[SoundStage!]Audio Hell
Back Issue Article

June 2001

Don't Hate Me Because I'm Beautiful

"Beauty is all very well at first sight, but who wants to look at it when it has been in the house for three days?"
-George Bernard Shaw

"The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart."
-Helen Keller

"Beauty is a short-lived tyranny."

As mature, enlightened adults of the 21st century, we are completely and utterly devoted to substance. The aesthetic is merely an illusion, which, like some sultry siren, will draw us in with false hopes only to have our reality shattered on the rocks of truth. Beauty is a mirage. What we value is truth and function.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty."
-John Keats

"Elle Mcpherson looks incredibly hot in a yellow string bikini."
-Bill Brooks

Come on, folks; let’s cut the bull and get with the program. How about a little psychological game? Read the following pairs of words and choose one word without thinking.

  • Marilyn Monroe
Eleanor Roosevelt
  • Taurus
  • Paris
  • rose

We love things that look good (and marketing people love us). If it comes in a pretty-enough package, no matter how bad for us it might be, we want it -- bad. Is there any other way to explain the success of Brittany Spears, Elizabeth Hurley and Carmen Electra? Well maybe there are a couple things….

And how does this relate to audio? I’m getting there, I’m getting there.

Let’s say it’s time to upgrade that amplifier. It has given you five years of stalwart service. It worked well with your speakers, preamp, etc.; you have no real complaints. But after all, it’s been five years, and in this hobby that’s more than a lifetime. You make the rounds of your local audio retailers. If you’re lucky, you have more than one in your area to visit. You place your budget at four grand and begin shopping.

After extensive listening sessions, you narrow your choices down to two amplifiers. Both work well with your system and would be a substantial upgrade to what you have. One has slightly, and I mean slightly, better bass control. It looks very utilitarian, a stamped black-metal chassis with large rubber feet. The second contender is the equivalent of the first in all areas except bass control. It is also a work of art to behold -- a thick silver face plate with black trim. Large, sculptured heat-sink fins branch out from the sides like rays of sun. It sits on feet that are actually four polished columns ending in spikes. When powered up, the challenger’s front emblem glows blue as if to announces the amp's royal heritage. " Here I am. I’ve arrived." Both amplifiers are significantly better than the amp you are replacing.

Which do you walk out with? Your friends are watching. They will ask how much it costs. Whether we like to admit it or not, when we spend this kind of green, we like what we buy to look the part. The ego is alive and well and living inside most audiophiles.

Is it a sin to want it all? Truth (in this case, musical truth) as well as beauty? If it is, then we’re all attending the worldwide sinner’s convention, and it’s standing room only. If the world valued function before beauty, why aren’t we all driving Chrysler K-Cars? No, I believe the only sin to be wary of would be a sin of sacrifice. As long as we still get the real goods, let’s cheer for a little glam in the packaging. Should you pay more for it? You damn well better or you’re losing something that might be harder to see (probably not harder to hear).

So shall we get down off our utilitarian high horse and join the peep show? Shoot, even my wife made me change audio racks because she couldn’t stand for visitors to think our audio rack came from a cost-cutting retailer with the same name. Yeah, you’re right on Target.

Luckily for us, many audio manufacturers enjoy putting great-sounding machines inside equally fitting packages. Miss universe with a brain? Nahhh! But in the audio world? Absolutely!

In the amplifier category, tube manufacturers are the big winners. Those guys love to build real lookers. Look no further than the Pathos Twin Towers (above right) for a sophisticated work of art. The natural beauty of Unison Research with its real-wood trim and large, machined aluminum knobs is irresistible. The growling sex appeal of Cary’s new V-12 (left) is obvious, well stacked with fat bottle EL34s in a field of Jaguar carnival red, clear-coat finish. Thor Audio makes tube gear that will run circles around most of the industry squares. But the obvious winner, dressed in polished gold and chrome, and adorned with some bodacious 300Bs, is the Art Audio Diavolo (below right). You devil you.

Our "anything but dead" analog source, the turntable, is regaining some life with an updated aesthetic. Leave it to a woman to design a piece as lovely as the SPJ La Luce CS Centoventi turntable. This acrylic-and-chrome beauty will set you back $22,000, but it looks the part. For those with an eye for the elite but a more modest bank account, look no further than the Nottingham Spacedeck. The faux-finished base provides a gorgeous background for a beautifully designed platter and drive system, and a modern-looking tonearm that earns the name Space. All this for around $2500 (below left).

Speakers have come a long way, baby. Wives who previously objected to the big, ugly boxes sitting in the living room are treated to some stunning designs and finishes. The high-gloss piano blacks of Gershman or Meridian will look drop-dead gorgeous in the same room as the white leather sofa and Steinway. For those with a hidden Dr. Seuss fetish, the bright blue or red Avantgarde series will make quite a statement. They’ll fit right in with your collection of Pete Max prints from the '60s and '70s. And nothing speaks more of understated elegance than the Verity Fidelio (right). I HAVE ARRIVED.

So why not beautiful? As long as we’re forking out the bucks; and as long as we still got the sonic goodies, why not beautiful?

For those utilitarians who profess that form and function must always go hand in hand, for those that can only be happy with simplicity in its basest form, I leave you with the words of early-20th century writer Jean Kerr.

"I’m tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin-deep. That’s deep enough. What do you want -- an adorable pancreas?"

But that we might be tempted by beauty and sacrifice quality, let me also leave on the words of a famous French courtesan, Ninon de L’Enclos.

"That which is striking and beautiful is not always good, but that which is good is always beautiful."

Happy listening.

...Bill Brooks


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