Thursday, February 03, 2005

What is "high-end" audio?

The rule in consumer electronics is that products are designed to meet a specific price point. What does this entail? Simple, compromised performance as product has to be designed with principle of sales price minus distribution channel margin minus manufacturing costs.

High-end products, on the contrary, are designed by principle of "cost+". In other words, high-end products cannot be designed, manufactured, and sold for any less without compromising performance. The HE- products push the prevailing technology envelope, i.e. at the time the product is announced it is the manufacturer's best and ultimate effort given the current technology know-how and state-of-the-art components.

As technology and innovation advance, then what constituted “high-end” or "reference" 3 years ago tends to be found in mid range equipments, to benefit of all users. This is called as commercialization of technology or spill-over effect. Point being that audiophiles ultimately are part of R&D efforts (financing it as early adopters!) of hifi industry.

Audiophiles also enhance mass-market innovation from other perspective. There's a basic rule that explains the audiophile's role in the audio food chain: the mass market accepts and then audiophiles perfect. What does that mean? Take any open media (CD, vinyl), for example. Whenever global media companies managed to agree upon new media standard with an open architecture, then audiophile hardware companies take industry’s base line design and then constantly improve hardware. It has taken over 20 years to make CD listenable, and still today vinyl hardware performance is pushed way beyond what anybody thought would be possible. On the contrary, SACD and DVD-A being closed architectures (no digital out!) audiophile community cannot provide the same improvements as with open architectures (note what both Meridian and dCS have done with their proprietary, decrypted interfaces in order to improve sound of DVD-A and SACD, respectively).

Nevertheless, there are always people out there challenging the whole notion of high-end. Without going into their motives (most often pure envy – cannot afford) we all should ask whether the passion that drives the development of cutting-edge products should be tempered by cost-consciousness so as not to offend the sensibilities of those who cannot afford the best? Can you see a car enthusiast objecting to BMW creating EURO 100.000 M6?

From the text and arguments above one could easily come to the conclusion that HE-audio is elitist and price-driven: who has the most expensive HE-gear wins. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Actually, to the notion that aim of HE-audio is reproduction of (acoustic) music at home with the highest possible fidelity we should always add within the listener's given audio budget. Of course entry-level equipment fall far short of what HE-system can re-create, but that's missing the point. Hifi is also about mentality (trying to get best available sound for a given budget through careful system building) and ultimately, enjoying the music. There are melomanes (music lovers) and audiophiles (who love their system more than music), and you can be both within any given budget. However, it's the melomane audiophile, which passionately builds his/her HE-system and constantly seeks ways to enjoy music more, aiming to the highest possible fidelity to original recording and acoustic space.

The passion and compulsion to create state-of-the art products, which take us all closed to the original (acoustic) music is fundamental for high-end hifi. If you don’t want to experience that magic in your listening room, I have this advice to you: pick up other hobby. Or at least, get passioned by something and you'll be suprised how much more your life is enriched.

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