When some hi-fi publications cover industry trade shows such as High End, held each May in the beautiful Bavarian metropolis of Munich, they write up listening impressions and deliver subjective assessments of how a component or a complete system sounds. I’ve done it myself, often. I’ll listen to a new system in an unfamiliar room, playing music I’ve never heard before. How futile an exercise is that? Sure, it paints a picture for readers who want to sample fancy new gear from a distance -- when I miss a show, you can bet I pore over the SoundStage! team’s coverage and pictures like a hawk -- but I could care less about the old jazz recordings that reverberate through the Munich Order Center, where High End is held. It’s all about the music, isn’t it? The music is the frame of reference -- or it’s the lens through which we evaluate whether or not we love the sound pouring from a stereo system. Diana Krall may be a talented pianist and singer, but she’s more likely to drive me into a coma than have me on the edge of my seat.
“Why did they do it? For the money . . . ”
This rhetorical question and its inevitable answer regularly sailed through the halls of my childhood home. My father had, and continues to have, a critical mind. Dubious of anyone or anything claiming to have all of life’s answers, he ingrained into the minds of his four children the motto “Question everything.” As a student of Western history, he was all too aware that self-interest drives the majority of people, and in the modern-day West, money is the literal currency that keeps the gears of capitalism and globalization turning. Altruism may yield serenity of the soul and a peaceful night’s sleep, but it won’t necessarily pay the rent or buy groceries.
A few months ago, I wrote about my plan to review several pairs of speakers that retailed at or below $2500 USD per pair, and as of February 1, 2018, I’d finished my roundup. Over the last six months, I’ve spent time with Bowers & Wilkins’s 704 S2 ($2500), Elac’s Uni-Fi Slim FS U5 ($1499.99), KEF’s Q750 ($1499.98), and Monitor Audio’s Silver 300 ($2000) (all prices per pair). My goal was to get a solid feel for what buyers can expect in this price range, in terms of sound quality, appearance, and fit’n’finish. If you want to go deeper into what informs my thoughts as expressed below, I suggest checking out each of those reviews.
Hi, I’m Hans. I’m a youngish, married dude with no kids. In my spare time I read the news, pore over online car forums, trawl the Internet for politically incorrect memes, play and watch an unhealthy amount of soccer, and overanalyze all manner of past choices I’ve made. When I meet new people, I may talk about any of these activities, or my hometown Eagles going to the Super Bowl, or just about anything that will keep the exchange going. Hell, just to throw my fellow conversationalist for a loop, I may dig deep into my past and talk about how I used to work in a call center, an Abercrombie & Fitch, a funeral home. What I almost certainly won’t do is mention my second job: reviewing hi-fi gear for the SoundStage! Network.
I feel a bit lost. For years, my music server has been an old MacBook Pro, first running iTunes, then a combination of iTunes and Tidal, and now Roon. It was nice being able to access my local and Tidal content from a single interface.
While post-World War II was not the most racially or socially progressive era of American history, they proved to be halcyon years for America’s middle class. Hard work was rewarded with fair wages, upward mobility was not necessarily limited to the educated, and the ratio in pay between the average CEO and the average worker was around 20 to 1.
I’ve written this monthly column for more than five years now, and the further along I get, the less I care about high-priced gear. The tipping point for me was the realization that not much changes. Jeff Fritz, SoundStage!’s editor-in-chief, recently found this out when he replaced his Swiss-made Soulution 711 stereo amplifier ($65,000 USD) with a 20-year-old Model 11 amplifier from Coda Technologies that he grabbed off Audiogon for $1500, and rhetorically asked, “In 20 years, how far has the high end really come?” Evidently not very far, at least in terms of amplification. Benchmark Media Systems, Devialet, and NAD are making some of the most cutting-edge amps around -- the Benchmark AHB2 amplifier ($2995) remains the amplifier with the lowest levels of noise and distortion we’ve ever measured -- yet none of them is breaking sales records, despite their state-of-the-art performance on the test bench. There’s still plenty of room in audiophile hearts for class-A, class-AB, and tubed gear, despite the fact that there’s been little measurable improvement in performance for these architectures over the years.
“Home theater is making a comeback.”
That was the perspective of Hegel Music Systems’ Anders Ertzeid, who offered a peek at Hegel’s five-channel amplifier prototype, codenamed Galaxy, at the company’s booth at CEDIA 2017, in San Diego in early September. Such a statement might seem odd at an event that’s long been a showcase for home theater and the video, audio, and control systems that drive it, not to mention such things as projection screens, window shades, lighting systems, furniture, etc. But Ertzeid seemed to mean that the success of video streaming has reignited interest in watching movies -- and not necessarily among early adopters who were quick to upgrade their A/V receivers to process Dolby Atmos sound, and their Blu-ray players to play Ultra HD discs with high-dynamic-range video. Instead, it’s the general public who are becoming more interested in higher-quality audio for video, mainly due to the wide availability of movies and TV shows with multichannel soundtracks from services such as Netflix and Amazon Video.
Thanks to globalization and the powers of sophisticated overseas manufacturing, we’ve gotten to the point where we can cheaply and reliably manufacture complex physical devices. Not long ago, it was normal for new LCD monitors to have a pixel or two DOA, and other physical defects were common. Consumers were more tolerant, and retailers were generally willing to exchange a product that wasn’t perfect for one that was. Today, though, everything is pretty much perfect. Even knockoffs of name-brand products are often nearly indistinguishable from the originals. Sure, there’s still improvement to be had, and greater value to be found, but by and large, quality hardware and electronics are available to people at nearly all levels of income.
It’s interesting how the songs we hear in adolescence are so formative. It’s no wonder that much of the music now played at audio shows and in dealer showrooms was composed decades, if not centuries ago. I get that J.S. Bach, Duke Ellington, and Bob Dylan may goose some listeners’ bumps, and that high-resolution reissues of albums that old can be exciting. The musical education of this barely millennial, however, took place in the 1990s. Alternative rock and gangsta rap may not be common fare for audiophiles, but the latter, with its roots in Compton, California, in the late 1980s, has had an outsize impact on me and on the music industry over the past 25 years.