A shorter version of this piece was published in Stereophile some time back. Here is the long version.
My wife is a shopper. I really try to avoid shopping discussions with her because at best I will be sitting for an hour while she models everything for me and explains how much money she saved at some sale. At worst, there will be an argument about money and what is a justified expense. As an audiophile, I know this discussion is a down hill slide from the start. The other night I came home and there were a bunch of sports bras on the bed. I could not help myself and asked why on Earth one would need five new sports bras when I know there is a drawer full of them and they are only seen in a locker room full of women? I was handily informed that these sports bras were this year's fashion and the old ones headed to the back closet until (and if) they come back into style. It is difficult to understand how sports bras became fashion items, but after twenty years of marriage, women still mystify me.
I was reminded of the sports bra discussion on the long drive home from the Festival Son & Image show (FSI) in Montreal. My audio buddy commented on the number of turntables at the show and after some discussion, we could not think of a single room without a TT. This was a huge contrast to just four years ago where TTs were a largely a dead item and only a few ultra high end units actually made it to shows. We also notices that while many people were carrying their favorite CD or SACD around for audition, we did not meet a single person carrying audition LPs. Beyond TTs, tubes are back in a big way. While one could argue the merits of tubes and "the tube sound" should it exist, but tubes simply look stunning and give amp designers a lot more leeway on the artistic side. A long drive (Montreal to NYC) can take a discussion into many directions, and this drive got us thinking that tubes and TTs as fashion accessories. Have we come to a point where fashion is taking over the high end audio market?
In the audiophile community the word "fashion" is a blaspheme. We are allowed to use adjectives like "robust", "eye candy", "build quality", "art work" and on a good day we can sneak in "trend" but not "trendy". "Fashion" is taboo. Fashion implies something cyclical and unrelated to sound. Fashion is controlled by a syndicate of manufacturers carefully assuring they will sell new goods next year. It does not matter if it is cars or shoes or cell phones or sports bras. Fashion is something that defines who we are by form over function and is dependent upon that look being seen by others. Fashion is Hollywood, New York, Paris and for the life of me I don't know why: Zurich.
Is fashion driving high-end audio? This is a tough question. One could argue there is nothing new here and fashion has been driving audio since the beginning of the industry, or that it is not happening at all and is all about the sound; period. Maybe we are all simply discovering that analog and tubes have a more appealing sound. Or maybe there is some secret report that is telling industry insiders that that the solid state and digital markets are saturated. Or maybe this is some plot by the RIAA to renew a medium that cannot be stolen via the Internet. The number of conspiracy theories on this could go on and on. Just typing the blasphemous idea that we are somehow being manipulated beyond the drive for good sound makes me want to write a passionate rebuttal.
First, consider the cyclical nature of the visual aspects of the audio industry. In the 1960s and 1970s audio equipment had to fit into social areas of the home. Equipment had to look clean and stylish while attracting the technically oriented male purchasers. Elegant faceplates with cool lighting, clear dials and solid knobs ruled the marketplace. In the 1980s and 1990s, the trend went toward black boxes with more electronic faces. Consider some of the best tube gear of the 1980s had the tubes hidden inside the box. Twenty five years later it is considered wasteful to hide the tubes. This is what sells!
For example, my current amp was supposed to be my last amp. I think most higher-end buys are purchased with the thought of it being our last purchase. But audiophiles never keep that promise. My amp is now coming on 16 years old. While I am not sure a new amp will add anything to my system, I am tired of looking at 1990s black box with a simple on/off light on the front. I don't care what name is on the amp, it is boring. I also have this gnawing feeling that the amp is old and may not be meeting spec, even if it still sounds good. A repair may make the specs right (if they are out) but it will still be full of older components. So I go to FSI and get amp lust. I want a new amp that sounds good while meeting today's fashion trends. There, I said it!
My second attempt at rebuttal failed when I thought about the overall sound quality from a broad range of equipment. I propose that overall sound quality has gotten to a point where it is getting more difficult for audiophiles to differentiate between brands. I am not claiming all gear sounds alike or even close to alike. But I am claiming the sound may be getting close enough to make it harder for the average manufacturer to define their products. When I bought my amp, the choices were mostly black boxes with different names on them and strikingly different sounds. Today there may be twenty amps that sound acceptable to me but each will have a very different appearance. In this world, the amp with the most endearing looks will be mine. The manufacturers know this and are meeting the challenge by moving away from black boxes and simple name recognition. As we move farther up this curve, the non-audio elements of the products will become more relevant, eventually moving us to a price war. When it comes down to two acceptable sounding amps which both have acceptable style, we move to price. But I am not holding my breath. We are still very much into the fashion battle with arty TTs, beautiful amps, preamps and all sorts of tube designs and I don't see any sign of price breaks. Honestly, I don't recall ever seeing so much good looking equipment as I have seen in the past two years.
The final player in the chain is the dealer. These are the people who actually show up at the shows to present and sell goods. They decide what to show. So why are they all showing TTs? I am dying to type the words "because they sound great", but I know that is not the answer. The demo rooms have TTs this year because they are in fashion, the dealers know this is what the customers expect, and because TTs will bring many of us into their rooms. The smart dealers also know that the more arty the TT, the more impressed people will be. So it is a fashion accessory. Maybe I will hold out for that Vera Wang tube/MOSTFET hybrid amp and the Ralph Lauren TT.
Copyright Peter Jay Smith 2009 Return to helarc.com