It’s the time of year for saving money!
Calling the hobby of high-end audio elitist is sort of like calling the sky blue. Most of the time it is…
But 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…
While 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…
So, 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.
And 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…
Its 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…
I don’t believe that HP wanted to the conversation to go that way but at the end it did. Having been a friend and spent a lot of time listening with him and discussing the audio galaxy this path kind of chosee itself. What I mean is that the manufacturers became obsessed with the blessings of reviewers, particularly HP back then, and felt that they had to build toys to please Harry. Some understood its power at that time and many took advantage of it, I personally think that the purpose of the review process has been hijacked for profit a long time ago and that train will never be back in the station again
There are utterly ridiculous things like $100+ or even $2000+ speaker wires and I would venture a guess that at least some of the > $5000 amplifiers, preamps, and DACs are inaudible in proper A/B testing.
I built my own system. I have an inexpensive 300 watt chi-fi / Dayton subwoofer amp driving a 15 inch $180 Dayton subwoofer downfiring in a very solidly built cabinet. It isn’t necessary to pay as much for a powerful amp when it is optimized to do low frequency output. My satellites are five inch ported drivers in solidly built smallish cabinets flat down to the ideal crossover frequency of 55 hz for the sub and the closely spaced drivers approximate a point source very well. A onyko amp from the thrift store drives this.
I can hear very subtle details in careful listening on this system, such as the organist’s feet on the pedal boards even at loud listening levels because the drivers I’m using are something that would cost about 10x as much if I hadn’t built my own speakers.
At my price point you usually get barely ok drivers in hugely terrible overly light weight easy to ship cabinets. Building my own saved at least $2k over the usual mainstream crap.
I absolutely don’t understand the obsession about $20 k amps when most of the problems in audio are the speakers.
Even if a hugely more expensive system than mine sounds better, there isn’t that much wrong about my system to improve.
I may upgrade the Onkyo at some point to a good class D amp, but after that point the high end audio is more snobbery and spending vast amounts of money than on actually audible differences.
There are people in the audio industry who are committed to creating and upholding high standards of performance. If that makes them “elitist,” so be it. I don’t see it that way. Perhaps better words for them would be “passionate” or “qualified.” The subject of whether a given product is worth the price is a different discussion.
There are levels of elitism beyond the most refined audiophile ears. One is making un-processed NCP live recordings, removing the temporal/artistic discontinuities of splicing and overdubbing and other studio artifices, and adding the essential flavor of audience participation, which end-users prefer.
The next is moving your serious listening to a subscription seat in a good concert hall. You can further enjoy daily live music at a modest cost by getting an instrument and lessons (which also has cognitive and health benefits). The most extreme is graduating conservatory and playing music for a living, or being rich enough to support an in-house group of musicians and composers, like Maria de Guise.
Sean Olive made a very informative comment at a JBL headphone seminar sponsored by the AES (he was also the President of that professional organization). Harman developed an “ear training program” based on calibrated headphones and DSP that teaches their engineers and test audiences to hear frequency response deviations. BUT, “Musicians are some of the worst listeners” according to Dr. Olive.
How can it be that musicians who have trained to tens of thousands of hours of daily live music know the least what music sounds like in recordings? The obvious answer is because frequency response is not the primary criteria for musical accuracy. Something more musically important is lost when you process the dual vectors of true stereo hearing to the pair of scalars (or even 32 channels) in fake stereo/surround, factors not considered in tracking, mixing, mastering and audio gear design.
I agree that elitism can be a positive force, but it has resulted in participatory musical experiences once available at no charge as a part of tribal culture being refined until only the .01% can experience them, and the rest suffer the temporal and spatial distortions inherent in every knob and process in the studio and reproduction chain.
What is really sad, at the same time there are hundreds of thousands of skilled musicians unemployed, under-employed or underpaid in relation to their value to society.