Is the High End Really Better?

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Think of your favorite song by your favorite performer: "Pinky Lee sings Mantovani"? Okay! Now imagine it played on your iPhone, your tablet, on a shirt-pocket transistor radio, or on another similar device, as long as it's tiny and has its own (necessarily tiny) built-in speaker. Terrific, isn't it? You can hear and  understand almost every one of the words! WOW!


Now think of that same song played on an ordinary clock-radio or a small screen (or even over the built-in speakers of a HUGE flat-screen) TV set: Are the words any different? No? Possibly a little more understandable, but still the same words. Okay, so what IS different? Ah! You can start to get an idea of what instruments, and maybe even how MANY people and instruments are performing.


Now, if you can find one, get a "boombox" and play your tune on it.  Are the words still the same? Yes? All right, then what's the difference now? (Or, for that matter, what's the difference if you play your song on the average "stock" car radio?) BASS, obviously! Not good bass; not "clean"; not deep; and not "tight" bass, but bass, nonetheless. Also, maybe you're getting a little better idea of the instruments and players involved; and, if you or the boombox are positioned just right, there may even be the beginnings of some idea of left and right instrument placement. (Always, of course, with the singer right smack in the middle).


The next step up - to a "mid-fi" system or maybe a "personal component system" (You know, the sort-of-12 inch-format component stack with separate small, probably two-way speakers) or possibly even (if they still make them or if you still have one) a "better" quality console "Stereo" - may (at least hopefully) give you more or better (or more AND better) of all the same things: more or better clarity for the words and music; more or better presentation and/or delineation of each of the  individual performers and instruments; more or better bass; more or better lining-up of the instruments and performers left to right across the space between the speakers and, again hopefully, more or  better centering of the voice of the singer.


Up to this point, it's all been about revealing more OF, or more ABOUT, the music, with "better" being the key word: better this or better that, for all of the various aspects of a musical performance; all adding up to a regular "Herod's delight" of revelation as, one-at-a-time many of the "veils" (perhaps even MORE than seven) that keep you from hearing the music as it's supposed to sound have been stripped away. Is this, then, what "High End" audio is - just a continuation of the process of doing the same stuff better, for progressively more money?


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No, not at all. The High End is not about "better", and it's not even necessarily about "more money" - which is not to say that a good High End system won't be better in a whole lot of ways, and it's certainly not to say that a High End system won't be more expensive. Unless you take advantage of little wonders like the $139 Andrew Jones-designed Pioneer SP-BS22 LR speakers, it might very well be both of those things. It just means that the difference between a High End system and an ordinary music source isn't in how well or how much it does all the ordinary things, it's that a High End system - regardless of what it may cost - brings something entirely new to the party that the others can't do at all! 


Whether attended live, recorded "live", or recorded as a multi-channel "lay-up" of many people playing or singing their parts separately, at different times or even in different venues, a musical performance is an "event" and not just one more reiteration of the words and notes of a song. Like any other event, it always happens in a place; that place always includes a space of some particular size (whether real, composite, or existent only in the imagination of a recording or mastering engineer) and the performers, the listener, and (if recorded) the recording microphones, all have their relative positions within that space. It's that space that's the real defining factor of High End audio.


It's also the factor most likely to expose the difference between "The Man in the Street" and the committed and knowledgeable audiophile. If you ask The Man in the Street what the "perfect" HiFi system would be like, odds are he'll tell you that it would make it sound like "...the singers and musicians were right there in your room with you". To the High End audiophile, though, it would be the exact opposite: The perfect High End system (playing, of course, the perfect recording) wouldn't bring the performers to you, but would transport YOU into the space where the singers and musicians were performing.


Spatiality - the size and shape of the venue; the positioning of, and space between the performers; the perfection of the audible "image" and "soundstage" - is what the High End is all about. It doesn't just do the same old stuff better, it does a whole new thing and creates a whole new listening experience. It's not better, it's DIFFERENT!


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