Nothing New Under the Sun?

Written by Bill Leebens

Having entered my allegedly-golden years, I have little tolerance for pontification or pretense.  I’m more likely to quote Kafka or Bart Simpson than scripture of any form…but don’t worry, I won’t go into my deficiencies of character or education right now, plentiful though they are.

So—take a deep breath.

There are some writings that are time-honored, though, and for me a few verses from the first chapter of Ecclesiastes have always held truth. And as a senescent cynic, they especially ring true:

…there is no new thing under the sun.

Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new?

A knowledge of history is both blessing and curse. It’s a blessing when you realize that you’re following a path that someone has previously followed—and then abandoned, with good reason. Such knowledge enables you to change course. It’s a curse when you view the latest and greatest whatever du jour, hyped as new, and without taking a beat you can say, “oh, that was done by so-and-so in 1927, blah blah in 1946, and…”

That’s me, in audio. The fact that I write about vintage audio keeps that kind of knowledge close to the surface, periodically unearthed by the research I do.

So: what is there in audio that’s truly new? I’ve asked this before, but it’s a question that bears repeating. Anssi Hyvonen, head of Amphion Loudspeakers and a very tough customer indeed, commented on Facebeook regarding Bang & Olufsen  going back into the black, “299 Euro wireless earbuds save the trend-setting giant? What does it tell about the state of our industry?”

That’s an excellent question. Some years ago BC (Before the Crash), Bang & Olufsen’s products  provided the best distributed-audio solutions, combined with elegant (if sometimes quirky) design, and solid construction. A number of marketing missteps combined with the ’08 crash, turned a $2B company into a company that today is celebrating being barely in the black at $500M. During the last decade, B & O has gone through a couple CEOs, sold its automotive division to Harman, sold its ICE Power division,  and sold a factory that the company built in the Czech republic.

A number of industry folk thought that B & O was done for, but the company has staged a bit of a comeback with, yes, wireless earbuds…as well as headphones, Bluetooth speakers, and other products that traditional audio companies are quick to label “lifestyle”. Now: I don’t know about you, but MY lifestyle demands high-value, indestructible products that perform well. In audio, that also means, “sounds good”. And also, fuss-free and un-tweaky.

Are those bad qualities? I sure don’t think so, but many in audio snidely label any product that is easy to use and doesn’t look like it came from a lab or a recording studio as “lifestyle”. Huh.

At one time in my life, “lifestyle” products for me meant Magneplanar Tympanis tri-amped with Audio Research tube gear, used with Nakamichi Dragon cassette deck and turntable. My lifestyle now demands less clutter, less complication, and less stuff. Is that wrong?

Again, I sure don’t think so. From the ’50s up until the ’80s, quality audio systems were standard home entertainment gear, fitting into the lifestyles of students, families, doctors, attorneys, mechanics—regular people. Normal people.

And then the terms “high-end audio” and “audiophile” entered the everyday lexicon, and the perception spread that one had to be some type of golden-eared elitist to even be able to enjoy the good stuff. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told, “oh, I couldn’t even tell the difference with that stuff.”

I’ve challenged that statement every time I’ve heard it said, and given some type of demo whenever I could. And whaddya know? Even the biggest skeptics can tell the difference, and most really enjoy hearing their music well-reproduced.

Note the key phrase: “their music”. You’re not likely to win over a fan of Childish Gambino with “Keith Don’t Go”. If someone has never heard their music over anything better than $10 earbuds or a cheap Bluetooth speaker, they probably don’t even realize that there is something better, much less that “something better” means  more enjoyable.

So what his this got to do with there being nothing new under the sun?

Maybe we don’t necessarily need new—we just need the old idea that music is valuable, and worth having in  one’s life, and one’s home. Drop the snob stuff. Make it easy to use. Stop talking about audiophiles, and focus on music lovers.

I’ll bet you that if we did all that, we could stop worrying about our hobby, our obsession, our lifestyle, going away.

Because music sure as hell isn’t going away.

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