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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
June 2006

A Dissatisfied Mind

Sit and watch a sporting event on TV and, if you have a sociological bent, you will come away thinking a number of things that have nothing to do with sports. This happens because of the advertising, which is not only profuse -- stuffed in after periods end or when time outs are called -- but aimed squarely at a certain segment of the population: young men. It's amazing what advertisers peddle to guys who watch sports: cars and beer, beer and cars, pizza and beer, and cars. This doesn't happen by coincidence, of course; advertisers know who's watching, and what those people like and want.

One of the codes that advertising agencies have cracked is consumer satisfaction. They know that satisfaction leads to sales of everything from cars, beer and pizza to prescription drugs and mutual funds, so they pour it on, reminding us in commercials that others have the satisfaction that we want. Car commercials can be blatant about it, telling us that one model of car has won numerous awards for owner satisfaction. An effective commercial doesn't have to be any more complicated than that.

All of this makes high-end audio seem all the more peculiar. The human quest for satisfaction doesn't dominate audio advertising; in fact, it's pretty much nonexistent as a theme. I think there are a number of subordinate reasons for this, but these are overshadowed by a single primary one: satisfaction isn't what drives audiophiles. In fact, it's just the opposite. Dissatisfaction is the driving force of not only audio buyers but many audio manufacturers. How many times have you heard a manufacturer claim, "We made our own X because we couldn't find what we wanted available commercially" or a variation of this? This taps into the individuality that underlies the audio industry, and also the dissatisfaction that drives audiophiles. Satisfaction with recorded sound doesn't create audiophiles, and satisfaction with one's system isn't what keeps us all buying new products. Online sale of used audio equipment is big business, and it relies on two-way dissatisfaction: that of the seller and that of the buyer. Cracking that code could give an advertising exec an aneurysm -- and a raise.

Why all the dissatisfaction among audiophiles? It's not only part of the audio industry, but part of the audiophile gene code. Many audiophiles find fun in dissatisfaction. Becoming dissatisfied with one's system leads to all manner of adjustments -- new speakers, new cables, even a new listening room -- that we audiophiles call "upgrades." Bliss after all the dust has settled is temporary, and more upgrades occur -- ironically, sometimes taking us back to products we owned earlier. None of us is immune. In fact, upgrading is a kind of audiophile rite of passage.

And the beginning of audiophile sensibility. It's often not until we have upgraded profusely, running roughshod over our audio systems and bank accounts, that we come to understand and appreciate the satisfaction inherent in music. It has been there all the time, easily within our grasp, yet we were blinded by a new amp or CD player and never saw it. This is one of the reasons the iPod has been so wildly successful: It goes straight for the satisfaction, such that it is.

I am not advocating ignoring all of the really good new products that the audio industry puts out each year. Many of these are bona fide upgrades, not just lateral moves, and the quest for better certainly fits in with the quest for satisfaction. But upgrading isn't the point of being an audiophile; appreciating music in an intense and satisfying way is. Let's all have a beer and a slice of pizza to that.

...Marc Mickelson
editor@soundstage.com


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