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High-end audio’s hypernormalisation

In the lobby area of Munich High-End 2017, an small exhibition of album cover art. To name five of these contemporary, almost-classic artists: Fever Ray, Manic Street Preachers, Muse, The Klaxons, Caribou. Journey upstairs to the listening rooms that U-shape wrap the two atriums and you’ll hear nothing of the sort. This contradiction, like that which we saw previously, has us questioning which way is up – hypernormalisation.

Upstairs is where many really big ticket manufacturers exhibit. Where a verbal pre-pending of a five-figure sticker price causes some serious eye twitch in our host. He’s hoping we’ll swallow the indigestible. “Only $50K” – surely a joke in these troubled times. And the times, they are never not troubled. Except for the one-percenters who can comfortably afford the Rockefeller-Fi rocking around the clock in Atrium zones 3.1, 4.1 and 4.2 at Munich High-End.

It’s not only the gear itself that would cause the bank accounts of mere mortals to melt but the floor space required to house these uber high-end audio systems, not to mention the sizeable and well treated listening room to do it justice. A big hifi system demands a big house. And a big house costs serious money.

The Rockefeller-Fi formula: large floorstanding loudspeakers, driven by a pair of car-engine-sized monoblocks, flank a hifi rack loaded with pre-amplifier, phono stage, DAC, streamer and turntable. It is not uncommon to see outboard power supplies taking the box count further north in the name of higher performance and, for some owners, bragging rights.

Photo: Andre Hopp

Then there’s the music that even other manufacturers have begun to poke fun at. Year in, year out, we hope that change will come. But it never does. The homogeny is stultifying, especially for those not into Tin Pan Alley, Take 5, Diana Krall, or the odd slice of opera and classical.

For the mainstream music fan – of Fever Ray, of the Manic Street Preachers, of Muse, of the Klaxons, of Caribou – there is nothing to see/hear. Nothing. Ditto those making median average of annual earnings. Or twice that. Or thrice that.

Observe:

Rockefeller-Fi manufacturers do a fantastic job of making superb sounding gear, for showing us what’s possible from an almost unlimited R&D budget. But let us not pretend for one moment that this is anything but an uber-niche market with vanishingly narrow appeal, both in terms of affordability and demo music taste.

Trickledown? Very few manufacturers operating in the Rockefeller-Fi space also make considerably more affordable gear and demo it with music made by the artists listed in the first paragraph.

And that’s fine. Who am I to criticise someone else’s music taste or income level? That’s not it at all. It’s when the complaints from within the exhibitor ranks begin to spill – that young people (<40) don’t care about good sound. Then the aforementioned eye-twitch becomes a full cringe.

I love the high-end audio world. I just want it to be better; where ‘better’ means more affordable and more relatable. More than that — free of the lip service effectively paid to anyone without two homes and a yacht.


Written by John H. Darko

John H. Darko

John is the editor of DAR, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is also an occasional contributor to 6moons and AudioStream and currently resides in Berlin, Germany.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
Facebook: DAR

41 Comments

  1. Sadly many audio enthusiasts, myself included, don’t have the opportunuiy to attend international events. That said, I agree that it would be great fun to visit really high end equipment demonstrations to hear sound that is unobtainable my 99.9% of music fans. Your posts have always helped me choose affordable equipment that ,in itself, brings great satisfaction to a “hobby” that started in childhood with a Motorola record player and a membership in the ” Columbia Record Club” that my father joined for me. But then it has always been about the artist and their music not the equipment that plays it. Hearing Percy Faith on that old Motorola for the first time was as exciting as hearing Diana Krall new album in 192/24 digital played through any number of modern day integrated amps and digital to analog converters.

