Enjoy the Music.com
The Absolute Sound
April / May 2008

Man Bites Dog

  The mainstream media consistently distorts and sensationalizes high-end audio when it chooses to cover the subject at all. We've all seen the newspaper and magazine articles that portray those of us who pursue musical realism in the home as wild-eyed fanatics, out of touch with reality.

The latest in this long and unfortunate procession is the "Portals" column in the January 16th Wall Street Journal. The title, "If You're Not Insane About Sound, Maybe You Can Just Go Crazy," reflects the author's agenda. In the second paragraph, "Portals" columnist Lee Gomes sets the stage with this definition: "Audiophiles, as you probably know, are the hi-fi zealots who think nothing of spending $50,000 on a turntable. I've learned over the years that audiophiles actually come in two varieties: the totally insane and the merely crazy."

First, I don't know any audiophile, no matter how well-heeled, who would spend even a fraction of that amount on a turntable without extensive deliberation. Second, note that the price and the product-category examples were chosen to elicit the greatest sense of shock and alienation. The definition could have read "Audiophiles are music lovers who will spend $2000 on a pair of carefully chosen loudspeakers that sound more like live music" but that's merely a "dog bites man" story.

Just before the 2006 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, a reporter from the Denver Post interviewed me for an article  he was writing about the show. Before the interview began, I implored him to report on the industry accurately rather than sensationalize it with accounts of $100,000 loudspeakers and $20,000 cables. Journalists often take the easy way out, I told him, by using the hook of a few high-priced products that represent only a small niche within a larger industry rather then learning what the field is really about. I then laid out for him my view of high-end audio:

  High-end audio is for anyone who enjoys music.

High-performance audio doesn't necessarily mean high-priced audio a quality system from specialty manufacturers can be had for not much more than mass-market commodity hi-fi.

Anyone can tell the difference between mediocre and superb sound quality it doesn't take a "golden ear" to hear the difference.

The better the quality of the reproduction, the deeper the listener's connection to the music.

The value of hearing your favorite music wonderfully reproduced night after night cannot be overstated.


Yes, it's possible to spend $100,000 or more on a pair of loudspeakers, I said, but sensationalizing that fact does a disservice to the truth.

I read the story in the Post two days later and, of course, it opened with an account of an audiophile who spent more than $100,000 on a pair of speakers. The tone of the piece, as with other mainstream coverage of high-end audio, is akin to the writer putting on a freak show for his readers: "Look at how bizarre these people are."

Reporters are looking for the sensational because that's what's "newsworthy." They need an "angle" on which to hang the story, and pointing to audiophiles as wackos serves that purpose. Oddly, however, mainstream journalists don't have a problem reporting favorably on other expensive goods and services such as exotic cars, gourmet food, vacations, hotels, yachts, and spas. In fact, they exalt these products and experiences as something to aspire to.

Another factor driving the anti-audiophile agenda within the mass-market press is the writer's attempt to position himself as the consumer's advocate. By reporting that high-end audio (particularly cables, the mass-media's whipping boy) is a waste of money, the writer appears to be protecting readers from a consumer scam.

The mainstream media could more accurately write about the schoolteacher who owns a modest, yet musically rewarding system made up of a high-quality integrated amplifier, CD player, and bookshelf speakers that was priced well within his means. The article could convey how much this hi-fi system has enriched its owner's life by serving as a more faithful conduit of the musicians' expression. It could mention premium cables costing less than $100 per pair that sound significantly better than zip cord. Such an article could describe how much more rewarding it is to buy from a skilled and dedicated specialty-audio retailer who helps you find just the right system rather than from a clueless appliance-store clerk handing you boxes over the counter.

But that story wouldn't sell many newspapers.



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