About three decades ago I wore a tie five days a week. I became quite enamored with finding really cool ties that were very stylish. I basically standardized on Giorgio Armani and Hugo Boss because I liked their modern design and quality. One weekend, I was visiting my parents and Mom was watching some 1940’s movie she had seen countless times. I was surprised to see the men wearing ties that looked the same as the rather expensive ones I was shelling out good money to buy. It would seem that tie styles had gone full circle.
I no longer wear ties for business but still have a fondness for being stylish and attempting to remain current. How exactly does this apply to high performance audio? In looking at audio components, I see some of the full circle design cues and other features whose inclusion is probably more style, less substance.
Consider handles on the front of components. Now obviously handles have only one real function – to aid and assist moving gear. How many audiophiles mount their gear like a professional recording studio requiring the use of handles? Home theater systems could most certainly be rack mounted and stored in a cabinet, closet or somewhere out of the way. Not seeing a home theater system in the room is not unusual. For two channel audio, I suspect this is not so much a popular thing. I want my glorious system to be seen. Racks for today’s systems don’t really need components to have handles although they could. Moving hundred plus pound amps is difficult, handles or not. But let’s face it, with the trend of smaller, lighter, more all in one componentry, how necessary are front mounted handles? And if a component does have handles, are they more style above function?
My very first system in 1972 had at its helm an integrated amp that was silver. My speakers were wood grained, and my turntable was basically non-descript plastic. My second system was also silver. A later system, a receiver and CD player – all black anodized with white lettering and notches for settings like balance and volume. Black components were all the rage for a number of years. Now, it seems we are back to silver. In my current system I have eight silver components and one lone CD player with a black faceplate. I am nothing if not OCD enough that the one different colored component drives me crazy. I am considering replacing it with an Esoteric CD player just so I can have all silver boxes in my rack. Of course, my turntable has a piano black plinth which for some reason does not seem to bother me. Talk about ridiculous! Of course, other colors are available. Red anyone?
Another throwback to the past are components with a dizzying array of knobs, buttons, switches and sliders that seemingly have only one function. A receiver I once owned had so many things to touch on the faceplate it looked rather like the cockpit of an airplane – or a mixing board, whichever. Never mind most of the controls didn’t really do very much, they looked super cool, particularly the ones that lit up. Sitting mostly in the dark listening to music and watching all those little lights, well, that was just fun. Today, my preamp, the nerve center for my entire system, has only two knobs – volume and source, and a small power button. Most of today’s higher priced preamps have fewer features as compared to preamps of thirty years ago. And what limited functions beyond source and volume they can change are likely controlled by the remote, just like mine.
Which brings us to remote controls. Where in the world would we be without them? When I was a really young kid I was the remote. Dad would command the TV needed to go from channel three to channel nine and poof, it happened. I jumped my little hind end up from wherever I was sitting and changed the channel. So forgive me if today I want a remote. I must admit, however, having one for every component in my system, if not my home, can get a little monotonous. I now buy twenty packs of batteries because it seems at any one point in time a remote somewhere is dead or dying. Are there universal remotes that could replace many or at least several? Of course there are. But then what would I complain about? Jokes aside, any electronic device at almost any cost point whatsoever not including a remote is viewed as an oddity, and probably not purchased.
I suppose lastly is the trend towards all-in-one. In the early 70’s, one could purchase a system with a tuner, 8-track player and turntable in one box. Easy, peasy. Put it most anywhere. Of course there was also the audiophile trend of multiple boxes, even sometimes in mid fi systems. For audiophiles, the need for a single chassis in robust enclosures became the norm. Now the trend is once again moving in a circular, and possibly a circuitous path. Just look at the manufacturers making high performance components that live up to the all-in-one credo of the past. From Devialet to Jeff Rowland (check out his assault on an integrated component if you want to see what is possible), many manufacturers have caught onto the idea that less is more. For some, fine – for me, I still want separate components in big heavy boxes. Call me a dinosaur, I don’t mind.
As much as anything, manufacturers have the very real need to make their gear look stylish and attractive. This is precisely why aluminum billets are machined one a time, at considerable cost, when there are more economical ways to build an enclosure. However, we all need to feel like we get what we pay for and as long as style in something purchased matters, component design will very probably continue to move in a circular path.