A new normal?


Love thy neighbour. The dude next door buys a brand new luxury car. His bank account $50K lighter, you and a few others gather ’round to bask in the glow of his new pride and joy. That’s normal.

Another neighbour, whom you’ve invited over for dinner, you notice is now sporting a new high-end watch, apparently the result of “a good year”. He’s in the double-glazing business and sales are reportedly stronger than ever. You make appreciative noises as you learn of the watch’s intricacy and craftsmanship. That too is normal.

Your turn. You buy a new hifi. $50K on loudspeakers, an amplifier, a phono stage, a DAC, a streamer and a nice turntable. Snaking behind the couch out of sight are some rather spiffy loudspeaker cables. The whole shebang is juiced by a power regenerator that feed each component with python-esque power cords. You think it’s marvellous.


Alas, your neighbours don’t seem to share your enthusiasm. As you drop the needle on a MFSL version of Steely Dan’s Aja, their look of bemusement grows ever thicker. The conversation moves to the afternoon’s sporting fixture more swiftly than you’d like – your neighbours, they just don’t get it. As the needle drifts in to the run out groove, you’re overcome by the feeling somehow your neighbours see you as more of an oddball than they did yesterday. You, Sir, are not normal.

As you drift off to sleep later that night your ponder: “Is the pursuit of better sound now seen as a more eccentric hobby?”. After all, your kids are quite happy with a single, puny Bluetooth speaker and our wife – bless her – listens to music through her iPhone speaker when she’s in the bathroom.

Perhaps what you need is the company of more like-minded audiophile fellows? There’s a hifi show taking place across town next weekend – perhaps that’ll cast the hobby in a more favourable light? Perhaps you’ll see younger and even female attendees?


Alas, the hifi show preaches largely to the choir; those already converted to the religion of proper stereophony, tube amplifiers or lossless codecs. And then there’s money – the hifi show is a reminder that we need quite a bit of green to get moving. Nine out of ten rooms won’t get out of bed for less than five grand. Is this why your neighbours aren’t interested? Could be.

Perhaps your neighbours would be best served by a more intuitive display of gear? How about standmount speakers like the Andrew Jones-designed Pioneer SP-BS22-LR, powered by a Rega Brio-R integrated amplifier with an entry level turntable from Pro-Ject spinning records. Now that’d be a system your Mum could look at and intuitively understand.

Then there’s headphones: the Chord Mojo driving a pair of Final Audio Sonorous III would be one sweet rig, all for less than a grand. Best of all, the Mojo connects directly to an existing smartphone or tablet. Man, how could they NOT dig that? How could anyone possibly think that the preserve of oddballs?

Twenty-five years ago, John Franks started Chord Electronics. Now that FPGA hardware technology has begun to catch up with Rob Watts’ self-coded DAC chip aspirations, the British company is going gangbusters.


Watts’ WTA filter started life on the DAC64. Now variations can be found in many of Chord’s D/A converters but it was the Hugo that was the crossover smash – a DAC/headphone amplifier that took the Kent-based company to another level in terms of industry reputation.

Watts’ follow-up was a global smash. Selling for US$599, the Mojo offered Hugo levels performance in a smaller package and without the need to call on a wall-wart for battery recharge.

On looks, many of the company’s products will divide a room.Their latest flagship DAC (it’s called DAVE) often meets with scratched heads, at least initially. As Franks says, it takes time for appreciation to overcome the shock of the new.


In case you’ve not pegged it by now, John Franks likes to do things differently.

At the inaugural International Hifi Show in Melbourne, I sat down with Franks and Sales Manager Colin Pratt for a chat. There was no set agenda but we conversed for over an hour and I filmed the lot. The resulting video runs to 22 minutes, which, I know, is an eternity in the world wide web of two-minute satisfaction but it rewards the patient viewer.

Make a cuppa and settle in to hear Franks and Pratt discuss: the audio industry; hifi shows that know how to talk to their audience; the need to visit one’s target market where they live and not expect consumers to come to you, especially the young’uns; the success of the Mojo and its implications for Team Chord’s global travel arrangements; the merits of Bluetooth audio; the possibility of smaller spin-off products and, get this, a Rob Watts-designed A/D converter.

