Have you seen the 2016 documentary Sour Grapes on Netflix? It digs into the high-flying world of wine, the evolving wine market, and one particular character who changed the wine world forever. The main player in the film is Rudy Kueniawan, who is reported to be an Indonesian trust fund beneficiary whose parents were the importers of Heineken beer to China. He was supposedly getting $1,000,000 per month living expenses, which allowed him to not only take care of his mother in Alhambra (just east of downtown Los Angeles, not Spain) but also purchase a mansion in Beverly Hills and follow his true life’s passion: very fine wine.
Rudy didn’t just buy wine. He bought wine like no other single person before him, paying never-before-seen prices and volumes of the world’s most sought-after makers at their best vintages. He singularly changed the dynamic of prices for fine wines, and the rest of world followed his lead–especially the auction houses who made fat fees on all of the wine Rudy bought and, in many cases, turned around and sold.
Rudy became an icon in the wine world and relatively quickly. He paired with Acker Merrall & Condit, a well-established Manhattan wine store, and helped them grow into the biggest wine broker in the world in the early 2010’s. People like right-wing influence broker David Koch purchased millions of dollars of insanely rare wine from Rudy’s collection at auction. He wasn’t the only person buying lofty, aged bottles of booze, but there was one problem. The wine was fake. Koch didn’t take this deception kindly, and quietly waged war, billionaire-style, by hiring ex-CIA and ex-FBI investigators to look into Rudy, his wine, and his operation.
In the end, it was discovered that Rudy was “playing God” with these fine wines. He was mixing and matching vintages and varieties. He bought and used specific wax to re-seal bottles of the world’s most expensive wines. He was pasting old labels on to recycled bottles at his mother’s home. I won’t spoil the rest of the film for you, but needless to say, things didn’t go well for him. Some auction houses, like the one in New York, did their best to make their clients whole. Others basically said, “tough luck,” as these were the salad days of wine and if you got a moldy crouton, then–well–bad on you.
How is wine relevant to high end audio? Subjectivity, for starters. Their absurdly descriptive lexicon for talking about wine is designed to leave the un-initiated feeling left out. Wine enthusiasts’ behavior can be quite tacky. If you find someone sucking wine loudly through their teeth to get more oxygen into the libation, it’s 100 percent acceptable in my book to slap them right in the face. It’s a disgusting, déclassé, and passive aggressive practice.
Are we really that much better, though? We often use goofy and awkward words to describe sound, just as they do to describe the taste of dead, trampled, and fermented grapes.
The most concerning similarity between wine-os and audiophiles are that percentage who have a religious-like adherence to strict subjectivity. How many bottles of 1965 Petrus or 1997 Screaming Eagle have you ever sampled? Even if the answer is cases (these bottles are like $5,000 to $20,000 each), can you tell me that your taste buds are so tuned-in that you can tell every specific detail of each vintage? Wine enthusiasts posit that even physical changes in your body, altitude, as well as other factors can change how you perceive a wine. For example: if the last time you had 1997 Screaming Eagle was on your best friend’s (and he or she would be one hell of a friend) Gulfstream G-550 private jet, how do you measure the effect of 35,000 feet of altitude on the taste of the wine versus tasting it at, say, the 21 Club in Manhattan or Wally’s in Beverly Hills, which are both at sea level?
If I’ve learned anything from my favorite TV show, Drugs Inc., it’s that cutting your stash is a great way to increase your profit. Rudy knew this. He also knew that wine-os are total bullshit artists. They would never know if some insanely rare Colgin was diluted with something else. He had good taste and could mix and match well.
How is audio all that different when there are so many external factors to how a system sounds?
Actually, there’s a significant difference. Most evolved audiophiles know that speakers sound very different in different rooms, so we’ve got that going for us. A well-made pair of $900 entry-level floorstanding speakers can sound simply fantastic in a wonderfully treated room. Amazingly, they can compete with $30,000 audiophile speakers “out in the wild” (untreated room) in many ways.
In some regions of both the audiophile and wine world, exclusivity and price often trump performance. Real world measurements, like the kind that come from today’s best digital room correction, allow for actual math and science that shows the listener what he or she is hearing in a given room while providing tools to make it even more accurate. But then there are some in the hobby who prefer to fly without instruments. I can’t tell you how many audiophiles tell me “vinyl sounds better to me.” And maybe that’s a valid opinion if you’re half-deaf. If you can’t hear the gross amounts of even-order harmonic distortion and appreciate the fact that the format is lacking half the dynamic range of a Compact Disc–let alone today’s HD formats (be it download or streaming) –then perhaps you have no business popping for another $10,000 stereo preamp? You simply can’t discern the difference, just as I can’t tell much of a difference between Screaming Eagle and a good $200 California Cabernet. I can’t taste much of a difference, nor can I measure it, thus I leave Screaming Eagle tastings for those who have the money to crack open a $7,000 bottle of wine (or two or three) on a random Thursday night.
In the end, audiophilia is at an interesting crossroads. From the inception of the hobby and through the decades that the Baby Boomers have nurtured the art of fine music reproduction, issues like exclusivity and subjectivity have given the hobby a religious overtone.
You need to believe to be part of the club.
I mean seriously, in 2018 do you really need expensive cables with a fixed EQ built into the copper wires when you can use a high-end room correction device from the likes of Trinnov and others that can give you real-world information on your system and the room that it lives in, as well as tools to fix many of those issues?
Today’s high-performance subwoofers can now blend into audiophile systems using DSP and room correction so that there isn’t so much of a voodoo-like ritual of placement and blind knob-twisting. Anyone can, for roughly $1,000, get deep, musically engaging bass in their system that perfect matches their main speakers. That’s bass like what the performers, producers, and engineers want you to hear from the master tape.
Why fight the progress the way so many audiophiles do?
Wanna go deeper into the math and science and leave the pure subjectivity behind? Starting with an investment in the three to low four figures, and with help from any number of companies, room acoustics treatments can solve physical problems in your room through a deft mix of bass trapping, diffusion, and absorption. This can actually be measured in the way “bricky-ness” can’t be measured in a vintage Burgundy, and the result of fixing the physics in your room is measurable. Its scientific, not subjective or for the true believer. There’s a new way of doing things, and it’s exciting, real, and science-based. It’s time to stop clinging on to old technology and clichés from the past, as audiophile so often do for reasons that they can’t explain.
It’s time that audiophiles embrace audio formats that reproduce the master tape, as the entry level costs are streaming to a system like yours for as little as $20 per month. Its time audiophiles challenge the bullshit rituals that have been part of the hobby’s lure and use today’s cutting-edge tools to get to the scientific truth. Unlike wine, you can actually measure how good your audio system is and compare it with your ability to hear the changes as part of the fun of the hobby. Unlike religion, you can use science to get “closer to God.” It’s a brave new world out there, and for audio we’ve got pretty much everything we need to get to the promised land.