It’s great, isn’t it? At our fingertips we have access to seemingly limitless information, on anything and everything. Enthusiasts from all corners of the globe can do their magical “research” in the comfort of their own homes and become their own best and most informed advocates. And yet, why with these advantages of instant information and opinions, do so many people in the audio hobby get it so wrong, so frequently? (And I can tell you from many years of experience in the industry that they most certainly do.) How is it that the presumably smarter, or at least more informed, audio enthusiasts of today’s hobby seem so lost and isolated when it comes to what should be the simple task of choosing a system through which to enjoy music? Within the promise of the Internet of Everything, how can we all get to the point of believing in something out of the daunting equivalency of everything?
I remember my first audio encounters in the late 70s, well before there was any rationale for putting three “W’s” together in succession. My dad took me out and we went shopping for a music system at the local hi-fi stores. (Remember those?) Now, I’m from Nova Scotia in Canada, and the selection of equipment was probably not that of New York City. However, in complete ignorance of this, we managed to audition all of the nearby options because, well, that’s what you did in those days. And the end result of this incredibly fun process that I remember until now was that we (my dad, really) purchased a system that we enjoyed for the best part of 10 years, and that sowed the seeds for my working in the hobby today.
That process was successful by any standard, and we did nothing but listen to equipment that we discovered only through those experiences (like the little NAD 3020 that blew our minds). I was fascinated by all of the cool stuff that I knew we couldn’t afford, and my imagination ran wild wondering just how good all this amazing equipment could sound. We listened together to the things in our budget and we picked out—together—the system components that would bring so much joy over all those years. No “what if’s,” no regrets, and no envy for the “we couldn’t afford it” items. That there was a world of components not discovered or auditioned had absolutely no bearing on the confidence with which we selected the equipment, or in the years of pleasure with which we were rewarded.
The driving methodology was what I’ll term pre-analytic. It was the intuitive idea that the way you selected an audio system was the same way you intended to use one—that you listened to music. The components weren’t the ends in themselves; they were the means to the end, and that end was enjoying Peter Paul and Mary, Rush (I said I was from Canada), or Peter Gabriel, or whomever I or the rest of my family wanted to listen to. There was no list of “must-auditions” and no advanced research into either the collected opinions of experts or the objective test results and specifications for each possibility. And yet…it worked. It really worked.
I have personally spoken with and taken calls from thousands of soon-to-be or existing audio enthusiasts, and I have come to the conclusion that the fundamental obstacle to success for most is the attempt to apply an analytic process to what is at heart a pre- or non-analytic experience. Today’s supposed “smart” shopper is one who advance surveys “everything.” After all, the more information you have, the smarter you are, right? These savvy hobbyists, just like all consumers, believe that the only way to control the process (and it’s about control) is to “research” and “know” everything so that order can be imposed (preferably in advance of auditioning) on the sea of possibilities that seem otherwise (at first glance) unrelated.
Most of these same consumers operate on the assumption that there is a truth behind and through all of the available information, and that with the appropriate Rosetta Stone algorithm the promised land of audio nirvana will be opened before them. If they just read enough reviews, call enough dealers, ask enough questions, or lurk on enough forums, then there will be the reckoning of a great audio enlightenment. It’s as though there is some consensus of right that is being purposely hidden from them, waiting to be discovered.
In a previous editorial, I suggested that we rethink technology in terms of the Head, Heart, and Hands. Essentially, that we should think, feel, and sense the technologies we most use and care about. The problem with the virtual research done by today’s audio hobbyist and general consumer is that it exists on what I’ll call the monkey bars of information analytics, and that doing so is a kind of parallel engagement that can never inform the basic experience of enjoying a music system. I acknowledge that these monkey bars are all the entertainment that some (apparently) need. For them, it’s this grand, detached research experiment that gets the juices flowing, sometimes referred to as the “mental masturbation” of our hobby. For the rest of us, who are more attached to what a great system can provide, the monkey bars are simply the area of the playground filled with the permanent dissatisfactions of what a system is “not yet” (the Mark 2 Signature or the product you couldn’t afford), or what system combinations and products have “yet to be tested.” The monkey bars are the area you visit to confirm that you’ll never exhaust all the possibilities and, therefore, never make the ultimate, best decision. That’s a lot of negation, and you’ll see it on 95% of the faces at any consumer audio show.
My suggestion? Take your son or daughter or “uninformed” friend out to listen with you the next time you want to upgrade, or the first time that you’re looking to get a nice music system. And instead of playing the role of insider guru and expert, just listen to and with them, and open yourself to the joy of owning a cool hi-fi system that lets you rock out or relax in the comfort of your own home. And after you’re done putting together a system that will provide joy for years to come, first pat yourself on the back for making your life better, and then and only then, feel free to try to analyze how it all magically happened.