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Joy of High-end Audio: the many flavors of Kool Aid

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Publisher’s note: This article was published originally in the Offical Directory of the 3rd (2012) California Audio Show.

I hear tell that Stereo or two-channel stereo is really “Old School”. After all, we have discovered everything that needs to be discovered about attaining that perfect balance of sonic virtues that we each uniquely consider optimal stereo sound. Haven’t we?

Those of us that grew up with stereo and the HiFi medium probably thought the same way about mono. The fact is that by and large, recorded music tends to sound best in the native format in which it was recorded, analog-digital, mono-stereo, etc. Sure, there’s the audio version of the “colorize” process that spread like cancer in the film industry for a while, but it didn’t take very long for people to realize that colorizing a classic is simply wrong and fundamentally changes the significance of the work. Many of us are revolted by the notion that a work of art can be “Revised”. Some embrace the change and call it a new work of art and not simply a revision of the old. Perhaps that is the best compromise. So what does this have to do with High-End two-channel audio?

Stereo high-end as we know it has been around for nearly half a century. During that time, many of us took it on as a hobby and have drunk deep into what the hobby had, and continues, to have to offer. Many of us take for granted that there are certain standards in speakers, amplifiers, turntables, phono cartridges, tonearms, etc. that have emerged over so many years that are virtually engrained into our psyche that these are “the best ever made” or the “state-of-the-art”. Our system goals are based upon that comfortable knowledge that once we hit that end game and obtain one of those standards in our homes, we can finally say, “I’m done! I’ve got the best. There is nothing more to do or buy.” It’s a nice, comfortable, and happy place with no moving targets and therefore a static state-of-the-art.

…and then I woke up.

We can be such a delusional and close-minded bunch. (And happy. -Pub.) Sometimes we don’t even realize just how closed we are to change, or new ideas, until it walks into our lives and smacks us around to wake us up. Some of us are fortunate to have the resources to hit that pinnacle of audio contentment fairly early in life. We become complacent with the fact that when we made our purchases, we were consciously buying what we subjectively considered the best attainable in absolute terms or within our respective budgets. Years come and go and we still have that same level of enjoyment and satisfaction out of our systems that we did when we first built it. Over time, we develop these stereotypes and compartmentalize the “Absolute Truths” in terms of audio playback and we shut out anything new or different as irrelevant because we heard something like it 10 years ago and we didn’t like it back then, so what’s the point of trying it out now? For anyone on the outside looking in, that seems ridiculous, but in actuality it happens to all of us to one degree or another. We are naturally an opinionated bunch and we develop these subjective barriers or walls and really believe them to be absolute truths. However, here’s the rub…

You see, nobody seemed to advise all of the innovative and talented designers out there that two-channel stereo playback had already peaked and is now in steep decline. That we have discovered all there is to discover, we have already designed the perfect turntable, perfect tonearm, perfect cartridge, perfect phono stage, perfect linestage, perfect transducer… Well, you get the picture. The fact is that every minute of every day, there are designers out there that design and build a better mousetrap. It doesn’t matter whether they are totally new to high-end audio or have been designers for years and years. They are constantly in that innovation mode. Many of us are perfectly content in proclaiming absolutes such as, “I’ll never buy a solid-state amplifier because they all sound rough compared to tubes,” or “I’ll never bother with a phono cartridge that is not a low-output moving-coil, because they are the best,” or “10-watt amps and high efficiency horns are most like live music,” “electrostatic drivers are perfect,” etc… You get the picture.

We all develop these prejudices to some degree and seldom realize it. It may come in the form of walking through an audio store and bypassing the first sound room because they are using a class “D” amp. After all, they don’t sound like real music. Right? Or how about in a hi-fi show and walking by an exhibit that uses an Apple Computer as the sole music source. Computer audio sucks, so what’s the point of going in, Right? C’mon, you know you do it.

As open–minded as I think I am, I find myself doing it more so that I am willing to freely admit! So I challenge each and every one of you, Old School-New School, Tube-Solid State, Class A-Class AB-Class D, it doesn’t matter; make it a point to experience all there is to experience in this Audiophile hobby and forget the technology aspect of it. Leave that to the circuit geniuses that design the stuff. Those of you that walk through the halls of your local audio store, or audio show, stop in and listen no matter what you see in there and what your audiophile spidey-senses may be telling you. Chances are you’ll not regret it and instead you just may discover not a “colorized” derivative of something old that you may have never liked in the first place, but rather something completely new and beautiful that yields an experience that is uniquely wonderful.

…drink deep.

Also read Ray’s “Joy of High-end Audio: Drinking deep from the Kool-Aid in 2011,” published originally in the Official Directory of the 2nd (2011) CAS.

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