My first exposure to a better sound than a transistor radio was McIntosh audio system. You know the one, those patented, iconic blue lights on just about everything they can find to light up?
I was hooked and although at 15 could in no way afford anything made by the legendary New York based manufacturer, I always loved the brand because I thought it looked amazing. And yes, I scratched that itch when in 2010 I bought a McIntosh amp, blue power meters and all.
Anyone who has ever priced any of our gear knows how much equipment can cost. What we expect for our money is a memorizing sound, something to captivate us well into the night. Something to argue with our logic that no, it is NOT live music, it is a recording!
Are sonics the only barometer of what we look for in the equipment we buy? Manufacturers clearly do not think so based on one other factor, how nice and pretty they make their equipment look to the consumer.
When you consider that in addition to listening to our systems, we also look at them while we listen, stunning visuals are not a hard concept to grasp. Also, considering what some of our gear costs, well, I can't speak for anyone else, but I want something beyond sonic excellence. Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder - and I want my eyes to behold something magnificent. Call it bling if you like, just make it look visually appealing.
Many manufacturers go that extra step by finishing aluminum faceplates. Maybe they give it a brushed look, intended to soften the curves machined into the part. Perhaps they use other finishing techniques that have nothing to do with fit and function but everything to do with aesthetics.
Speaker manufacturers are constantly searching the world of exotic materials to spruce up what is arguably a rectangular box. Look, for instance, at the upper tier speakers made by German manufacturer Tidal. Regardless of what may be said about their sound, their casework is absolutely stunning. Sonus Faber, ever seen their speakers? Beauty personified. Many others may also be named.
Is that all there is to how we decide on something? If it sounds good and looks good, does that complete our check list? Or are we curious about other things - like how it was made, performance parameters, resale cost, and any other qualifications we may have?
Regardless, however, of what our checklist actually has as meritable requirements, looks will almost always figure somewhere pretty high on the importance scale.
There is an unwritten, typically unspoken side to making a component look nice and pretty. That soft, brushed look on the front faceplate of your amp, preamp, DAC or other component only got there because of a secondary process. Many machine shops will quite often use a piece of equipment called a Timesavers to apply that nice brushed look. It takes a skilled operator making whatever per hour to get that finish.
Not surprisingly, that nice look so highly regarded makes the component cost more. Dramatically more? No, but a higher cost is a higher cost regardless of the percentage.
Most audiophiles think nothing of the cost to make things look pretty, appealing, cool, or whatever adjective may apply. Only that it looks like any of those descriptors is ultimately the relative factor. And that's okay. We all want as much as we can get for our purchase. The salient point is there is a cost to do so.
Imagine browsing around in a large, well-stocked with demo equipment, audio dealership. You are taken in by all the amazing gear. While your interest may or may not be to purchase anything, you are still struck by all that you see. As you casually walk into a listening room, the music playing grabs you because it sounds so amazing. As your eyes scan the room, they stop suddenly on the speakers.
Now of course, it is quite natural to assume this glorious sound is the sole result of these speakers. If they also happen to look as mesmerizing as they sound, are you even more enticed to buy them or do you consider only how they sound?
How something looks is always a part of the purchase justification process. We want that component to look appealing as well as sound remarkable. If we see a beautiful speaker or other component before we hear it, is not our level of curiosity increased? Take two sets of speakers, one with beautiful casework, highly finished, hand crafted woods. The other set of speakers looks okay, although basically vanilla flavored. If you had not heard either of these speakers previously, which would you ask to demo first? We all know the answer to that question.
Face it, as much as our hobby is sonically driven, it is also aesthetically driven. Maybe it is not driven by how something looks to the same level as how it sounds. Still, however, looks count. We will be drawn to a better looking component simply because we are all, to some degree, visual creatures. We will willingly pay more for the amp with the nice smoothly textured faceplate as opposed to the one that is not. In the end, how something sounds will justifiably be the deciding factor. Do not, however, discount how something looks. Because that matters almost as much as how something sounds.