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Various degrees of decomposure & decrepitude. Dead or in the final stages of dying. That's what one hears a lot today, about the state of high-end audio. But the iPod phenom surely proves that it's not because folks stopped listening to music. They did stop listening the high-end way. If they ever even got started. If listening the high-end way means an asocial gathering of one in the basement dungeon's sweet spot, you'd nearly feel inclined to proclaim, good riddance. I'm not about to. I'm one of those who experience emotional rejuvenation through listening. Not just any listening though. It's gotta be deliberate, with intention on being transported to elsewhere. It's not about background noise or feel-good vibes to somehow distract from paying the bills. But can I categorically sell my way as the only way? Can I proclaim that my reasons -- what I hope to get out of it -- are the only acceptable reasons?

My listening habits were acquired. I grew up in a musical household. Three out of four siblings learned an instrument, two do it professionally to this day. Rewrite this upbringing and who knows what habits might have formed instead. One thing seems certain. Ours is a society of consumers with extreme needs for distraction
All digital art by Ivette Ebaen
and entertainment. Music -- let's sidestep discussions on the quality of music -- is consumed at massive rates. It's the mode of consumption that's changed. The freedom of anywhere, including being in motion, has replaced the vintage habit of hogging the solitary sweet spot. Today's younger music consumers do it in places where vintage 'philes wouldn't have dreamt of doing it.

New habits develop, those practiced by us fossils might be fading to minority status. In which case, the death of high-end -- if it implies how one listens and perhaps even, what to -- is nothing more than an evolutionary phase leading onwards. Alas, if high-end means aspiration for the better, prognostications on death and dying are well premature. Wanting better toys is hardwired into the human psyche. Fashion trends to own the latest and greatest continue to be more and more effectively exploited by the capitalist marketing propaganda.

Computer gamers want faster computers. MP4ers want smaller, smarter gizmos with higher load capacities. Cellphonistas want longer battery charge as do laptoppers who surf the web or prepare business presentations on the tube, in the codriver's seat or wherever their fancy strikes. When people complain that hi-end audio is dead or in the final convulsions, they refer to a mode of consumption, the specific hardware that serves it and a particular scheme of distribution with an associated buying experience.

Clearly the Internet has forever changed the retail landscape. Whether it's hardware or software, consumers buy it differently than our parents did. That doesn't mean they buy or consume less. The Amazon model proves that reading continues. Even living in fumbuck in the prairie, you can click and shop your way to literacy without waiting lines, blase or ill-informed sales personnel, order downtimes and higher stickers. The world of literature is literally at your finger tips.

Is that bad? Does it imply people read less just because well-stocked bookstores of the old kind might be getting fewer? Does reluctance to paying full price because Amazon has it for less signify something inherently malicious?

I'm not sure that the death of high-end audio is a bad thing nor that it means what it seems. Things are in flux. While streaming audio is here to stay, how one listens to it remains open-ended. The steady trickle of half-baked music servers in the High-End shows that nothing is settled, nobody sure what's around the bend a year or two from now.

The old is reluctant to leave, the new not quite here yet. Those committed to the status quo and comfortable with having mastered it will complain. Those excited by new possibilities and eager to learn will welcome it. What's certain is that homo erectus was prewired for music. Even the poorest, least 'civilized' of people have theirs. If high-end were simply to mean a higher appreciation for the act of consuming prerecorded music, it's just a matter of time until the current generation of music consumers aspires to something better than what's presently good enough. If better turns out to be a wireless gizmo with loads of flash memory permanently on-line and auto music downloads from subscribed sites the moment new titles enter the mother database; wireless ear-bud phones custom-molded to the ear canal for sonics better than ultra-expensive two-channel (never mind soundstaging) - who's to call that devolution? Being able to listen on a beach, up in a tree -- anywhere, anytime, without AC -- is quite liberating. Brahms to a Hawaiian sunset at the crater. Shaggy
Boombastic while jogging down city blacktop. It's all musical calories and only the snobs pretend at never downing milk shakes, French fries and pizza.

Perhaps it's merely us high-enders who are stuck in certain old ways that are dying out or spasmodically twitching right now. Our offspring already is hip and conversant with the change. Should we resist or buy a ticket and board the new bus? Could we become forward-looking dinosaurs at least, prepared to share the beat with the new listener breed? While it's likely that we have something to teach 'em, it's equally likely that we could learn from them. Then what has died? If something has dropped along the way, it couldn't have been existential. As long as the process continues, everything else is secondary. Music reminds us of how transistory things are. Music only lives in the moment. The fact that the moment can be captured and replayed endlessly doesn't alter that. The illusion of solidity and permanence is convenient but just an illusion. Audiophiles should get that and on with the change. It's about the process, not how it transpires...