Here is one company who has enjoyed the first hand benefits of reworking (accidentally as much as on purpose) their products’ public image so that the appeal is broader and the message sent is that a nice-sounding audio rig is a luxury purchase worthy of anyone’s discretionary income, including your car- and watch-loving neighbours.

Further information: Chord Electronics

Written by John H. Darko

John lives in the NOW + HERE = NOWHERE. He derives an income from the ad revenues of DAR. John is also an occasional staff writer for Stereophile, 6moons and TONEAudio.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
Facebook: DAR


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  1. The key:
    ”…if the manufacturer has thought about it and dressed it in a living environment king of way…”
    Nowadays it’s the audio altar and the whole ritual surrounding it is what ”normal” people are turned off by.
    Personally when I see a younger dude grooving to his Bose speaker (which BTW sounds pretty decent for what it is) I can’t help but question my audio obsession. Lately I’m going through a period of audio frustration and financial exhaustion from constantly chasing my tail trying to get things to work in my living room and am seriously considering downsizing (downcashing).
    Never mind what family and neighbors think of my trip – I have to answer to myself. Do I keep pursuing this rabbit hole fantasy with more box swapping, impending room treatments and weeding through merchant’s bullshitty claims? Do I go in the opposite direction with a Mojo and a pair of affordable powered speakers or would that cold turkey cure be too much of a shock after being an audio junkie for 30 yrs? I can already hear them muttering to themselves ”he’s finally acting more ”normal”

    • For me, they key is to promote/sell a “listening experience” more than it is to promote/sell black and silver boxes. Car ads on TV are a good example of this. To some car buyers, it’s the idea of the open road and freedom that appeals. For others, it’s the ability get about town quickly, park easily, all whilst the iPhone is hooked in to the sound system over Bluetooth. The car’s mechanical features and specs rarely get a look in. Car ads use saleable ideas and appeal to our emotions in order to shift units.

      • A lot of people who haven’t caught the audio bug look at these “over the top” lamborghini of the audio world setups and feel, at the very least, alienated and estranged. Many large and ridiculous looking (but potentially great sounding) speakers are not properly set up in homes, so that when a newbie hears his friend’s stuff it’s eye rolling fodder for the guest. “Sounds great,” they say, not wanting to hurt any feelings. The friend continues then to buy pricy, ugly, poorly placed equipment. If you’re gonna spend the money, and don’t want to purchase from the dealer, at least contract a dealer or two to check your speaker placement. You’ve made the investment. Now employ some insurance and assurance that you’re getting the most out of that purchase. Once your friends hear the beautiful results, they’ll forgive your aesthetic taste, which like sound of course, is subjective. A caveat: some people just aren’t interested in great sounding music. You loan your friend your dac and headphones; she/he doesn’t catch the bug and continues to generally not listen to music just as before, and on the occasion she does decide to open itunes, doesn’t use a dac or better headphones. People have different interests and priorities.

  2. Spot on observations John. Many times I’ve waited for the “wow this sounds amazing” comment only to be moved on to the next topic of conversation shortly followed by turning the volume down on £7000’s worth of kit as it’s clear they are not as impressed as I am and wish to talk not listen.

    Not even glowing valves and 1000’s of tracks available with a swipe of the ipad moves them.

    Are people deaf or are our ears in better nick?

  3. In areas like Beverly Hills, Bentley Continental GTs are so thick on the ground that they are colloquially known as the “rich person’s Camry.” Just because you happen to have a lot of money doesn’t mean you necessarily have any taste, or any appreciation for things outside of the mainstream. Your rich friends all have Continentals in their driveways, so that’s what you get. You don’t put any thought into it, because you don’t actually care about cars whatsoever. You don’t read Car & Driver or Motor Trend, and you certainly never go to the LA Auto Show. The idea that an S-class Coupe is a much better car than the Continental, which is older than dirt, and is a Bentley body on top of a VW Phaeton platform – a car that VW couldn’t give away for 1/3 of the money – never crosses your mind. Your friends don’t have the Mercedes, they have the Bentley, so that’s what you get.

