The Audio Cynic

It’s the (Crappy) Music, Stupid

As may be obvious after 13 of these columns, I like to ask questions. Part of the reason is that I am honestly curious to understand how other folks think; the other part is, well, shameless pandering for feedback.

…And now that you can post your feedback directly below this piece, expect even more shameless pandering in the future!

A question which both amuses and baffles me is: who decides when something is over the top?  This is clearly a personal judgment, yet there seems to be a curious consistency in viewpoints. Even curiouser: there is greater tolerance in some areas than others.

For example: cars. Almost everyone appreciates classic Pininfarina-designed Ferraris; almost no one comments about them as being symbolic of profligate wealth, even though many models routinely reach 7 to 8 figures at auction.  Is it because they’re tastefully elegant? Or just because they’re rare?

To a certain extent, flamboyance is applauded—ooh, that fuchsia Lamborghini!—but there are limits. When Justin Bieber wrapped his Audi R8 in faux leopardskin, the internet nearly melted down with posts of disapproval. So: six- and seven-figure prices, good; overbearing boy-racer aesthetic straight from the factory, good; tacky shrink-wraps of pricey car, bad. Or maybe just: Bieber, bad.

Watches? Yes, some oldsters like me will find many current pieces too big and too blingy. But does the public in general condemn such pieces, or the folks who wear them? Aside from the expected snarky comments from Jeremy Clarkson (“BMW drivers with eNORmous watches…”), no.

Homes? Sure, Derek Jeter’s 30,000 square foot house on Tampa Bay is so huge that neighbors call it “St. Jetersburg”, but aside from the occasional rueful smile or eye-roll, does anyone condemn him for the extravagance of his home? Reactions run more to amusement and envy than anger.

Why, then, are there such different standards for audio equipment?

Yes, many have bemoaned this fact before. I’ve written about it myself, on both Stereophile.com and on Gizmodo, back when that website tried to give high-end audio a fair shake. While the editors at Gizmodo had an open mind regarding high-end audio, the readers most assuredly did not—or at least the readers who bothered to comment did not.

Take a look here.  Over 67,000 people have read this, and 427 left comments: about 0.6% of the readers. Now, compared to 67,000, 427 is a miniscule number…but if you read through those comments, nearly every one of which is belligerent and emphatic in stating that anyone who spends more than $300 on anything audio-related is not just misguided but DELUSIONAL and INSANE, there is the sense of a pile-on, of a commonly-held, societally-approved viewpoint. Why?

It’s not just the threshold figure of $300: other stories on the site breathlessly anticipate new Apple products and VR headsets and drones and other tchotchkes irresistible to the tech-hip, and headed for rapid obsolescence. All those things cost more than $300, often, lots more.

Through the years we’ve seen rapid acceptance of HDTVs and DVDs and Blu-Ray. As long as the improvement was evident and obvious, plenty of folks were happy to pay the cost of being early adopters. In recent years, 3D TV went nowhere, and 4K isn’t luring many away from HDTV. I suspect it’s because the improvement (if any) is not as staggering as was the leap from the NTSC standard to HDTV.

But what about audio? If most people have only experienced MP3s, played back on a phone or through an auxiliary input on a car stereo, isn’t it possible that they can’t even conceive that there is something better? Something that would be worth more than $300?

I think that such is entirely likely, and it makes sense as an explanation for the hostility towards quality audio.

Of course, some of those  totem-pole speakers and gold-plated components deserve to be mocked…right? ;->