Can a home hi-fi system that will cost you the equivalent of one hundred Rolexes really be worth the money? Doesn’t it just produce a sound barely distinguishable from that of something much, much cheaper? And can human ears discern the difference anyway?
It’s the elephant in the room, the G-word, so let’s dispense with it straight away: like computer gaming and Star Wars obsessions, high-end audio suffers
from a massive image problem because of the geek factor. Always has, always will. That’s because extreme hi-fi systems involve costly, complicated, oversized boys’ toys, for dealing with something which 99 per cent of the music-loving populace doesn’t even think twice about. When normal people want to hear music, they turn on a radio, access a Bluetooth speaker, slip a CD into a mini-system or stream from a tablet or phone — and the Middle East is now the world’s third biggest market for streaming. They may use an amplifier or receiver and separate speakers but, more likely these days, they’ll listen with headphones or ear-buds to something portable. That’s it. They have their sounds. They’re happy. To those who have experienced a decent sound system, let alone a high-end set-up, it’s no different than accepting frozen pizza, instant coffee or other convenient proxies for the real thing. An audiophile would observe, yes, you do have sounds. Yes, you are hearing Adele or Radiohead or Stormzy or whatever floats your boat. But you don’t really have music.
That’s the difference. It starts with that very identifier of superior sound quality, which is the term ‘high fidelity’. But fidelity to what? For music fanatics who are committed to sound quality, who are prepared to spend a million dollars, or more, for a ‘stereo’, there is only one true goal: to have their music reproduced as an exact facsimile of the original performance. In other words, does it sound ‘real’? To reach such levels of playback requires equipment able to take the stored music signal — whether analogue or digital, via CD or LP or tape or download — and turn it into audible sounds which deliver every minute detail to the listener.
It’s not just the voices or instruments: audiophiles also expect to hear the ‘sound’ of the concert hall where the recording took place. If the session was created in a studio, and there is no actual space to reproduce, then the positioning of each performer is crucial. Articles in the lifestyle magazines of 40 or 50 years
ago would state that massive, high-end sound systems were mandatory acquisitions. They were evocative of the sophisticate who listened to Miles or Monk or Mingus. Whose bachelor pad, typically a penthouse with a panoramic view of Manhattan or LA, would include an open-reel tape deck, floor-standing loudspeakers, and giant, gleaming amplifiers. Steve Jobs and Apple and downsizing put paid to that, along with custom installations which hid everything. Unfortunately, hiding the hardware also compromised the sound. Everything suddenly turned into mere background music, no more enthralling than the sounds piped into a supermarket or elevator. Simply listening for pleasure went the way of stamp collecting.
Devoted audiophiles, however, never gave up on their pursuit of sonic perfection. Achieving this, though, was innately complicated because the best sound systems are made up of components from different constructors. The enthusiast creating a high-end system has to choose different pieces of hardware and then ensure they complement each other. They have to work together electronically; as in ‘do the amplifiers have enough power for the loudspeakers?’ Above all, they have to sound superb in combination.
Unlike buying a car, a camera or a watch, all ready to use and requires no additional purchases, the audio fanatic buys speakers from one maker, amplifiers from another, a record deck or CD player from a third. The motive is valid: at this level, manufacturing each item is a separate discipline, and precious few companies in the history of hi-fi have mastered the production of all three of the elements which every sound-making product (including your smartphone) contains: source + amplifier + speakers.
Admittedly, audiophiles revel in this inescapable complexity. In this respect, they share a fisherman’s fixation on the choice of rod and reel or the camera bug who buys lenses he’ll never use. For too many audiophiles, half the pleasure of the pursuit is putting together a system and then tweaking it interminably. They are never happy, never content to just switch on their systems and sit back and let the music carry them away. They are challenged by the unattainable goal of sonic perfection.
