With Stuart writing extensively about taste recently, and, having touched on the subject of hifi looks and beauty myself in previous articles, I got to thinking about how a hifi’s looks have a bearing on how it sounds, or how we perceive it sounds. For me, hifi systems fall into three main categories looks wise.
Discreet, Sleek and ‘Home Friendly’
This is the kind of hifi that blends in seamlessly into its environment,small boxes, ‘hidden’ speakers (perhaps built in) and possibly even wireless. This kind of system will keep you on your toes as you hunt it down, ‘where IS your hifi exactly?’ but fits in with busy modern homes and lives. There may not even be a collection of music present, other than on an equally discreet hard drive. Some might say that this type of hifi has no soul, but for many audiophiles and music lovers it is a happy compromise between loving to listen to music and actually having to fit that into a normal life and home.
‘I Am Hifi, Hear Me Roar’
This is the type of hifi that all non-audiophiles think audiophiles own. We are talking great big monoblock amps, lots and lots of boxes, huge, towering loudspeakers that have multiple drivers, and cables like pythons that have just swalloed a goat. There will also be collections of excessive proportions of CDs, tapes and records (plus probably some obsolete formats) these will quite probably have taken over an entire room by them selves. This kind of hifi makes you think it is going to sound amazing because it is all so complex, ‘audiophiley’ and out of the grasp of mere, non-audiophile mortals.
Form Follows Function
For me, this is the best kind of hifi. There is nothing unnecessary going on, but, by the same token, there is no self consciousness about how it looks, the beauty is derived from the fact that it has to look that way to sound good, in true Bauhaus fashion. There may well be several boxes, but they all serve a purpose. Form follows function hifi is just as likely to feature a vintage reel 2 reel machine as it is a streamer and hard drive. The music that is played on this system will also be carefully filed so it fits with the owners lifestyle.
So when we first see a system, even before it is switched on, we are immediately and subconsciously judging how we think it is going to sound. This may be down to the type of hifi it is, for example a hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool audiophile may look at a pared back, streaming based system and have already decided that they don’t like how it sounds before a note is played. The variety of speaker is a great example of this. I am a sucker for horn loudspeakers, I love how they look and sound, so when I see a system with a beautiful set of horns, I am immediately expecting great things. For other people, they may be left cold by the mere thought of horns, so their expectations of the sound are coloured in a negative way.
Brand recognition throws even more confusion into the mix. Many audiophiles are fiercely brand loyal and will be drawn to components from their favourite brand over and above any other, the badge of their ‘chosen one’ is the mark of reliability and quality. This works both ways though. How many times have you heard a whole brand derided as being ‘too bright’, ‘too bass heavy’ or ‘too shouty’. These ‘brand wars’ can develop into just that, full scale war between the supporters and the haters, both sides influenced as to what they expect to hear when they listen to that particular brand. The brands themselves spend a lot of time and money creating the right image, whether they be high end or much more affordable they carefully craft the image that they want to present to the world and to you, their potential customers, but as the saying goes, ‘you can’t please all of the people all of the time’ and there will always be some who mentally ‘switch off’ when ever they see and hear a particular brand. Just like sexual attraction, if there is no spark when you first set eyes on a particular component, then chances are there may never be. If however you are head over heels in love/lust at first sight, then the ‘rose coloured headphones’ could be firmly in place and you hear something to be more amazing than it actually is. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are programmed to judge based on looks whether that is in our choice of partner or clothes, car or hifi. Certain things will float our collective boats and certain things will sink them faster than the Titanic. The beauty of it is though, because we all have different tastes and preferences, there is ‘somebody out there for everyone’ just as there will be a hifi out there for everyone.
So how do we stop what we perceive from what we see influencing what we think of how a particular system performs? Is a ‘Pepsi’ (other carbonated cola drinks are available) challenge the way forward? Listen without seeing first so we have no idea what the kit looks like or what brand it is before we hear it, would that avoid prejudice and influence? Or are we missing the point,? There is a lot of design effort that goes into how hifi components looks as well as how they sound, it’s part of the whole package so why should we omit how the looks of a system or component influence us? Would it just be like constantly going on blind dates? And imagine if you fell in love with the sound but then saw a hifi that, to put it kindly, ‘only a mother could love’. Could you live with your decision based on sonic attributes alone, or would you feel the constant need to apologise for your system’s visual shortcomings?
For me personally, the visual aspect is vital, like a fine meal that has been plated to look stunning and appetising, rather than just splodged out carelessly, a system appeals to me more when it looks beautiful as well as sounds beautiful. As we eat with our eyes I guess we listen with them also. The experience should appeal to as many of our senses as it can. So long as the meal tastes delicious and the music on the hifi sounds incredible, then the visual aspect only heightens and adds to the enjoyment.