  2. The law of diminishing return is that merciless, especially when it come to uber-hifi. And finally you need perfect recordings, a perfect room acoustic and a highsophisticated cabling and mains power supply to reveal the incremental improvements in “sound quality”. Much in contrast when comparing a 30′ sailboat with a 300′ sailing yacht. I guess there is a specific threshold when styling and status aspects become more relevant for the end user than the pure sound quality. However finally it’s a matter of individual enjoyment. A pair of Phantoms active speakers from Devialet can hardly be beaten concerning the level of hifidelity versus price.

  3. Yes, no baby boomer Eagles or Diane Krall playlists and no barista kiosks either. Audio shows are about stuff first and foremost. Let pips get their latte and Red Bull elsewhere.

    • Until you’ve tasted MOC coffee, you’ve no idea how welcome Bryston’s booth and coffee setup is.

  4. Well, they are preaching to the choir, they are giving their customers, wealthy white men over 50, what they want, classic rock, some jazz and classical to prove that the system can play it. They are the “taste makers” for the music played because they are the only ones who can afford it, except for Rap stars, footballers, and F1 drivers 🙂
    I would think though that a boutique audio store would tailor the music more to the specific audience, and less to the generic older white guy.
    My opinion, YMMV

    • Hey, I’m over 50! Frankly I would rather listen to LCD Soundsystem or Grimes than Diana K. or, aghast, The Eagles. 🙂

        • Hey guys, I’m 55, and I don’t listen to classic rock etc. for the most part, mostly modern Prog, but most of the people I know listen to the same stuff they were listening to in high school

  5. Back when I was in college, we used to sit around and listen to music. The system was a Dynaco 70, Acoustic Research speakers and Garrard automatic turntable connect with lamp cord.

    The key was a group of us were sitting around listening to music.

    I don’t see young people doing this any more based on my daughters and their friends behavior. They have their phones or other electronic devices. If there is music it’s sonic wall paper.

    My oldest daughter told me: Dad, you and your friend are the only people I know that sit around and listen to music.
    Before is was a social event listening and talking about the lyrics or groups. But today I don’t see this as a social experience. There are too many other distractions.

  6. John, sorry missed you in Munich. While we avoided playing any of the 5 tracks forbidden by Bryson folks, we had one request for DK from our visitors. Frankly most music streamed from Tidal sounds very good these days although some tracks make better demo than others. Our playlist included Michel Camilo, Carl Anderson – album Wolftown, Rodney Crowell, Red Stick Ramblers, Shawn Mullins, Marc Broussard, Newton Faulkner and many other fine musicians outside of a typical demo circle. Visiting folks much enjoyed our music selection and enjoyed our price points as our small active and passive models quickly became hit of the show for many. This was indeed an excellent show for us with prospective dealers and distributors from 16 different countries. It’s becoming painfully clear that US audio shows approaching downhill rather swiftly with mismanaged CES leading the pack. Hope to meet up in Munich next year! Cheers!!!

  7. The boutique audio store I go to encourages people to bring their own music on vinyl, CD or a laptop and USB cable. Problem solved.

  8. The irony, on some level, is that the modern market reality reminds me regularly of when I was in my early teens living in Munich. It’s all relative.

    Walk into any self respecting German department store in the early 80’s and the selection of HiFi equipment on display was mind boggling compared to anything in my native UK. Maybe a handful of London department stores might have compared.

    The stunning and extravagant designs were mesmerizing, the prices stratospheric, the brands unfamiliar. But these were department stores and you could stroll among the racks and displays marveling at the industrial design of brands like Braun first hand.

    Now, the HiFi show seems to have replaced the mainstream HiFi dealer. While the internet has become our aisles and racks, missing is the opportunity to hear any music first hand by pestering the tired looking sales person who knows a 13 year old isn’t buying.

    Through those same retrospectacles, I still can’t believe I spent over a year living with a Harmon Kardon reciever and Thorens turntable mated to JBL L300’s with no concept of what it was. Sometimes, youth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be!

