-end
audio industries. There’s the ease of use. No more pops and ticks.
The iPod. Music on the go. Downloadable music. The ability to do home recordings.
Upsampling. What’s the next digital frontier? Almost certainly
in the near future, at least, the use of server-based music systems.