A false narrative surrounds visions of the idyllic days of yore. People today are no less self-interested than they were a half-century ago, even if we may be more self-involved. Nor is the world any more dangerous than it has ever been. In fact, an argument could be made that we live in the most peaceful era in the history of our species. The existence of strife, discontent, and clear opportunities to improve our collective lot in life does not somehow imply that we should revert to the known but wildly imperfect quantities of our past. The familiar aromas of history, allied with our tendency to airbrush our memories in soothing sepia tones, make it an easy and comfortable alternative to the uncertainty of the future. Of course, the tension between the past and present has always existed, and those clinging to the former will, at one point or another, be left behind to rue how the world has gone to hell.
This crossed my mind in the aftermath of the recent Presidential election here in the United States, as I watched disappointed voters in the nation’s major cities protest against our future President. That “our” is an important word. The United States is, at its very core, a social, political, and economic tapestry. The feeling that the President-elect is, as some protestors have stated, “not my President,” is irrelevant -- you may not have voted for him, but there is no doubt that the American people, through its Electoral College system, have. Perhaps more important, though, a cross-section of the American populace that felt its interests were not being adequately represented voted in record numbers, and, as far as the media is concerned, contributed to an unexpected outcome. In the digital age, it’s easy to forget or marginalize large groups of people.
The high end is no different. Walk through an audio show anywhere in the world and you’ll see dozens upon dozens of manufacturers presenting their creations to the hard-to-please denizens of the hi-fi universe. Over the years, I admit that I did not pay close enough attention to many of these manufacturers. Too often, I paid attention to companies whose products I knew personally and/or by reputation, and ignored most of the rest.
In fact, I overlooked smaller, newer efforts because they were smaller and newer. After all, there were practical concerns. What sort of quality control can a one-man outfit have? How long will that outfit be in business? What about support when something goes wrong? Is there anything unique or special about this product? A company’s record of demonstrated success and experience are important, though not absolutely crucial factors in the evaluation of all of an audio component’s qualities -- which is the job I’m paid to do.
Yes, my criteria are inherently biased and exclusionary. There are an awful lot of audiophiles who couldn’t care less what the industry monoliths are coming up with, because those products don’t speak their language. Sound familiar? Following the global recession, populism has grown in the world precisely because there’s a gnawing sensation -- probably an accurate one -- that our political representatives don’t always have our best interests in mind. When complacency among those in positions of authority or repute metastasizes, comeuppance is a painful but necessary medicine. What’s important to acknowledge is that neither flaming vitriol nor willful ignorance are constructive. It’s terribly easy to burn something to the ground. It’s far more difficult to erect something better and more meaningful over the smoking remains of what once was.
Last month, when I reviewed Clones Audio’s 25iR integrated amplifier ($1295 USD), the little handmade, 25Wpc, gainclone design from Hong Kong demonstrated to me that I’d maybe wrongfully ignored a multitude of products over the years for stupidly superficial reasons. I’m also hamstrung by the fact that I can review only a dozen or so products each year, and thus often feel compelled to review products that I already strongly suspect will be great. Of course, that happens at the expense of many others that only might turn out to be great. The Clones 25iR isn’t perfect, and it’s not something I’d buy for myself, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a pretty, affordable, beautiful-sounding product.
The fact is that the Clones 25iR integrated fills a need. So many of the established brands in the industry have been slow to realize that younger generations of music lovers have no interest in established hi-fi norms of big metal boxes that demand that furniture and décor yield to their needs. The Clones has a class-AB circuit -- not class-D, like so many other pint-sized integrateds -- and the attractive look and feel of a component with a brushed-aluminum case: things usually seen only at far higher prices. And its small size -- just 6.7”W x 3.9”H x 7.1”D -- means that it can be placed pretty much anywhere. Do I really care that the op-amps powering it can be bought for a few bucks? No, and neither should you. Most of the great DACs out there use off-the-shelf chips from companies like ESS Technologies, Texas Instruments, or Asahi Kasei Microdevices, all of which cost well under $50. As always, it’s not so much the component parts themselves as how they’re implemented that makes or breaks a product.
Clearly, this editorial has as much to do with rationalizing current events for myself as it does with self-discovery. But for me, at least, that doesn’t make the takeaways any less relevant in the context of high-end audio. In audio as in life, there is an infinity of perspectives on what is “right” or “best,” and there is, thankfully, enough room for all of them, as long as we (read: I) keep an open mind. Will I be reviewing, in the near future, a Lowther-style loudspeaker or a tea-candle-powered single-ended-triode amplifier? Probably not. But at least I won’t ignore them going forward.
. . . Hans Wetzel