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Not HorrorFi but a riff on the imagined overlap between horology and hifi. Today's tickled into being with Jeff Fritz's editorial on luxury hifi wherein he referenced Patek Phillppe; and hifi journalist Ken Kessler's piece on Christopher Ward's new super compressor case. Expensive watches can be rife with questionable complications and features. But even very affordable watches have them. Take lume. It's a photo-reactive paint that gets applied to watch hands and indices and is charged by light. Adverts show intense night glow when in reality, this borrowed light fades quickly. Should you need to know the time at 4:00am, whatever lume might have been visible at 22:00 will have expired. To clearly see your watch hands in the dead of night requires tritium tubes—fully sealed micro radioactive elements that glow constantly—or battery-powered back lighting. With the latter, you simply push a button and for one or three seconds, the entire watch face lights up like it does on a €280 analog/digital solar-powered Casio Steel G-Shock. That of course requires a battery to eliminate purely mechanical watches. Lume on the other hand is essentially useless when you really need it.
Dive ratings and movable bezels are similar pseudo features. Modern professional deep-sea divers use hi-tech computerized gear, not a Seiko or Citizen diver's watch. As a civilian, you won't go deeper than your bath tub. Who needs ratings to 600 meters and helium escape valves? Ditto 1/100th or even 1/5th of a second chronographs. If you own racing horses or greyhounds, your eye-to-hand coordination will be too slow to accurately start/stop for precisely elapsed time. Leave that to laser trackers. Ditto moon phase or a 24-hour sub dial. Unless you're a hijack victim imprisoned in a darkened room waiting for your ransom to come in not knowing whether it's day or night, you won't need a watch to tell you. The only practical use of a 24-hour sub dial is when you must manually forward a date display from 30 to 1. The sub dial setting will help you insure that the next date change will switch correctly at midnight not high noon. Once we get to mechanical watches, complications for their sheer sake abound like the hamatik movement from Glashütte celebrity maker Moritz Grossmann. It replaces the traditional rotor with a hammer a bit like a pendulum grandfather clock. Why? Because they can.
It's ingenious. It's complicated. It's unique. And it tells less precise time than a cheap quartz which is less precise than a radio-controlled digital watch. But of course the German MG is hand made to amazing tolerances and finished to perfection as though by magic elves. Whenever hifi claims to be finished to fine Swiss horology standards, people exaggerate. Not even cartridges apply though they can arguably come closest, perhaps to be followed by a complete in-house fabrication of a universal transport like JMF Audio's BDPM1.
Audio has its own questionable features. Hello amp meters. You know when the music plays. You can hear just how loud it gets. Must a dancing needle prove it? How long until that novelty wears off? Selectable digital filters are like a skeleton watch. You can affect or see the mechanics without enjoying real functional benefits. The list goes on with bizarre audio complications and ugly contraptions.
If watch aficionados really were about the most accurate time keeping like 'real' audiophiles are supposed to be into absolute signal fidelity, a cellphone permanently self-correcting to 'official' time is king without drift, always shows the proper date and then multi-taks tremendously beyond just telling time with multiple alarms and counters. Hifi's version of official time is heavy error-forward DSP correction.
But according to Frederique Constant, a tolerance of ±20 seconds a day is considered acceptable for a mechanical time piece. ±7s/day are excellent. Being 10 minutes off a month is thus acceptable for a manual Swiss watch. That's two hours per year. In hifi, let's invoke room issues and measurable distortion aka colorations. Many enthusiasts prefer a certain amount of THD and disregard their room entirely.
Haute horology is driven by exclusivity and finish quality enforced by price. So is luxury hifi. Shopping for a hand-crafted mechanical watch can get you a true marvel of miniaturized engineering and machining. Shopping for luxury hifi can end up with a darTZeel amp or Living Voice speaker of astonishing material finesse. The upscale watch market has been assaulted by quartz watches, cellphones then smart watches on precision and cost. The top of the hifi sector is under constant attack by makers who deliver more and more for less.
