HiFi is dead. Its guardians killed it. Not bad for a pulp fiction opener or horror movie poster, is it? A bit crass perhaps, a bit generalized and exploitative but not without merit. It's got that go-for-the-jugular core message. Creative artists at the big ad agencies like to dream up this shit for their expensive tag lines.
It's not really that HiFi is dead of course. Stuff continues to sell, people continue to listen to tunes. Some would simply argue that certain -- vital -- key values have been diverted, perverted and slowly but surely turned into fakes. In the olden days of Altec Lansing, JBL and Western Electric speakers, paper pulp drivers were king. Frequency extremes were limited, crossovers simple, wide-band single-driver coverage normal and horn-loaded HF drivers no cause for snobbish disdain. Power deliveries with triodes in the driver's seat were low, speaker efficiencies naturally high and tone, dynamics and continuity more important than hi-tech materials, complex networks and 3-digit power specs with multi-stage amplifier topologies.
In the name of progress -- and that more expensive must be better naturellement -- we've been sold quite a bill of goods since then. That bill includes ceramic, synthetic diamond, Kevlar, Beryllium and all manner of plastic and composite drivers. Complex crossovers are espoused for the high number of parts used. Wicked impedance curves are shrugged off with a flippant "power is cheap". Cabinets extol Carbon fiber, Metacrylate and other composite super materials touted for their density, stiffness and low energy retention. It all looks bloody impressive on paper - obvious advances over the primitive materials of yesteryear. Add super tweeters out to 100kHz. The Audio Olympics are in full swing. It must be that new records of audibility and sonic superiority are set each year. Surely the players -- those who buy into this rat race -- are endowed with better and better hearing to take advantage of these advances. It's a genetic revolution. Soon humans will be hearing better than dogs and bats.
But is anybody really listening?
In certain quarters, a rebellion's brewing. There's a return to natural transducer diaphragm materials like paper. Electronics use wood enclosures, speakers plywood chassis. Naked conductors get ensleeved in cotton or silk. The whole single-ended triode and transistor movement is recruiting converts. Open baffles. Chip amps. Battery-powered T amps. Vintage vinyl spinners from Thorens and Garrard. It nearly seems quaint. Antique-shop audio. Yardsale hifi. No glitz, no hi-tech allure, just a persistent counter trend to much of what's extolled in the mainstream.
How outmoded is this stuff, really? How deaf does one have to be to consider swimming against the stream while believing to make real progress? On our staff, Stephaen just built himself an Altec 604-based speaker. He also owns Zu and Cain & Cain xover-less widebanders. Michael Lavorgna does the nasty to PHY. Les Turoczi and yours truly to Zu. Steve Marsh to Bastanis. Jeff Day to Harbeth. We've all somehow fallen off the turnip truck - you know, the one which headed uptown to the disco lights, leaving us on the funny farm scratching our scrotums. Alas, this farming contingent is growing. People are getting fed up with their hifis. They're getting fed up with hyper resolution, unrealistic treble energy, steely vocals, brutal bass, lack of harmonics and tone. Listening stopped being enjoyable and fun somewhere along the road of buying into the Audio Olympics. Our hearing hasn't really advanced along the lines that are proposed by the new & better lure of the marketing machine.
That doesn't mean our listening abilities haven't sharpened. Our hearing is the same. Actually, it's decaying with age. But our listening intensity can peak with age. It's like making love. When you're young, you're breaking records. You're an athlete and contortionist. You want to impress. As you get older, you mellow out. You want something else that's more nourishing - less effort, more heart. Funny that many audiophiles who've marched up and down the boulevards of trophy audio, to the bright and blaring fanfare of promises and peer pressure, have since veered off into the hinterlands. They're exploring audio that's simpler, more humane. Much cheaper, too! Down with impressing anyone, up with personal enjoyment. Satisfaction. Have you had any lately? 2007 will continue my theme of realsization and vintage-influenced product selections. It'll all be modern production audio, mind you - 2007 vintage straight off the assembly line. But some of it will be a return to older, slower and mellower values. There's a rebellion brewing. It's worth reporting on as an alternative for those who have grown tired of the gymnastics and keeping up with the gold medalist racers.
There's companies in sync with this rebellion. They are catering to those of us ready to unplug from the matrix. They tend to not be preachy. In fact, they're often rather adverse to joining the usual razzle-dazzle marketing campaigns. They're waiting to be sought out by those who are disenchanted with the status quo. We've profiled Zu Audio in the US as one such company and four listeners on staff have confirmed the concomitant sonic flavor. In WLM, I recently discovered the Austrian Zu - same sensibilities, slightly different execution. Auditorium 23 is another one and having recently purchased their Solovox speaker, Michael Lavorgna will tell that tale. There'll be more old-timey but modern speaker companies to discover and profile. For reasons that should be obvious, speakers are most vital in this endeavor.
Is HiFi dead? I think not. I simply think that much which is most interesting about it happens outside the mainstream. Identifying such rebel companies will be one of the tasks I've personally set myself for this coming year. Let's see how many I manage to find. It's not the amount of money you spend that guarantees any real satisfaction. Nor the brand recognition or resale value. It's about readjusting our vision on what's really important, about how we listen and what ultimately satisfies and what doesn't. Making decisions then comes easy. Consider the Altman DAC. It's hideous, a little circuit festooned on a plywood sliver. It's cheap. Yet sophisticated listeners claim it does things the techno wonders fail to do. Consider the Red Wine Audio Signature 30 and now 70 amplifiers. Sophisticated listeners of the valved allegiance find it not identical but so close and compelling -- and in matters of noise and power, plain superior -- that it's become a no-brainer recommendation around here to anyone asking for tubes but not the tube headaches. And those Tripath/SLA amps are affordable as well. Less money, more grooviliciousness. Could it really be true?
If all this talk of retro rebellion doesn't have you puke but rather, breath a sigh of relief, join our efforts in identifying its present-day cheerleaders. It's not about condemning the status quo. Different strokes for different folks. It's about portraying the grander picture to recognize more options depending on how your biases are wired. We'll continue to cover as broad a range of products as we can get our hands on. If you've followed us for a while, you already know that each writer's crank gets turned to a somewhat different tune. We're all just fellow travelers crossing and crissing. Occasionally, we even change our puny minds about what's most important. Nothing's etched in stone. The only thing of relevance, to you and us, is that we have fun and respect the diversity in unity which, being audiophools, binds us all together.
Merry Christmas - or whatever your special year's end celebration may be.
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