  9. Seems the press is “obliged” to attend these events, like the White House press corps feels obliged to “engage” Sean Spicer every day. Sorry for the comparison. But I’d certainly prefer the former – a bit more interesting, if not as entertaining.
    On the rare occasions that I go to audio shows, I really don’t expect to hear any music (unless some live music is offered), but to mingle with manufacturers, press, and fellow attendees. And I don’t expect to learn much, but commune with others obsessed in this “hobby”. Given your perch, you have to visit these shows on our behalf, so thank you, despite the nature of what they offer up. Makes you wonder why the public is even invited, as much of importance takes place off the show floor – the dealer/manufacturer meetings, for one. May Rocky Mountain will prove a better than average experience than most.

    • That’s right. Nowadays, I rarely listen to gear for extended periods at shows. It’s impossible to listen beyond the unfamiliar room and, in my case, the unfamiliar music. I’m there to report on what’s new, to tease out trends and observations as well as meet with manufacturers to tee up review samples. Only when I get gear home and triangulate SQ through comparisons in a familiar room with familiar music can reliable judgement calls be made.

  10. Thanks for a very welcome column John.

    I consider it not unrelated to your columns regarding MQA. For many of us who will never be able to afford what is possible from an unlimited budget, MQA is an improvement that can be heard and appreciated by listeners of average means. That in part explains why some of us are both appreciative of it and hopeful about it.

  11. Regarding that chalk board… A far more positive approach would be to list atypical music and artists, hopefully generating some curiosity, rather than s**t-listing specific music and artists.. sooo negative.

    I suppose I’m fortunate to live within an hour or so of the annual RMAF show in Denver, but more oft than not, I’m left underwhelmed by the megabuck unobtanium systems that seem to be more about making a visual statement than audio quality. I’m sure they would sound better in proper rooms, but it’s almost always the more modestly priced (by Audiophile standards) rooms that really impress me.

    • That’s what makes audio shows a poor choice for hardware auditions and why I stopped commenting on audio show sound quality some time ago: experience has taught me that it’s impossible to listen past an unfamiliar (and often inappropriately sized) room.

      • I kinda suspect the whole room factor to be the very reason those megabuck unobtanium system dealers frequent these kind of shows. Gives them an excuse. Don’t believe me? Next time try going to a megabuck room and tell the head honcho that his system doesn’t sound anywhere near as impressive as it looks. His answer will probably be “it’s the room, not us” or something along those lines.

        • Which is precisely why I stopped writing about sound quality at shows. Yeah, the show and tell is nice but on SQ I’m none the wiser until I get a piece of gear home and into a familiar room.

  12. The exhibitors shouldn’t be selecting any of the music. Attendees should be encouraged to bring their own music and they will jump at the chance.

    • Y’know, I’m of this opinion too but don’t express it very often. Some will complain that attendee choices won’t maximise the performance of the loudspeaker. I say, “So what!”. As does Sean at Zu. People make buying decisions with emotions more than they do logic. Exhibitors are terrified at losing a sale when they only have a few minutes to make a good impression. That’s because people don’t stick around too long in demo rooms. And they don’t stick around because they’re never asked to supply their own music.

      Perhaps one way to run a demo is to alternate between exhibitor and attendee cuts. One for one?

      • One for one – sure. With Tidal the exhbitor can que in practically any track one might desire. Simply ask what is the music preference and press play. Simple as that. It’s a better alternative than playing from someone’s USB stick with possibly virus infected files and a music of questionable pedigree. Happened before. Cheers!

  13. Hi-Fi has become Giffen Goods, where the higher the price the better it is perceived to be even if it sounds like crap. No one wants to talk about the Emperors clothes. No one will stand and talk about how poorly expensive gear can sound. We don’t even have a definition of what good sound is anymore. It used to be that we sought to recreate the original performance as accurately as possible. And if it sounded bad that was what we wanted to here. But now we want the music to sound good no mater how it really sounds.