On September 5th, 2020, you could get this brand-new Aragon DF-47 at $89. It bought you a 24-jewel automatic Sony SII NH38 movement, K1 crystal, screw-down crown, open-heart display with polished edge, polished stainless steel case with exhibition back, uni-directional 120-click bezel, 300m water resistance and quick-release leather band with contrast stitching. What you didn't get was Swiss, German or Japanese manufacture but Chinese origins. You didn't get hand tooling, exclusivity, resell value or collector's cachet. You didn't get a hand-carved guilloché dial like the A. Lange & Söhne of the header. You didn't get a broadly recognizable name or understated elegance. You got the equivalent of ChiFi – somewhat brash but very well executed and absolutely extreme value.
It might have given you all the satisfaction you could afford and then some… just like our now mostly Oriental upstairs system in fact which combines a Chinese SD transport and DAC with a Korean integrated amp and performance rack, Dutch speakers with French super tweeters, Lithuanian inline filter, Japanese passive power bar and American and Dutch cables.
Appreciating superior craftsmanship and being willing to pay for it entirely separate from raw performance is shared by fanciers of haute horology and high-end hifi. Both markets also have their fair share of snobism, entrenched opinions, camps and detractors who incessantly point out that a cheap quartz or clock radio can do it all. Which is true as far as it goes but also misses the boat. In the end, the key difference between these markets perhaps is that there are real functional limits to mechanical watches and their performance. Once you tell accurate time with zero drift, what else is there? Cellphones already do that. Mechanical watches probably never will to that self-correcting degree and their job can't scale up like fine hifi. That still expands, pushes new delivery formats and playback methods, develops tech which may not only measure better but often leads to greater listening satisfaction. And, pride of ownership and intangibles factor just as they do with fine mechanical time pieces. Those are worn in public to bestow prestige and good taste on the wearer. A superior hifi remains a secret shared only with close visitors. Bragging rights are limited to the obscurity of the fora.
Of course breakthroughs in self-powered watches like the Zenith Defy still occur to change how the mechanics work. Regardless, very narrow aims of more precise time keeping, greater power reserves, higher reliability and lighter weight remain purely objective. A second is a second no matter where you measure it. Ditto for a gram more or less of wear weight. Hifi is rather more subjective and unruly. Still, what both audiences often share is a very personal investment not just into how well the job is executed but by what means. Should time be indicated by hands, by rotating even 'vagabond' discs like Urwerk's, by Hublot's rotating cylinders, by HYT's progression of a colored liquid inside a transparent tube or by Devon's constantly moving nylon belts wrapping around turning ruby barrels? Should D/A conversion occur by Sigma-Delta, R2R or FPGA, as PCM or DSD, native or oversampled? Are four balance wheels like those of the Roger Dubuis Excalibur Quatour better than the suspended single balance wheel of an MB&F Legacy Machine N°1? Is dual mono better than stereo? How about a single hand like MeisterSinger's versus mono records? Is a reversible watch like a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso or the triple bridge of a Girard-Perregaux La Esmeralda a gimmick or serious feature? How about light-dependent resistors as preamp volume controllers and opamps as power-amp output devices? Why do brands like Rolex and Magico get all the attention? Is this green/yellow Richard Mille the height of fashion or gauche horo horror? Does it matter if a fit suntanned tennis star in all white makes it look like a million bucks? Where are the celebrity ambassadors of ultra audio?
The list goes on.
