Written by 6:00 am Audiophile News, Audiophile, Audiophile Music

Do Looks Matter as Much as Sonics?

When I first saw the KEF Blade on the cover of The Absolute Sound, I almost started laughing. “What is this crazy looking thing” I asked myself. I so completely dismissed it from any new speaker system consideration that even reading the review was a waste of my time. 

A year or so later I happened to walk into the KEF room at RMAF. The ever affable Johann Coorg, Brand Manager for KEF, was talking about the merits of this new speaker system. To say I was disinterested would be very accurate. I didn’t even care about this speaker system; I was never going to buy a pair so why have any concern about what they can do? Why am I wasting my time in this room?

About eight months later I owed a pair. 

What happened to me that day at an audio show was transformational. I was at the show because I wanted to narrow down my choices for a new speaker system. The KEF Blade was not on my short list. Why? Because of how they looked. I did pretty much the same thing I do with food. If it doesn’t look appetizing, it will taste bad. If it doesn’t look good, it will sound bad. Narrowminded thinking, I’ll admit. 

I was so captivated by the sound of the Blade that day in Denver I spent the rest of the audio show holding it as a benchmark against the other contenders on my list. None of those contenders really measured up. After the show, I visited a dealer to hear them again and ultimately bought a pair. Perhaps most strange, their look was suddenly “cool.” I even gave serious consideration to a bright orange color. How such a total transformational viewpoint occurred still mystifies me. 

This underscores a part of our audio choices, does it not? Our obvious first choice is how something sounds. I have always felt each of us has an intrinsic mechanism telling us when something sounds pleasing, accurate, dynamic, like live music, or any other requirement we may have. We are all looking for that certain sound. Asked to describe this mythical sound and we very likely cannot. However, we will know when we hear it played. 

When considering how much an audio system can easily cost, do we not also want attractiveness as a feature and benefit? Who among us audiophiles do not think those iconic blue meters on almost everything McIntosh is way cool? It is so easy to imagine being in a magnificent audio room, lights down low, music at 85 dB, favorite beverage in hand, and not only listening, but also looking at that soft blue glow in the semi darkness. I know of what I speak as I’ve owned McIntosh gear in the past. It can almost be hypnotic. 

Who among us audiophiles would pay thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars for something friends and contemporaries would ask “where’d you get that ugly thing?” Not a question I ever want to field. 

Where then, do we draw the line between what we think looks attractive, what we think everyone else will see as good looking, and what offers sonic captivation? Do we forego any pretense of visual acuity in favor of sonic acuity? Or do we need both? 

Speakers are perhaps the one component with “different” looking designs. Well, let’s be honest. Sometimes they just look flat out weird. Horn speakers can be particularly out there in gaga land when it comes to how they look.  There is another factor at work here, however. 

Is it not also likely the shape of the cabinet aims to improve sonics? That is exactly the case with the Blade. It was designed that way on purpose, and that purpose being meeting certain sonic goals. Looks were not the overriding objective, how it sounded was. One was an engineered means to the other. 

If we like the way something sounds, particularly a speaker system, can we get past the fact it looks crazy or just flat out ugly? When we listen in low light, something I am certain each of us has done at some time or another, do we see music or that crazy looking speaker? Or amp? Or whatever? 

Face it, we have to temper our viewpoints with a certain disconnect of the visual from the auditory. I fell in love with the KEF Blade because I heard it, not because I saw it. Had I not heard it, I seriously doubt I would have ever owned a pair. Auditory, not visual. 

Still, the fact remains, many of us need the speaker, component, or whatever the case may be to look as good as it sounds. Manufacturers try to accommodate our wishes when they can. Sonics will always win out. But looks also matter. Such is the reason we have things with nice soft blue lights, beautiful woods, and visual splendor intended to make anyone who looks it go “wow.” 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, that’s a well-worn phrase. In audiophile parlance, it means primarily how it sounds, but to a certain extent, also how it looks. Where the line is drawn between the two is an individualistic, debatable choice we all must make. We may view sonics as our purchase choice barometer. Visuals may enter into the picture as well. In the end, I suspect sonics win. It seems inevitably likely we will have as a continuing design feature the different, the outlander, the obscure when it comes to how something looks. How it sounds, ah, that’s the thing. We really can’t get past sonics. 

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