  14. “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.”
    — Duke Ellington

    Yes, I have an eclectic taste in music but if someone likes Steely Dan, The Eagles, London Grammar and Dave Brubeck – So what? At least they are listening to music, which is the number one priority. So many people use music as sonic wallpaper so don’t knock other people’s taste just because what they like is popular. Take Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, as an example. Most people groan when they hear it but very few have listened to it all the way through and if they did they would realize it’s a phenomenal composition. You have made your point now move on.

    • Per the post, this not about one piece of music being better than an another, it’s about the unbelievably narrow selection served up at audio shows. And that narrowness closes manufactures off to the broader market (which they claim they want to pursue). I like Steely Dan too but I don’t wanna hear it every third room. Yes, I’ve stated a point of view. Move on? Why? Perhaps you find hearing the same thing over and over boring? Now there’s an irony I’d not foreseen.

      • …and my point is that let’s not dissuade people from listening to music just because it’s en vogue to criticize Diana Krall, as an example. I am in general agreement with you on show demo’s but to answer your question, I do not find listening to the same thing over and over again boring, when it comes to music. However, my “Move on” comment meant that your crusade would have much more testicular worth if it was less frequent. Either way, all of our opinions are First World problems compared to the struggles of daily life for many people around us.

        • Not a crusade but an integral part of each show report: what music is being played? Even if it were my 10 fav songs of all time being played over and over, I’d find the cumulative effect numbing. The music played at audio shows ultimately defines the event’s audience. Both are super narrow. And yet company after company complain that young people (under 40s) don’t care about good sound. It doesn’t take a marketing guru to see (in part) why.

          Testicular worth” is a good phrase though. 🙂

  15. “Year in, year out, we hope that change will come. But it never does. The homogeny is stultifying, especially for those not into Tin Pan Alley, Take 5, Diana Krall, or the odd slice of opera and classical.”

    You forgot Pink Floyd……

    A visit to the KEF room in Atrium 4 would have revealed….

    1) Sure, A HUGE ticket system with a bunch of car-engine-sized electronics driving it….
    2) The LS50 active wireless SYSTEM….. €2200 (no confusing mess of wires here)
    3) A system consisting of €1550/pair speakers on the end of a €2800 / amp processor.

    BUT on all these systems was playing the likes of Beacon, Bugge Wesseltoft, Mark Dekoda, Greg Brown, DJ Darth Vader From Moscow, Deadmau5, Max Richter and Rammstein. Oh and Mozart, Paganini and Rachmaninov for the ‘alternatives’.

    We were trying to be more “inclusive”, even taking requests with Tidal enabled – but we were super surprised to discover how few of the audience at this show had even heard of Tidal!
    (One guy asked for Adele – would that have been a no-no?)

    BTW – Nice notice from Bryston!

    Thinking of doing a show ONLY playing “classic” hifi demo tracks sometime …. just to redress the balance :-))

    • Indeed. Which is why you’ll notice a hyperlink to KEF under the “very few”.

  16. Johan Coorg is a true star of those audio shows – I have seen him at several in Brussels. Always amazing fresh music, great explanation, friendly etc. Not many people would allow to experience how Metallica’s One sounds on Muons 🙂 Or some great English punk rock.

    KEF is lucky to have presenter like him.

    Great thanks!

  17. Now that I’ve stopped laughing, let’s talk about actual Rockefellers. There are a lot of them and I’ve had professional relationships with two. Sorry to burst your bubble but both were interested in the AR-4x speakers in my office and how to run a system like mine from a tablet.

  18. Underworld’s cd Ep dark & long has excellent dynamic range & would sound awesome & bring in the next generation of music lovers, or some DVD-A Porcupine Tree, or dare I say it some no more heros from 1977. Seems like these vendors are stuck in a comfort bubble that is long over due to burst.

    • I try to picture the average twenty-something responding to an offer of free entry and attending an audio show for the first time: 99.9% of the music they would not relate to.

  19. Agreed John I can’t relate to a lot of it either I think they are so out of touch with reality. And do little to further the cause of enjoying music.

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