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American Sound of Canada

Retrospective 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 speakers.

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 industry.

#9: High-End Audio Publications
Computers, printers, scanners, software, media storage devices and web presses have revolutionized the publishing industry—one look at today’s 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, 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, and a handful of other sites make buying or selling equipment or software a breeze.

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.
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