    Just as most people, regardless of income, think very little about cars, most people think very little about sound. If you live in SoCal and you’re rich, you buy a Continental. If you’re not rich, you buy a Honda Accord. In both cases, you probably don’t even bother to test drive the car, and you certainly don’t cross shop. If you have kids and stuff to haul, you buy either a Range Rover or Honda CR-V.

    Talk to most people about your audio system, and you’ll either get a blank stare, or “is that like Bose?” Talk to most people about your $3200 Nikon D810 and your $950 Sigma 50mm 1.4, and you’ll either get a blank stare, or “don’t you have a camera on your phone?” Or better yet:

    “How do I zoom with this?”

    “It doesn’t have zoom, it’s a prime lens. You have to walk forward.”

    “But I have a 20X zoom on my (insert $150 pocket camera)!”

    Not everybody will intrinsically understand expensive items related to hobbies that they have no interest in, which is fine. If you try to talk to me about your $5K golf clubs, I will stare at you blankly. I don’t care about golf, and the idea of hitting a little plastic ball with a glorified stick that costs as much as said Sigma 50mm 1.4 (or a nice ZYX phono cart) makes absolutely no sense to me. No offense to golfers, I’m just not into it.

    Similarly, not everyone will automatically be brought to tears by your Aja record, even if you have a TechDas Air Force One to play it on. They’re not into it. Or maybe they just don’t like Steely Dan.

  4. Large numbers of people have no interest in music. It doesn’t move them or speak to them in any way. They will never be interested in gear which makes the music they don’t care about sound better.

  5. I basically disagree.

    I still haven’t spent huge amounts on hi-fi, but a few years back when I was wanting to get back into hi-fi I didn’t want to spend more than $2000 on speakers, amp, and source. However, I did want to hear what a $20,000 or higher system sounded like so I knew what I was aiming for. Listening to $2000 systems isn’t that inspiring. So I think there is value in the higher priced systems. The problem is that it is hard to hear a good range of good quality systems (particularly where I live).

    The Melbourne Hi-Fi show was the first time I got to hear a good range of quality systems. My favourite room was Osborne’s with the reference speakers and 150W single-ended valve amps, possible in the $50k price range for the system. I’d never thought much about Osborne’s and it was the first time I had heard his setup, but for me it was all in the hearing. It was also nice that in the next room he had bookshelf speakers for about $3000 which seemed to have the same tweeter and mid/bass as the reference with a much cheaper amp and source. The cheaper setup had a similar sound signature for around $10k. Still a lot for someone starting out. But its the $50k system that is burnt in my memory.

    The Telos room with tape and omni directional speakers was probably more impressive, but I heard the tapes themselves were $500-$600. The Melody setup with JBL speakers was probably over $100k and sounded good.

    The other rooms also sounded good, but I really want to be impressed at a show and get an idea of what we are aiming for.

    In comparison I wasn’t that impressed with the Mojo (the first time I had heard it). Not because it is a poor performer, but because a show environment is the worst environment to listen to it in. It didn’t leave a burning impression on me. But perhaps in a different environment it might’ve. I think VAF were using a 2Qute and it sounded good in their setup and new bookshelf speakers.

    Just my thoughts from a newcomer to hi-fi shows.

    • I’m not entirely sure where your disagreement lies, Jolon. Sounds like you had a great time at the Melbourne show and that you really dug a $50K system but don’t find $2K systems all that inspiring. Fair enough. It also sounds like you have at least a basic grasp of the hifi world.

      What I’m trying to address as a lead in to the interview with John and Colin is the desperate need for a normalisation of hifi ownership. Buy a car or watch and it’s partly for pleasure and partly to outwardly display one’s financial standing to friends/family. Show off a big expensive hifi in the same way and people tend to think you’re a bit of an oddball. Why the differential? It’s not you, it’s them. The mainstream generally perceive the audiophile world as confusing mess with numerous barriers to entry, not least cost of entry.

