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Grover’s Travels: A Swiftian Hi-Fi Experience

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Grover Neville: Early 20’s, graduate of Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Professional Musician and Recording Engineer, and, most importantly, an aspiring audiophile.

David Blumenstein, Dagogo’s International Correspondent, requested that I author a piece detailing, exploring and examining my experiences in the audio industry. I admit to being simultaneously excited and just a wee bit trepidatious. I stand out and apart at Hi-Fi shows given my age and background. On top of everything I dabble in psychoacoustics and acoustical physics. Most folks over the age of 40 will mistakenly refer to me as a Millennial, a rather nondescript blanket term for “those young people,” to which I can equally unfairly refer to them as “those old people.”

My professors at the Conservatory were millennials, so I am not entirely sure where that leaves me. Generation Z comes off sounding like something from a recent zombie movie, but until they come up with something better that’s what I and my contemporaries must endure. Somebody, anybody, come up with a more pleasing blanket term for us.

The genesis of this piece, much like the Phoenix, arose from ongoing conversations with David on the topic of the youth perspective on Hi-Fi as both a hobby and an industry. Seeing as how the hobby can be a largely solitary pursuit, listening in one’s room, one’s inner sanctum and the Hi-Fi shows. Attendees might travel to the show in groups, but once they arrive, it can be pretty much every man for himself. I purposely specified male, as the gender gap is less of a gap and more of a void.

While new to attending Hi-Fi shows, I’ve actually been in the audio industry for some time and have attended my fair share of both hobby and professional shows. In stark contrast, the two could not be any more different. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the supposedly/tragically hip headphone scene.

Having recently attended the CanJam SoCal 2019 headphone show, I attended the promising-sounding seminar entitled The Convergence of Personal Audio, which should/could have been so much better than it was. I consider myself both a two-channel and headphone listener, and while the panelists were up to the task, the moderator resorted to the all too familiar grandstanding upon issues with which they possess but passing familiarity, and all too frequent interruptions of the panelists, with misleading questions and not so thinly veiled demeaning commentaries, the hallmark of two-channel audiophiles in such a situation. Again, the panel provided some valuable insights but they were few and far between for the reasons mentioned above.

Highlighting both the age and perspective chasm, I recall a demo given by Andrew Jones of ELAC at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF) last year. He was queuing up a track and quipped that if he left Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” on continuous repeat the old fogies might not even notice. I chuckled at this, perhaps a bit too loud for my own good, as this utterance did not escape Andrew, who declared we have a young whipper snapper! While he appeared entertained, the rest of the old fogies not so much.

I’ve run rooms where more modern musical selections have chased out older audiophiles­—not my intention at all—and been in rooms where my musical requests, even bog-standard by classical standards, were met with dismissal and haughty derision. By no means a unique situation/experience in my show-going limited experience, but I did and do find it somewhat ironic.

I grew up in a serious audiophile household listening to gear from Vandersteen, McCormack and Creek. I cut my teeth in the headphone world at age thirteen. I went to school and studied music performance, recording technology, and physics. Without self-aggrandizing, it’s not a stretch to say that I probably have a larger musical and technical knowledge-base and more rigorously-trained ears than the average audiophile.

The pro audio shows I attend are different, they are FUN! Old, young, global, and local, we can talk about gear and music interchangeably and have a blast doing so at the same time. There’s even a sort of cautious respect accorded to those music and audio professionals willing to admit their audiophile streak. In essence, a recognition of true dedication to everything sound related.

So where’s the love? Show me the love in the audiophile world. Why all the grumpiness in places where attendees’ livelihoods are even less at stake? Let’s break it down into something somewhat more digestible.

I’m going to go out on a limb here: most Hi-Fi show attendees are older than my dad. Heh, David [Blumenstein] is ancient in comparison, and while he doesn’t give a damn about my hot pink hair and fashion statement wardrobe choices, no doubt his contemporaries and the dinosaurs making him feel young are just not that open-minded. There are three cultural issues at play here:

  1. Traditional audiophiles for the most part simply don’t get (grok) headphones, and with each passing day, each passing show it becomes clearer that this is generational. It is not so much that the old-timers don’t understand or like headphones, but more to the point, video games are a big gateway for younger folks into the world of audio. In further contrast to two-channel’s home-theatre niche, video gaming is a forever growing, changing field in terms of industry standards and, more importantly, audio and sonic production quality, and with that the need for specialized equipment is minimal.
  1. Most video-game audio can be created entirely within the gaming world: spatial out of the box, requiring no specific processing and/or equipment on the part of the end-user apart from a decent pair of headphones. Recently some of the best audio I’ve heard has been in the form of sound-design from within video games. In light of the current VR (virtual-reality) trend, headphones have become crucial for gaming, though some gamers are incorporating desktop audio and, in some instances, high-end audio and home-theatre rigs have infiltrated their worlds. Gaming as the gateway to more traditional audio, who would have thought?
  1. A not too subtle factor is purely physical. Young folks are plainly more active, where sitting indoors listening to speakers is unabashedly sedentary, whereas with headphones and desktop rigs, there exists an implied perception of mobility. The days of LAN parties (carrying your computer and speakers to someone’s house) are over with, distant memories in the rear-view mirror. The prospect of doing the same with a traditional two-channel system is sheer lunacy. Also, with physical fitness and health concerns having increasing cultural value, the appeal of sitting back—not leaning forward—and listening to music is the province of the anachronistic couch potato. It is not so much that today’s youth have an aversion to sonic quality, it’s just that they want to get out and enjoy their lives.

4 Responses to Grover’s Travels: A Swiftian Hi-Fi Experience

  1. Glassmonkey says:

    Awesome post. I agree with almost everything here, but have to say I’ve found the British scene a touch less pretentious on the 2-channel side and not as precocious on the HeadFi side.

  2. Ostap says:

    At last year’s Toronto Audio show I was pleasantly surprised when Audio By Mark Jones agreed to play a track from Oneohtrix Point Never in XRCD format. I also feel it is less of a “generational” thing and more about attitude and open mindedness.

  3. Joe Balke says:

    Old guy here

    This was one of the most self aggrandizing articles I have wasted my time on.

    Keep working on the pink hair. I will avoid future posts by you.

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