"It's amazing the sound that comes out of such a non-descript, economical unit when I think how mediocre all those 'high-end,' sleek-looking, effetely marketed but shallow and jagged sounding pre-amps are. It really makes a person wonder: Are all those other brands marketed by people who don't have ears…or do they simply have some hidden itinerary that has nothing to do with creating something that really sounds musical?"
The above comments were sent to us by a recent visitor to our listening rooms after listening to and purchasing a pre-amp. The point of reprinting them here is that they echo very closely the general consensus one gets from the variety of listeners who pass through our doors. After actually being able to sit down and listen to a variety of components in a relaxed setting, it is shockingly obvious how few companies produce equipment that does music justice. Like suddenly finding out that gravity is all in your imagination, listeners are simply stunned at this discovery about audio equipment. There is complete disbelief at how this could be. Well, I am here to tell you that it is. I know I have probably written this too much, and most of my regular readers will see it coming, but I can not stress enough the effect that marketing influences have on the production of audio equipment. It is simply far easier to create a myth and pander to that audience then it is to take the time and effort to educate your buying public in real terms. Yes, it is ironic, but it should not be surprising. For most people, most of the time, something that sounds reasonably not offensive will do the trick. Within that group will be those who fancy themselves enthusiasts and will try to look for something that sounds a little more real. Most of that group of listeners do not seem to be actual music listeners but more like equipment hobbyists. They like the idea of the search for high fidelity more than the actual finding of high fidelity. It is this group which the high end targets. This is where the marketing wars are played out. This is where the bulk of the "fabulously okay" equipment (for more on being "fabulously okay," see “Sonics” in 10/98, p.34; 12/98, p.43) rules. So what about the rest of us, those who really are looking for something different and better sounding? Well, get used to the search. It is not one of our civil rights that honestly good equipment will be available on every corner. Realize that you are in a niche of a niche. If you are reading this magazine, you should already be used to that reality.
In direct answer to the above question I would have to say that the dearth of honest-sounding products has not come about through malicious intent. Instead, I would suggest that we as critical listeners are expecting too much out of marketing. I am sure someone in the corporate world of the burger chains has some idea of what a real hamburger tastes like, but that is not the market they are going after. The same is true for the overwhelming majority of audio equipment manufacturers and, I should add at this point, the audio entertainment magazines. As consumers with critical acuity, it is important for us to realize that we are not being addressed by these types of companies. And, we frustrate ourselves when we expect these companies to rise to the occasion. We are not the market they are looking for and they are not interested in, nor, for the most part, capable of dealing with the demands that we place upon them. Except in rare instances, the business of selling audio equipment to as large a market as possible takes precedence over the art of reproducing sound. Now, before the economists among us tell me how that is the responsible business thing to do, let me add that, while that may be the best way to serve a business, it does not necessarily create the best market for all consumers. A perfect example of this process can be seen in the bicycle tire industry. For a few years a major tire manufacture was making completely treadless bike tires. These tires were factually shown to have superior traction on both dry and wet paved roads. (In fact, this same style tire is now used for superbike racing where motorcycles race at speeds over 150 mph and corner on their sides.) Yet, because these tires needed to be explained to sales people, who needed to explain them to a confused buying public, they sold poorly. It seems that consumers like to see a tread on their road tires and educating the masses to that effect was a pointless task. They did not cost any more than other tires, and in fact were less expensive than many of the so-called high end tires. They did not require any more out of the user than any other tire, and they were a better product. Unfortunately they were out-marketed by pandering to pre-conceived notions and the fear of confusing the buying public, and as a result the manufacturer simply stopped making tires altogether.
The bottom line is that we as critical listeners have too high an expectation from the visible market that purports to serve us. Sure this is disappointing, but being frustrated by it does little to help. Literally, the best thing we can do is take our business elsewhere. Don't settle. Demand more and accept that the price we pay for that level of refinement is spotty access to the products that will make us happy. Think of it as a challenge and a journey. It is easy to spend money, but it is so much more rewarding to spend it on something that we really believe in.
© Cadence Magazine 2000