      Absolutely there is value in high-end systems but for many a newcomer the jump from a $200 Bluetooth speaker or $500 sound bar to a $50K multi-box stack is too wide to make in a single leap. I can tell you with confidence that if I put someone who usually listens to a soundbar or Bluetooth speaker in front of a pair of Andrew Jones ELACs or Pioneers driven by a thousand dollar amp, they are well and truly blown away. It is for these people that audio gear needs to be normalised.

      And I think audio shows have a part to play in that normalisation process: to cater to the curious drop-in with NUMEROUS affordable, intuitive systems. Toyota don’t only take their luxury models to car shows, they take the whole range, thus showing price continuity from the bottom of the range to the top.

      Of course, in Australia where audio shows are dominated by distributors and many show hotel rooms are small (as per the USA), loading in each brand’s entire range just isn’t practical. As a result, each distributor, not wanting to be outgunned by rivals, opts for a high-end rig. Almost no-one puts $500 standmounts at the centre of their demo system. That’s their choice and not for me to challenge but the net result is a series of big ticket systems that keep Joe Public at arms length with price AND complexity – a walled-in, elitist game for middle-aged oddballs (like me).

      • I wonder whether the market you are speaking of has other challenges. For example when you buy a car, you don’t have to know that the negative terminal of the battery connects to the black wire and so on just to get the car started, you just insert the key and turn it (or push a button).

        Setting up a pair of bookshelf speakers, amp, and source actually requires a small amount of electrical know how. A USB rechargeable bluetooth speaker does not.

        Even the concept of multiple boxes, means extra storage, in case it needs to be repacked. It’s all sensitive equipment the boxes probably need to be stored. Bookshelf speakers really need stands. If it is a passing interest, then what to do with all this equipment that is taking up space? What if someone knocks a speaker over?

        Listening to music is somewhat personal, all of a sudden I’m filling the home with music others might not like. It has more bass, but now the neighbours can hear it.

        In some ways the bluetooth speaker/sound bar fits reasonably well, and I’m sure some of them sound good.

        From an audiophile perspective a bluetooth speaker runs off a battery (cleaner power than the outlet and possibly less heavy current demands), might have full range speakers so no crossover, or possibly active speakers, may use a class D amplifier, no connections and short cables, built-in DA conversion, etc. The simple bluetooth speaker actually ticks quite a few audiophile boxes, stepping up to a source, amp, speaker combo could be a step down in certain respects.

        Is it better to advocate for better bluetooth speakers and soundbars rather than separates?

        • Why not advocate for both? Perhaps ask newcomers to weigh up the pros and cons of ELACs w/ integrated amp + turntable versus a pair of Sonos Play:5. The latter probably doesn’t require as much setup knowledge or time as the former but the separates solution might offer more long-term satisfaction. It depends on the buyer.

          PS Be wary of the ‘batteries are best’ trap. Some can be noisy. Equally, some mains power supplies can be very quiet indeed (yes, even switch modes).

  6. The recessed light in the ceiling with the black surround looks like a bowers and Wilkins woofer. I wonder if that was intentional?

  7. I never demo my hifi to visitors even if they ask about it. Just no point – bit like taking granny for a spin in the Lamborghini – she might say “that’s lovely dear” but she doesn’t have the faintest idea about what has been achieved.

    • I too never demo for “visitors” but over the years I have invited many friends and acquaintances, who appear to have a more-than-passing interest in music, over to my place to “listen to some tunes”. Every one of them has had no trouble hearing the huge improvement a good system makes on the quality of the music. Every one seemed quite impressed. But absolutely none of them has ever gone home and improved their personal systems. Not even one! Evidently, even though they consider themselves “music lovers”, and they play music a lot, their current equipment gives them everything they need.

