High End Audio

Talk of high-end audio’s demise greatly exaggerated
Russ Herschelmann’s over-the-top rant on “the death of high-end audio” really ticked me off. I felt as if I should call Krell, Mark Levinson, Wilson Audio and conrad-johnson to see if their phones were still connected. The fact is that all these companies are enjoying robust sales. So, why do I have the feeling that he just wishes these companies were dead?
I’ll admit that the high-end audio market isn’t exactly booming. It is instead evolving, toying with the idea of becoming a custom-install business, and moving toward a slightly wider audience. All right, I’ve conceded this much, now Russ must admit that his own home theater agenda is in conflict with most high-end audio values.
I’m not really sure where Russ’ grudge against the high end is coming from, but attacking high-end audio on the basis of its exclusivity is just plain wacky. Aren’t the better home theater systems just as expensive as the highest-of-the-high end audio rigs?
Sure, high-end audio manufacturers and retailers blame each other for the lack of growth in sales, but that’s been going on since the business began. Retailers and suppliers have always been at odds with each other — each thinks it can do the other’s job better.
I did get a chuckle out of Russ describing the high-end industry as “once-robust.” Come on, this has never been more than a cottage industry. Higher-end audio companies are tiny, employing anywhere from 10 to 100 employees, and company sales typically run $10-15 million a year. Heck, the entire high-end market is only worth about a billion dollars a year. It’s always been a niche market. I’m sure the number of Mustangs sold by Ford in a year is higher than the number of cars sold by Ferrari since day one; the same formula can be applied to mass-market audio versus high-end gear.
Russ sites the “overuse of techno babble” and “confusing vocabulary” as a cause of the malaise that has befallen high-end audio dealers. But he’s got to admit that home theater jargon is considerably more confusing. From composite to S-video to component video inputs, to 480p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p, RGB, VGA, and PLUGE (and so much more), home theater terminology is over the top.
And actually using home theater gear is far more confusing than using two-channel audio ever has been. The fact that intelligent adults can barely remember how to turn on and use their own home theater systems is testament to that. Home theater convolutions baffle even some industry professionals.

And I’m not referring to fine-tuning gaps here; most audio/video processors and DVD players simply have lousy ergonomics, practically requiring that the operator be able to read hieroglyphics to decipher the bizarre menus. This kind of stuff is rare in the stereo world.
The whole “exclusivity vs. social enjoyment” argument is illogical. A full-tilt home theater, with five full-sized speakers and multiple subwoofers, is more domestically intrusive than a good high-end system. And railing against high-end audio systems because they have a “sweet spot” (the magic zone were the sound is at its best) strikes me as a bit odd.
Sure, most of the better pure audio systems have a restrictive sweet spot — so sit there! It’s funny how almost every time I check out a home theater, the surround speakers are way too loud. I guess keeping these things dialed in just right is tough. Or maybe I wasn’t sitting in the sweet spot? Well, who could blame me for not sticking around long enough to find it?
Many people are pretty demanding when it comes to the do’s and don’ts of home theater setup. “First off, you absolutely must use the same speaker for all three front speakers.” I agree, but demanding this is just not “real world.” Industry professionals become more inflexible as they goes along: “If you use a different center speaker and you might as well not bother — even your ‘phantom’ center switch is going to sound better than that.”
Damning high-end audio because it aspires to be better than “good enough” seems a perverse stance someone in the business of selling/installing high-end home theaters. When Russ for puts down high-end audio because it’s “product-driven,” I’ve got to wonder just where the heck he’s coming from. And he’s got a lot of gall singling out high-end audio manufacturers for “pricing their best gear at stratospheric levels.”
Get with the program! High-end products are expensive, be they cars, boats, watches, audio or home theater gear. I do agree with you, however, that — by any rational standard — they’re all overpriced. But there’s a market for designs that advance the state of the art.
And the best news is that there are plenty of truly outstanding products in those categories that won’t break the bank. I just read about a pair of $299 speakers (Acoustic Energy Aegis Ones) that were awfully good; with them I could easily put together a credible high-end system for less than $1000. Outstanding products come in every price range.
High-end audio companies regularly offer updates and upgrades to older models, so an all-out attack on the high-end press and manufacturers confounds me: “Most spend nearly all of their time and editorial space talking about gear. New gear. More gear. Expensive gear. Gear that completely humiliates what you bought last year.” Huh?
I’d say the home theater market is far guiltier of banishing old formats and abandoning its customers. How many thousand dollar projectors and TVs that won’t accept progressive signals are still being sold today? (Answer: the vast majority.) And how about those $15K projectors that gobble up $1K light bulbs every year or so? What will the million or so laserdisc owners do when Pioneer stops making LD machines? And how about those folks who just dropped a bundle on a Dolby Digital receiver only to find that they’ll have to cough up more big bucks to get Dolby EX?
Here’s what I think: No one should make an expensive home theater move until the HD-DVD machines see the light of day and HDTV (high-definition TV) prices plummet. Funny, vinyl ‘piles still have a range of hardware and software options available to them nearly two decades after CDs made LPs “obsolete.”
Let’s return for a moment to the original topic: the “death” of high-end audio. Well, I just returned from CES, where I saw most of the usual suspects. Krell just introduced a new CD player; Mark Levinson had a shiny new $15K preamp; Martin Logan was showing its cool new electrostatic speaker; Thiel and Vandersteen each had new, and fairly expensive, “bookshelf” loudspeakers; and Linn Products showed off its amazing $19K Klimax amplifiers. There was a conspicuous absence of mourners and long black limousines.
When you stop and think about it, most domestic home theater manufacturers are keyed into the same network as the high-end audio crowd. My conclusion is that we’re all in this together. So be careful what you wish for, Russ, ’cause when high-end audio dies, high-end home theater will be next.
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