Audiophiles' Elitism Is Both Good and Bad

Calling the hobby of high-end audio elitist is sort of like calling the sky blue. Most of the time it is...

AR-elite1a.gifBut before you begin those email messages calling me a commie, I must add that elitism isn't always a bad thing. 

Especially when it has been earned.

Has the audio hobby always contained some element of elitism? I would say yes. 

From the earliest beginnings there was a stratification and classification of products based on price/performance/features with the most-desired combinations only available on the top-of-the-line models. The question of "How good do you want your system to sound?" was followed almost instantaneously by the question "How much have you got to spend?"

 And then there was Harry Pearson...

AR-elite4a.jpgWhile it would be patently incorrect to lay the blame for the "arms race" in audio component prices and exclusivity at the feet of one man. Harry Pearson was responsible for creating the "big idea" that a stereo system is a physical representation of the expertise and audiophile connoisseurship of its owner. Whomever had the best toys won. And while J. Gordon Holt was undoubtedly the first audio journalist to bring subjective sound quality into the discussion and review of audio gear, he never took it in the direction that "Dr." Pearson did. By the end Harry's fixation on having "the best" degenerated into a cliché...so many of his articles had ended with a reprise that it would take further study to determine the true nature and extent of a particular component's greatness; a greatness that often vanished when the next super-duper flagship audio product appeared at his door.

Over the years the prices in many "high-end" audio component categories have risen precipitously fueled in part by the dictates of the industry to make "the best." And in the bad old days a good percentage of "high-end" reviewer's systems devolved into competitions based on who had the most expensive and exclusive toys. And some of those competitions continue to this day...

AR-elite6a.jpgSo, obviously, some forms of elitism lead to paths that can only be legitimately viewed as eventual dead ends and potentially industry death spirals... 

But are ALL forms of elitism bad? Obviously not. 

Without the desire to excel humans would still be back picking fleas off each others' backs.

Elitism based on merit, expertise, and research are what makes iPhones go beep-beep...and spurs technology to continue to move forward.

AR-elite5a.jpgAnd just like Japan, who changed the expression "made in Japan" from a denigration to a celebration of quality, China has developed into a place where you find well-made, well-designed, inexpensively-priced audio gear popping up with the frequency of mushrooms after a spring rain. And while there are still reasons, based on manufacturing methodologies, that some kinds of audio products will always be pricy, Chinese production has proven that some high-performance electronics, especially those employing DAC chips, do not have to be expensive to be high-performance. Even firms with US production, such as Schitt and PS Audio have inexpensive, but high performance components available at entry-level prices.

Another area where elitism, based on perceived merit, makes sense is in the area of research. While I don't always agree 100% with his conclusions, I respect Sean Olive's work on headphones and loudspeakers. Compared with the opinion voiced by some annonynmous poster on Head-Fi, I give far more credence to Olive's opinions because I know his background and credentials. 

"It's just your opinion. Man" that quote from that famous slacker film, Big Lebowski, is batted around a lot these days... 

AR-elite3a.pngIts implication is that no one has a better opinion than anyone else. That's bull. We all know that. Some people DO have a better, more educated, deeply-researched opinion. 

Is that elitist? Sure, but perhaps, just perhaps, expertise is a valid criteria for elitism...

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