  8. Until the 1970s it was perfectly normal in the English-speaking world for a room full of people to listen quietly to a hifi, or to watch a TV or have one joint conversation or share one meal. That is not the case now so hifi is a solitary hobby. In (some parts) of Asia communal home entertainment is still acceptable so listening to music (live or recorded) in the home with visitors is still a part of many people’s lives and not a geekish hobby.

    Now, if you consider the audiophile system described above another issue is raised. A system set up for optimum sound quality takes up a lot of space and, to the non-audiophile looks like a mess. Dealers and distributors should show their systems both ‘naked’ (for the audiophiles) and tidied in cabinets or behind screens etc to show how the system need not dominate a room yet still sound good. I suspect there is a whole sub-industry in such concealment devices. It could be as simple as a blind which rolls down from the top shelf of your equipment rack.

    Also, for the benefit of your guests simply moving the speakers close to the wall and hiding/covering the speaker cables will make the system disappear from the guest’s consciousness. When it’s an all-audiophile party leave it set up for optimum sound quality. If a non-audiophile asks if speaker setup matters jut move the speakers back out. That ‘party trick’ can be enough to ‘convert an unbeliever’.



    • You’ve hit on an important point there, ES: the normalisation of audio gear doesn’t only sit with affordability but also with (visual) simplicity.

  9. For me visual simplicity has always been a priority. I keep all unsightly boxes and cables well concealed. What I’ve always aimed for is a ”sleeper system”. By sleeper I mean like a unassuming car with 600 horsepower and beefed up suspension I like my system to look deceivingly minimalist and unassuming but sound awesome. I even have a small sub that’s kept out of sight. I get my kicks out of cranking it up with electronic music and watching my brother in law scratch his head wondering how I’m able to get so much bass out of a pair of stand mounts. I prefer that to the aforementioned audio altar with behemoth speakers that has draws attention to itself but often fails to live up to expectations.

  10. It’s true. Not normal.

    Showy car = boy become man, the power to move, attractive to women.

    Showy watch = man proud of his looks, attractive to women.

    New hifi = man become boy, hiding in his room, drowning out talk, unattractive to women.

    Yay us.

    • Thanks for the tip amigo.

      No wonder I’m not scoring with those money grubbing, social climbing, insecure, high maintenance, airheads who are into red convertibles and Rolex bling. Damn!

  11. The car ad is on the right path.

    It has to appeal to the emotions. How hard can that be?, I mean we are talking about music remember. I try not to talk to people about my system. Instead I share with them my passion for music (not how many albums I have) and the thrill I still feel when a favourite track or album is played. I share stories about the memories those songs bring back, often good times with old friends. I invite them to share a musical memory with me. What were you into at 15? Can you remember the first album you bought or the first concert you went to?. Everyone has those memories. Then, if I talk to people about my
    system there is some context, and it is easier to see thwt it’s important to me to make the experience
    of listening to music as involving and satisfying as possible which means I am happy to spend time and money to achieve that goal.
    I acknowledge that embracing music is not as common place as spending money on a flash car but I can at least claim my motivation is genuine personal satisfaction rather than social signalling . Taking it back to how car manufacturers sell their products with a promise to make you feel like a better person (Trust me, no one has a practical reason to buy a Mercedes ( beautiful and luxurious as they are) so much as the hope that it says something special about who you are (successful, discreet,
    elegant?). Hi fi needs to promise to reconnect you to the joy of music and take all the boxes and cables and nerdiness away. Perhaps Beats can show the way. For all the limitations of the product they changed a lot in the way people listen to music. Stylish design, slick marketing campaign with the promise to make you cool by highlighting that music was a priority for you, part of your everyday identity. Nothing about technology. Just put these on and enjoy (and the world will see you).
    One of the strongest drivers amongst millennials is a desire for an authentic experience. The vinyl revival is part of this. If they think that artists are demanding high standards because it is part of their artistic vision then it is a small step from there to getting them to explore what is possible with their budget and listening environment.

