Real Hi-Fi


When I was younger, I was an audio snob. If you would have asked me, I would have told you that there were two utterly different things out there that were both claiming to be "Hi-Fi", but that actually only one of them was "real".

"Real" Hi-Fi, I would have told you, was VASTLY superior to the other kind, and could instantly be recognized in at least three ways: 

1) "Real Hi-Fi systems are comprised of separate components, often of different brands from different manufacturers -- NO "consoles" allowed.

2) "Real" Hi-Fi systems DON'T have tone controls, "loudness" controls (Do you remember Fletcher and Munson?), or much of anything else, other than an input selector and a volume control. They DEFINITELY don't have a receiver as their electronics. 

3) "Real" Hi-Fi systems have separate floor-standing speakers ("bookshelf" units were only okay if they had been designed by Edgar Villchur or Henry Kloss, or were an English variant on the LS35A) Again, definitely no consoles, and even when JBL (James B Lansing, at the time) introduced the one-piece Paragon stereo speaker, I and my Hi-Fi buddies were shocked, and somehow offended that it didn't more strictly follow the rules.

That was it. That was how, not only I, but also my audiophile friends defined "real" Hi-Fi - the thing that, today, we call High End audio. Anything else, regardless of price or brand or quality was "Mid-Fi", and instead of being dispensed to the cognoscenti from elegant little boutique shops, was peddled, we believed, to the great unwashed by department stores and places that also sold refrigerators.


Although hopefully less snobbish, I continued in my belief that there were two kinds of Hi-Fi - real Hi-Fi and Mid-Fi even after I started reviewing for Sounds Like...Magazine in early 1990. What finally changed my mind was when, after starting my cable company in 1991, I came face-to-face with the reality that must ultimately confront every proprietor of every enthusiast business:  Just building the world's best mousetrap ISN'T necessarily enough to ensure success forever. You finally have to change your approach from just a total concentration on your product, to (while still maintaining product quality and performance) doing everything necessary to make sure that people want to buy it; that dealers stock and sell it, and that, once sold, you can deliver it on time at the price promised.

You must, in short, treat and operate your business as a business!

It was at that moment that I first (figuratively) opened my eyes and saw that, although I had been right about there being two different kinds of Hi-Fi, I had been wrong in my understanding of what they were: In fact there's real Hi-Fi and there's the High End. Mid-Fi is the REAL real Hi-Fi, but I'd always been too trapped in my own vision of audio to ever notice it.

Think about it; which companies are the ones to do real basic research? Which make their own components (capacitors, resistors, transistors, etc.) to use in their own products and for High End manufacturers to use in theirs? Who developed the CD, the DVD, and every other modern storage medium? And who builds the actual transport and laser mechanisms that the High End companies tweak and diddle to make their "own" much more expensive branded units? Finally, Who sells the OVERWHELMING majority of all Hi-Fi products sold anywhere in the world. 

It's certainly not the High End.

Some years ago, an acquaintance who knew that I was in the industry called me and said that he had just had a remarkable experience and didn't quite know how to take it: He said that he had finally decided to buy a good "stereo", and had gone into a local Hi-Fi shop to pick out something nice. When he walked in the door, he said, he looked around and saw not one single brand that he had ever heard of. And then, when he asked about some of the things on display, he found out that most of them were priced at, or were more expensive than, what he would expect to pay for a car.  His response? He got out of there as quickly as he could, not only not buying anything, but not even staying long enough to hear a demonstration. 


So what was his call to me about? It wasn't to ask for a system recommendation - he had left the High End store and gone straight to Circuit City, where he bought what he considered to be solid "name brand" merchandise for what be believed to be a fair price.  Instead, his call was to ask me if what he had experienced was actually real or if the salesman, somehow taking him for a "Rube" had simply been "pulling his leg" and having a cruel joke at his expense. 

How many times does something like that happen? Doesn't it seem like one of those things where, for every one you hear of, there must be at least a hundred more that you'll never know about?

And that's a serious problem. Our industry and we who love High End audio have done a terrible job of letting the overwhelming majority of potential buyers know about it and getting them to want it and to accept it into their lives. What's real to them is "Perfect Sound Forever" or a "complete 6 speaker 300 Watt system for just $399!"  Anything else might as well be a home in the Hamptons, a Patek Philippe watch, or a Lamborghini - possibly real to other people, but certainly not real to them.

What IS real to them is Mid-Fi or even worse, and until we can change that there's no Audiophile Renaissance in sight.

Too bad for us and everyone else.

comments powered by Disqus

Audiophile Review Sponsors