John Upton

December 1996

The Dead End

How many times over the past five years we read predictions of the demise of the high end as we know it? Lately, it seems as if you can't pick up an audio publication that doesn't contain a commentary by some audio-nostradamus alleging that "this product" or "that trend" will lead the high end inexorably down the road of doom. Still others claim that none of this matters anyway because the entire industry will inevitably be swallowed up by the looming specter of home theater. I had long since lost interest in the entire debate when I happened across an editorial in one of the audio monthlies positing the notion that "vinyl is killing the high end." This statement caught my eye as the whole notion behind it seems contrary to the very essence of high end audio. There may indeed be any number of perils facing the future of the high end, but I certainly would not number vinyl records among them. If anything, the resurgence of interest in analog playback has invigorated a high end dwindling into the doldrums of digital despair and meandering into a morass of multi-channel madness.

It seems to me that those of us investing our hard-earned cash in high end audio components are doing so, consciously or subconsciously, with a particular goal in mind. It is safe to say that for most, the goal would be to put together a system that delivers the highest degree of sonic enjoyment given finite limitations in budget and listening space. While the definition of "best" in this context necessarily and invariably differs from individual to individual, the commitment toward pursuit of this goal remains universal in the community. The magazine that printed this editorial exists for the ostensible purpose of assisting and guiding the consumer down the adventurous path toward this goal of audio nirvana. However, instead of praising those with the courage to trust their ears and invest in the equipment which sounds best to them (be it analog or digital), the magazine instead chastises those choosing the analog branch in the road to sonic heaven.

The reasons behind this particular denouncement of analog are peculiar, making no reference to any of the traditional (i.e. measurement-based) arguments for the superiority of the compact disk over the vinyl record. Indeed, the author of the editorial takes no position whatsoever on the sonic merits of the two mediums, proudly proclaiming that he doesn't care if vinyl does sound better than digital. To me, such a notion is an anathema to the high end. What could possibly be more important to the high end enthusiast than consideration of the respective sonic performances of each format?

Instead, the author chose to consider this statement on more philosophical grounds. He claims that the high end's preference for vinyl over compact disk sends the wrong message to the mass market which, upon hearing this bit of lunacy, will immediately reject all high end audio products outright and run screaming to the friendly embrace of the local home theater dealer, thereby extinguishing the high end and the commitment toward sonic excellence in the process. The message, rather than the medium itself, is apparently what makes vinyl so dangerous. If "message" is the concern, however, I can think of MANY products other than vinyl records, including those specifically tailored to the compact disk (demagnetizing disk spinners, magic green pens, cd oils, glow in the dark cd mats, etc), that cause even battle-hardened audiophiles to shake their heads in disbelief. One can only imagine what one of these "mass marketeers" must think of such devises, yet where is the outcry against these products?

Nevertheless, as evidence of the truth of this scenario, the author points to an allegedly "unkind" year for high end stores. I fail to see the correlation. If high end stores are indeed suffering, based on personal experience, I'd say that the cause is far more likely the condescending attitude of all too many dealers and the manner in which they treat potential new recruits into the ranks of high end aficionados. Anyone under the age of 35 walking into certain high end audio salons and asking to hear some of their best stuff knows exactly what I'm talking about. Fortunately, not all dealers are not like this, and the ones who aren't, at least in Los Angeles area, appear to be doing quite well. Further, if vinyl is truly poisoning the high end, why do other aspects of it appear to be flourishing? I think it is no coincidence that the recent proliferation of high end magazines, journals, and, dare I say, websites has coincided almost exactly with the resurgence of interest in vinyl playback and other "archaic" audio concepts such as single-ended amplification and horn-loaded loudspeakers, all of which, incidentally, have nothing to do with current thinking in home theater.

Simply put, the audio community is not dominated by an unruly bunch of reactionary consumers unwilling to embrace any change in playback medium as a matter of principle. Quite to the contrary, the high end is uncompromisingly committed to achieving the best sonic recreation possible, be it analog, digital, or some other yet-to-be-developed form. If the high end is indeed apathetic to the compact disk, fault the inventors, not the consumers. If a new digital standard is developed which sonically meets or exceeds the capabilities of the humble vinyl record, I have no doubt that it will be enthusiastically welcomed by the high end. Until that day comes, however, the high end consumer cannot be justifiably faulted for preferring vinyl records to CDs. After all, the audio marketplace exists to serve the audio community, not the other way around. Buy what sounds best to you- the rest will take care of itself.

...John Upton