|What leaves you calm and collected bothers the crap out of me and sets me off like an alarm clock. What matters to me deeply is a complete non-issue to you. That about sums it up. Priorities. They're as different as hair styles and personal beliefs. In this month's SoundStage! Editorial, Marc Mickelson persuasively argues that just because there are millions of iPod users, one shouldn't mistakenly regard them as potential audiophiles. The related example he gives are Saturn owners. They own a car because they need one to get around. But they'll never be Mercedes Benz prospects. The line between appliances and luxury goods and how people relate to this distinction in various market sectors is usually sharply defined. Marc argues that not many cross over. He believes that a luxury product maker shouldn't cater to the appliance mentality by dumbing down or accessorizing his wares. Instead, he should improve his stuff to further widen the gap. He should make the performance delta as crass as possible to enhance the appeal of the really good. Where that argument loses me is that if the appliance punter doesn't have a desire for extreme performance to begin with -- something the entire Editorial posits -- then no matter the presentation of superior performance, he won't give a damn.
But that the utilitarian vs. luxury duality -- and into which half we place specific product categories -- is more or less behaviorally hardwired strikes me as a pretty accurate statement. Desire follows behavior. If you listen to music like sonic smog -- as a background presence that takes up space instead of silence -- then chances that you'll aspire to a serious HiFi rig are pretty slim. Let's face it, not much is required to sustain sonic smog on the hardware side.
If you listen to music primarily on the go, then size, weight, portability and perhaps even budget become priorities. If you've got plenty of other hobbies like kayaking, motorcycling or rock climbing that compete for your dollars and discretionary time, chances are you'll have to apply moderation to each hobby - unless you can afford to go extreme with them all (or you have one that's distinctly more important to you than others). It all comes down to what's important to you. And how important it really is.
Reader Doug Bercow had the following to say: "I read your update The Status Quo as of April 2006: Cyprus, Coral Bay with interest. You certainly have amassed a small fortune, literally, in high end audio gear. Just for grins, I looked up the cost for the components in your main rig on the Internet. By my imprecise tally, it comes in at a cool 6 figures...$100Gs. That's 5 times the annual per capita income of Cyprus. It's 2.5 times the annual per capita income of a hardworking American. Let me re-state: Your rig (main room only) would take 2 and one-half years of work for an average working American to afford (longer if you adjust for taxes).
So, you call this system the result of an ongoing realsization adventure? I'm not sure that you've scratched the surface. In your piece, you do say that "less obsessive 'philes will still call all of this overkill." I think you are correct to say this. When I read an article about a $100,000 audio system that is the "after" picture of a downsizing, and not the "before" picture, then as a reader who can't afford an audio system costing a year's worth of my income, I can't help but feel patronized."
Had I indeed gone off the deep end again? Good grief. Actually, there's one important little detail Doug overlooked. By adding up all the components in my digs, he'd not accounted for the inevitable multiplication of components - four preamps, six or seven amps and integrateds, two front ends etc. In other words, to run just one system, far less than that princely sum is required. In fact, that's been exactly the realsization point. Rather than investing in one $20,000 amplifier, I've got multiple $3,000-or-less amps. Rather than one $10,000 preamp, I've got four each at less than $3,000. Do I need four? Hell no. Do I enjoy having four different flavors on tap to mix things up and expand my review context? Absolutely. My focus was on the per-component expenditure, not necessarily the total audio investment as a reviewer.
But Doug's point is well taken. To an outsider -- or even a reasonably sane insider -- this pile o' HiFi smacks of excess, conspicuous consumption and all manner of psychological capitalist diseases. How did I arrive at this scenario? For one, I do not smoke, drink alcohol nor do I eat meat. If you do a lot of either and add up the annual bill (or what you could save if you didn't drink, smoke or eat meat), you'd be surprised. Now remove regular eating out from the to-do list. Strike a fancy new car and stick with a small used one. Strike owning your own home and rent instead. See where I'm going? Priorities. Again. Most of us are nuts over a particular activity that we'll find ways to afford in ways that might strike others as extreme or impractical. But we all do it to support our passions.
I dare say that for every audiophile who can simply buy whatever his or her heart desires without sweating the next credit card bill, there's a hundred or a thousand who have to sweat profusely over how to pull it off. They make many concessions elsewhere. This kind of dedication and willingness to compromise all over the place so you won't have to compromise -- at all or too badly -- where you don't want to is something all humans do. To expect it from those who don't share our obsession, for the same obsession, is folly. You'd never get me to spend $500 on a watch, never mind $5,000. Nor will you see me going after a luxury car when I view cars as mere appliances. Nor do I do fancy clothes (Lucchese boots excepted).
You get my point. Audiophiles, like all other dedicated hobbyists, prioritize in ways that only make sense to other audiophiles. One guy's realsizing, from 15,000/pr amps to $3,000 ones, from $25,000/pr speakers to $11,000 ones, will strike someone else as lunacy. C'est la vie. I do believe Marc Mickelson makes an excellent point. A $299 iPod user isn't by any stretch predisposed or destined to morph into a fully diseased carrier of the audiophile virus. Here's the thing though. If that iPod user gets honest enjoyment out of his mobile and actually uses it 2 hours a day, he's far ahead of quite a few bona fide audiophiles. For pennies to their dollar. That's not me. I'm way deep into the audiophiliac disease and would reject a cure if it existed. Still, I'd say the iPod nation's got their own very valid point. Enjoyment is what it's all about. Whatever gets you there is valid. The old Zen masters got it right. The li'l blade of grass doesn't compare itself to the pine to feel small and disenfranchised. It simply celebrates its grassness outside the concept of duality and lets itself and the pine tree be. It's us advanced and superior humans who feel compelled to compare and compete while we try to outrun the great equalizer that is our own mortality. Einstein said that if he'd come back, he'd be a plumber. Me, I might aspire to come back as a blade of grass overlooking a Scottish glen or Nordic fjord. Priorities...