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Why High-End Audio?

April 22, 2009 By Geoffrey Morrison

Myths, Facts, and Self Doubt

Our friends over at Gizmodo recently did an "Audio Week" where they talked about all aspects of audio, from music to the high-end.

Results were mixed, at least in reading the comments. It seems most people think high-end, or even "decent" audio is some kind of myth.

The problem, as I see it, is all in the head.

Waterfall Audio NiagraI am an unabashed audiophile. I love audio, I love music. I even have a degree in the former, and entered school with the intention of majoring in the latter. So I tend to have a biased view of the world. Not that everyone needs $50,000 speakers, but that decent audio is something everyone should have.

When I say "decent" I mean something better than computer speakers, TV speakers, or a $199 home-theater-in-a-box.

A friend recently asked for my help to get a system for her apartment. She's a musician, and as such doesn't have a lot of money.

She was expecting me to say she needed to spend thousands on a system. I searched the web for a few minutes, and found her a really nice setup with a receiver and some speakers for under $1,000.

Will this system blow the windows out, or hold a candle to some of the equipment I've reviewed. No. Will it sound great in her apartment, and orders of magnitudes better than a "boombox" or TV speakers? Unquestionably.

To me, the difference between good and bad audio is easy to differentiate. To my friends as well, but oddly I seem to be friends with mostly musicians, so there's a bit of a bias there

But I know this isn't the case with most people. Back when I used to sell audio at Circuit City (RIP), I would always try to talk people up from the $39 shite that was advertised that week. Not just because it was my job, but because I genuinely wanted people to have decent audio.

And before you assume there was a monetary incentive to do so, the speakers I usually referred people to were only $20 more and netted me $0.25 more in commission.

What would happen, though, is 80-90% of the people would say some variation on "I won't be able to hear the difference."


And here's the real heart of the problem. I've talked about this "mental block" before, but I really feel it bears repeating.

Anthony Gallo Acoustics Nucleus Reference 5 LSIf people think they won't be able to hear a difference, they don't even consider getting anything but the cheapest system they can. Hence the preponderance of $199 or less systems (and having actually reviewed some of them, I can say with authority that they really, really suck).  

Here's my bit of mushy optimism. I feel, without a doubt in my mind, that everyone can absolutely hear the difference between good audio and bad. Will they hear a difference between $10,000 speakers and $5,000 speakers? Maybe not. Will they hear a difference between a cheap HTiB and a decent set of speakers? I have no doubt.

The problem, sadly, goes deeper. With this pervasive distrust of ears, people buy terrible audio, and then think that is what audio sounds like. So when they read about uber speakers, they scoff. And why wouldn't they? In their mind, they can't fathom anything sounding better than what they have. "Better sound" just doesn't exist in their universe.

Some in the audio industry blamed the iPod for the decline in audio. This was foolish. The iPod was a symptom, not a cause. The iPod offers tremendous potential of fantastic audio listening enjoyment (as many companies have now realized). The problem is that the convenience of the thing was paramount, and because people didn't think they could hear a difference, they left the defaults and encoded everything at low bitrates.

Where does this leave us? I suppose education is the only possibility. To at least mention to people that they should check out better audio with an open mind. That they should trust their ears.

That said, I do think we're seeing a return of audio. Technology and manufacturing has gotten to the point now where there is amazing equipment to be had at every price point.

I'd like to think this resurgence is a result of people feeling that the flat-panel they bought a few years ago is "fine," and they start looking for something a little better on the audio side. The key is to find these people, and show them that spending $1,000 on a receiver, five speakers, and a sub is going to sound tenfold better than a $600 HTiB. Spending $2,000 would be even better. Or more. But whatever their budget, there is decent audio to be had.

Some will hear the difference and have a sort of "Ah ha!" moment. They'll start to wonder what else is out there. Start tapping into that inner audiophile. I know I'm not alone in thinking that the high-end audio revelation is the same as the first time one has truly great wine, or fantastic steak, or the first time driving a fun car.

I guarantee there are countless people out there who don't realize that the four letter "B" word is not high-end audio. And of these, some would be willing to spend more on something better, once they realize that they can hear a difference.

So the next time you hear someone say "this is fine for me" or "I won't hear the difference." Tell them that they can, they just haven't heard the right things. Because once you hear your favorite album on a high-end system, there is no going back.


more improtantly they should hear the two systems side by side and make a direct comparison our auditory memory is very short it needs to be compared back to back then people really hear the difference

Ideally, yes. Though that's getting harder and harder. So many stores don't even have their audio equipment plugged in. Although this article was about HDTV buying, most of the advice works for audio too.

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