They were never told that perfection is unattainable. As a result, audiophiles may spend more time listening for incompatibilities than listening to music for sheer pleasure. Audiophiles are masochists. They’re not happy unless they’re wallowing in doubt about their acquisitions. To make matters worse, actually listening for the sonic differences between competing, but equally excellent hi-fi components is itself vague and problematic. Unfortunately for audiophiles, determining one’s choices is not as blatantly obvious as selecting between, say, a Lamborghini and a Ferrari, where looks, feel, handling and other qualities are swiftly communicated. Sonic differences, on the other hand, are achingly subtle, and few people have confidence in their abilities to hear them. Hi-fi retailers and audio critics have long known this and use it to baffle consumers with jargon, or absolutist decrees that prohibit individual taste. Because the audiophile community has bullied its constituents into relinquishing their personal preferences; there are enthusiasts who will suffer with a mediocre product if some powerful audio guru in the hi-fi press says it’s the best. They call in their friends for second opinions. You don’t do that when you’ve just been handed the keys to a Bugatti Chiron.
That said, sonic variances are certainly audible, and anyone who says “I can’t hear the difference” should simply leave the hi-fi emporium and go back to his or her iPod. In ideal conditions, a seasoned audiophile will dazzle you with listening skills to equal the subjectivity of a sommelier. It takes years of training and discipline to really ‘know’ the sound of a component after a brief demonstration. But, equally, one’s personal taste should never be overruled. If we look past all the mumbo-jumbo, the meaningless, picayune reviewing scores across the media, there are other determinants as to the true worth of a high-end sound system costing as much as, say, one hundred Rolexes.
Most important of all? The listener’s ears. Once past the gibberish, the finest systems justify their cost by delivering musical pleasure bettered only by a live concert. The whole point of recorded music is that it allows people the opportunity to enjoy their favourite performers whenever the mood strikes. Before recording was invented, a bit over a century ago, the only way anyone could hear music was to attend a live event, or be a musician playing for their own pleasure. Those early music cylinders, along with the advent of radio, liberated music. But man can never leave things alone. Like 4K replacing the previous TV resolution, electronics enabled inventors to move from the scratchy, compressed sounds of the earliest playback technology to systems that can fool you into thinking that Rihanna or Frank Sinatra or Madonna or the Berlin Philharmonic are in your living room. Snobbery hasn’t played a part in high-end audio for decades. Extreme sound systems lack the visibility and appeal of fine watches or cars because a hi-fi system stays in the home. The world of luxury purchases has moved on. If one’s ego needs salving, it’s simpler to show off one’s super-car.
Which brings us to justifying turntables with Dhs400,000 price tags, or amplifiers that weigh 300 kilos, or speakers standing six feet tall. Even those who protest that they can’t hear the difference know the truth when they hear a killer system, whether they’ll admit it or not. The pleasure to be derived from a state-of-the-art sound system — provided the listener loves music enough to care about it at thislevel—is on a par with a meal at Osteria Francescana, or relishing a glass of the 1990 Romanée-Conti. ‘Transcendent’ best describes hearing Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water as closely as possible to the way it sounded to those who engineered it. Picking out the individual instruments in a favourite concerto, rocking with the bass lines in anything by Eagles of Death Metal: a sound system is truly egalitarian. Bebop or funk, opera or folk, it must do one thing and one thing only: deliver the closest, most visceral experience possible of your best-loved music. Doom and gloom now pervade the audiophile community, because there are two or three generations of music consumers weaned on earbuds, who have no interest in physical libraries (LPs, CDs or otherwise) and for whom sound quality simply doesn’t matter. These are the multitaskers who read on the run, who consume their media in little bites, and who might also be sending a text message while shopping online while appreciating a musical work. They have traded the all-involving pleasure of music for sheer convenience. True, they may still attend live concerts, but they are likely to be texting even then. Yet place anyone whose heart ever swelled at the sound of a Beethoven symphony; who shed a tear when hearing Billie Holiday’s torment or who couldn’t stop a foot tapping when the beat took over, in front of a state-of-the-art sound system — and watch the reaction. In musical terms, they’ll be born again.
Dan d’Agostino, the manufacturer of the world’s most extreme and costliest amplifier and the name most synonymous with impeccable audio, sums it up with these words. “Music is the universally-accepted, ‘pure pleasure’ pastime. It transcends languages and borders. High-end audio? This is the means to transport you to a beautiful engagement into that world.” And he’s right.