High-End Audio Comes in From the Cold
High-end audio has always been the orphan in the
consumer electronics universe, at least in the eyes of the industry's massive trade group, the Consumer Electronics
Association. Despite heroic efforts to raise the profile of high-performance audio
("specialty audio," in the CEA's parlance) by Thiel Audio's Kathy Gornick and Kimber
Kable's Ray Kimber (and others), the high end has largely been left out in the cold.
The beginning of the end of that era just might have been marked by an
unprecedented press conference held before the official opening of the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show (CES),
organized by the CEA (see our full report this issue). Led by Gornick and Kimber,
the CEA put on an event promoting to the mainstream press the idea that there's
a world of sound quality far beyond MP3 and home-theater-in-a-box audio systems
that consumers are simply unaware of — and that they would embrace if they only
knew how much better their favorite music could sound. The room was gratifyingly packed to capacity with reporters
from newsweeklies, daily papers, wire services, and Web sites. These journalists
collectively have the attention of many tens of millions of readers. Gornick and
Kimber were joined by legendary studio owner and record producer Elliot Mazer (Neil Young, Janis Joplin, Linda Ronstadt,
The Band, and many others). Mazer is also a consultant to Music Giants, who announced at the show the availability
of full-length albums at 96kHz/24-bit resolution.
The event included listening comparisons between tracks downloaded
from Apple's iTunes site (128kbps) and high-resolution files (88.2kHz/24-bit or 96kHz/24-bit) downloaded from the
Music Giants service. Even under the challenging listening conditions of the venue, the
difference was staggering. The press, many of whom were standing in the jam-packed
room, seemed to get the idea — there's an alternative to low-resolution tiles, and the
improvement offered by high-resolution audio is important and worthwhile. They also
seemed to appreciate the sound of the system, which included a Wadia digital front-end,
Parasound amplifiers, Kimber cables, and Thiel's new CS3.7 loudspeaker.
The CEA needed a catchword for high-end sound and high-resolution digital audio,
and chose the term "HD Audio," presumably because mainstream consumers will equate the improvement offered by HDTV to the improvement possible with
"HD Audio." Although "HD Audio" seems a strange way to characterize the high end, it
would be churlish to criticize any effort to promote better sound to the masses. If
mainstream consumers — who have never heard great sound — are tempted to seek Out
high-performance audio because of some equivalence in their minds with HDTV
that's fine with me. The CEA's own market research ("Audio Purchasing: The Continued
Quest for Quality") found that 34% of audio buyers among the general population
called "great sound quality" a "necessity" rather than a "luxury," versus 25% who
characterized it as a "luxury." Although the report contains some sobering statistics on just
how little the average person spends on a pair of loudspeakers, for example, the data
show a strong fundamental attraction to quality music reproduction.
When the floor was opened to questions from the mainstream-media journalists, the
first query was about how much additional profit margin high-performance audio offers
manufacturers and retailers. I'll paraphrase Ray Kimber's answer: "High-end audio
isn't about profit margins. It's about passion. Many of the companies in this industry carry
the name of the founder, who still runs the company on a day-to-day basis. This is a
life-long passion for these people, many of whom are happy just to stay in business and
do what they love. I'm the owner of the company, and I look at the books once a year.
So long as we're in the black and feeding and housing our employees and their families,
that's all I care about."
Perhaps not coincidentally, this CES marked another turning point for the relationship between high-end audio and the CEA: The high-end exhibits are now integrated into the show at their new home in the Venetian hotel and adjoining Sands Expo Center. High-performance audio had been relegated to an off-site venue that was far from ideal for showcasing high-end sound. The off-site location created a schism, literally and figuratively, between high-end audio and mainstream consumer electronics. With the high-end exhibits now readily accessible by the mainstream press (virtually every magazine
and newspaper in the country, and many throughout the world, send reporters), some just might discover how great music can sound and spread that enthusiasm to their readership. The high-end industry might finally get the recognition it so richly deserves.