  12. I guess I don’t understand the obsession with attaining main-stream acceptance of HiFi. I’d prefer to not relegate my HiFi system to the same superficial, look-at-me status symbol that cars and watches are for most people. If you want normal people to be “impressed” with your audio equipment, then get one of those funny looking B&O contraptions or that JayZ orb speaker or a 12-band graphic equalizer with glowing sliders that nobody is allowed to touch.

  13. This is why I’ve basically made personal audio – headphones, in-ears, near field monitors – my only type of audio. No point in sharing . Guests just mess up my home anyway.

    Funny that you mentioned cars – in my experience, taking a drive in a regular family sedan with some mates while listening to tunes on the basic OEM stereo has been a much more social experience than any sort of living room full-range speaker gathering. Food for thought.

  14. Oppo HA-2 with Meze 99 or Momentum 2 is a beautiful looking combo that is probably an abnormally good mobile listening experience for approximately $600.

    Wharfdale 10.1 plus stands and entry level integrated two channel amp of your choice for a few hundred more for an abnormally good speaker listening experience.

    Aesthetics (read “normal” looking) coupled with good sound is possible.

  15. Hi John,

    Mate, I loved my 12+ months with the Hugo, but the amount of sheer blind hatred it elicited on Head-Fi was gobsmacking, most of it around the ‘Fisher Price’ aesthetics. I think we both know the Head-Fier who drove most of the backlash – a young man with an obvious bias toward certain R2R DACs and a willingness to bag everything else up to and including the Berkeley Alpha. I accept that the object of his affection was accompanied by some intense hand-holding from the designer, but at the time it was still mythology while the Hugo was a production reality – a reality heavily augmented by an incredible amount of input and technical disclosure from Rob Watts. Email Meridian or McIntosh and ask them if you can get a one-on-one with any of the folks designing their next generation of products – you might get a few polite emails and I suspect that would be it. Say what you will about their products – Chord Electronics are one company that is prepared to put as much back into this crazy hobby as they are presumably getting out of it. Kudos to Rob,John Franks and the rest of the team.

  16. A little history lesson, in 1958 Paul Klipsch refuted everything an audiophile holds dear. Unusual, hardly Roy Allison (AR) felt the same way. In the seventies when owing a nice stereo was normal people in America preferred a more defused sound based on sales of this type of speaker. And audio was everywhere. Then normal people were driven away from audio by a change to the pinpoint imaging and detail preferred by audiophiles and of course the business practices of the audio industry. Back then you could have a successful audio company and deplore audiophiles, Paul Klipsch or have your family members afraid of them, Henry Kloss and still be successful.

    “Is the pursuit of better sound now seen as a more eccentric hobby” The pursuit of better sound is not eccentric, the pursuit of audiophile sound has always been eccentric and always will be. I advance the notion your neighbors are correct that your MFSL Aja and the system don’t sound right. I’m sure your $50,000 has pinpoint imaging and is highly resolving. So you made a decision that is not normal. This is one of the mistakes talked about in the interview. And the search for customers now leads you only two places, music lovers and gamers. The industry has had no success creating a meaningful number of new audiophiles.

    Addressing a few comments

    Ken, you should read Herb Reichert’s The Search for Audio Tranquility published in Sound Practices.
    Ken Middleton, your kit won’t sound good the most people, they aren’t deaf they just prefer a different experience than you do.

    Jolon, you are the type of person I would invite to my office, pull back the conference table and have you just listen to vintage speakers, a vintage amplifier with a BiFrost DAC and a laptop.
    John Darko, if you desperately want hifi ownership to be normal give people what they want not what audiophiles want. The difference is large. It’s the difference between a solitary experience and communal experience.

    MarkB, a point that should be obvious audiophiles should never demo their equipment. Audiophiles drive people away from improving their sound systems. They do not encourage it.

    Everyone’s Shadow, since 1988 my home system is Klipsch Heresy II speakers, a receiver that has stood the test of time and a vintage Japanese direct drive turntable. Setup properly the system is almost hidden from view and easy to use.

    Artie McLovin, thanks for another example of why audiophiles should be hidden away from normal people.