Both audiences also heartily disagree about which brands are the serious doyens of their art. Is a Monsieur de Chanel jumping-hour watch with retrograde minutes or a Louis Vuitton Tourbillon Volant Skeleton with 80-hour power reserve a serious time piece or a pricey fashion watch? Is a Paradigm Persona with beryllium tweeter and midrange a true high-end speaker like a Vimberg? Is a 25wpc transistor amp like a Bakoon a serious amp or a toy? Do digital displays like Tissot's have a place in haute horology? Are single-driver speakers fit for 21st-century music? Are titanium or bronze watch cases superior to steel? Do silver/gold cables trump copper? Do precious stones or diamonds belong on a watch, gold-plated face plates or black chrome on hifi gear? Are mechanical watches and direct-heated power triodes diehard dinosaurs or the height of sophistication? Serious watch houses produce their own movements, serious speaker houses their own drivers. Everyone else relies on OEM parts which in more affordable automatic watches could be a Seiko or Miyota/Citizen mechanism or be of Chinese manufacture like H.K. Precision Tech's PT5000, a clone of the Swiss Sellita SW200 and ETA 2824-2 which are popular with the Hamilton, Sinn, Stowa and Tudor brands. As premium SB Acoustics drivers designed in Denmark can be built in Malaysia without affecting their standing, the Chinese-built HKPT movement could obtain the Glashütte Chronometer Observatory's stringent German chronometer certification as an assurance of premium quality.
As one plucks this field for cherries and lemons, one might be so bold as to say that recreating the emotional complexity of a big ensemble playing back dense music over a hifi adds many dimensions and real rather than self-created complications above and beyond mundane time keeping. Also, a hifi not only joins the electrical and mechanical domains to mix more disciplines, buyers must assemble a system and tune it to their room. A mechanical watch is a closed system. It has identical performance for all buyers. Wind it up enough to get started, strap it on. Tic toc. Case closed but not for hifi. Likewise how name recognition of luxury watch brands is immeasurably higher than is the extent to which upscale hifi brands have penetrated mass awareness. But just as the CES show has gone bust, so has Basel World.
Then there's the automotive angle. McIntosh furnish the new Jeep Grand Wagoneer's car stereo, Naim outfit Bentley, Porsche work with Burmester. Bang & Olufsen deal with Audi, Bowers & Wilkins with BMW, Meridian with Jaguar Land Rover, Mark Levinson with Lexus, Sonus faber with Maserati. On the other side, Jaeger LeCoultre have worked with Aston Martin since the 1920s, Valijoux build watches for Audi, Bentley have turned to Breitling for theirs while BMW's fashion watches are made by Tourneau. Bugatti's watch isn't sold but gifted to owners of their EB 16.4 Veyron super car and made by Parmigiani Fleurier. Ferrari contract for their luxury watches with Panerai of the Richemont Luxury Group. Mercedes have branded watches from IWC, Graham, Muhle and TAG Heuer. Porsche Design develop/produce their own chronographs and have for already 30 years. Crowd-funding is an obviously far more current development exploited by up'n'comers on both sides of the fence—think Java Hifi or Xeric watches—to finance a brand launch or provide new capital for subsequent projects. Also shared by these industries is the direct-sales model to bypass high-street dealer margins particularly for micro brands. Likewise for the concept of mono-brand stores which in hifi was probably most successfully pioneered by Bang & Olufsen. In today's watch industry, first to plan a complete move away from traditional mixed retail with wholesale intermediaries are Audemars Piguet whose 2018 sales volume hit €1.1 billion with 40'000 watches sold. Should we then expect very fine hifi systems installed in these exclusive AP boutiques to enhance the overall sales experience? Who might curate such systems?
[Note how exactly like in lifestyle hifi ads which refuse to show actual speaker cables, this photo of a Mercedes watch has strategically stopped the watch hands so as to not obscure the chronometer sub dials or date window.]
What's a watch enthusiast's equivalent to a ground loop or flat tyre?
How well does luxury hifi maintain its value on the 2nd-hand market versus elite mechanical watches? What's the better investment?
Are Rolex and Panerai more likely to get cloned in China than upscale audio brands? What's audio's version of an homage watch?
Does 'made in Switzerland' always mean what it says?
Who are Kari Voutilainen and Martin Gateley?
The Legacy Machine N°1 Final Edition by MB&F with two independent time zones, flying balance wheel and domed lens.
How many more parallels or divergences can you come up with for today's HoroFi match?
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