High-End audio and why people buy into the whole concept is a complex subject…Stuart Smith talks about very expensive cars instead. View_MFA_Spons

Flying Saucers And Top Gear

So there I was the other night, sat in my favourite chair (the cat was feeling benevolent) with a glass of red wine and watching re-runs of Top Gear and Jeremy Clarkson was on the screen driving a car called the Disco Volanté (Italian for Flying Saucer, don’t you know) which he reckoned cost about £600 000. The motorcar in question starts life as an Alpha Romeo 8C and then coach builders Carrozzeria Touring in Milan take it and transform it into something that looks completely different. It’s an absolutely beautiful thing, but it’s also a bit challenging looks-wise if you know what I mean…it is certainly not going to be immediately attractive to everyone.DiscoVolante_08_(04)Small

Clarkson commented along the lines of “It makes you feel special. It’s not the best car in the world, the brakes are spongy and you can see nothing out of the back window, but there is NOTHING that comes close to making you feel this special” and this got me thinking a bit as to why people buy into the whole concept of high-end audio…and also why some folk are determined to question anything that costs over tuppence ‘apenny!

How Much?

I had a recent discussion on a Facebook group (do people really still read traditional forums any more) about a news item I’d published on Hifi Pig regarding the Clearaudio Statement V2 turntable that costs 92 500 quid… without an arm or cartridge. I was being told that all a turntable had to do was be quiet and turn at, as near as damn it, the correct speed. Now I fundamentally do not agree with this argument I’m afraid, but that’s really only half the story I think. Performance in absolute terms is only a part of the whole reason people are drawn to high-end audio, it’s a much more complex process than that, and to be fair the person I was having the discussion with fully understood this. Clearaudio Statement v2 - 1

Let me tell you a little story. Are you sat comfortably? Then I shall begin. A few weeks ago we had a guy travel six hours to have a listen to a pair of pretty conventional, but quite nice loudspeakers in the form of the Audio Physic Avanti IIIs. He quite liked them, but they weren’t for him and so we asked if he’d like to take a listen to the Avantgarde Duo XDs…he’d studiously ignored them to this point, despite them dominating the listening room. He said yes, despite this meaning he’d be very late home, and then sort of walked around the room a bit bewildered and confused after we started playing some tunes. He was completely gobsmacked and speechless and when he came round from his reverie he tried to vocalize his experience. Now we’ve seen this reaction before and we’ve had it ourselves when listening to these speakers, but I know that this guy is now spoiled for life. He’s not going to be able to go back to Paris and stop thinking about his experience and when he turns his current speakers on I know he’s going to, at times, recall his experience in our room. This experience is not confined to just our speakers, of course, and I’m sure folk will have had similar things happen with lots of other gear. The point I’m making here is that I got as much pleasure out of the whole listening session as the Parisian did – a sort of reverse schadenfreude I suppose.

Machines For Joy

The speakers in question are just short of thirty grand in Euros which is a lot of money, but the cost of the speakers is only a small part of it. They, and lots of other high-end kit, are not just about the music that comes out of them, though it is something to behold – the ownership experience is much more complex than simply the sonic presentation that we happen to rather enjoy. It could be argued that we (I) get a much more emotionally charged connection when listening to music through these speakers and a lot to do with that is that we have done without other luxuries to buy them, but then there will be people for whom this kind of outlay is a drop in the ocean and they will still feel that connection and pleasure. Like I say, it’s all very complex! Avantgarde_Duo_XD

I could say, Like Clarkson intimates, that, like the Disco Volanté motorcar, the Duos (and other high-end products) are “A Machine For Joy”  which Google Translate tells me the Germans would call “Eine Maschine geschaffen, um Freude zu geben” which fair trips of the tongue doesn’t it?  I don’t have to even turn our speakers on to gain pleasure from them, they can just sit there at the end of the room and if I catch them out the corner of my eye I get a feeling of delight at just having them there…not quite a “crisis” but you get my drift. I got the same feeling of happiness when I got my first second hand Linn Sondek LP12 when I was nineteen or so. I’m sure it’s the same for folk who are lucky enough to own nice cars – they surely get a degree of satisfaction and joy just knowing that in the garage lurks something rather special. We had this conversation with our youngest son after I’d mentioned I had been speaking to the people at Carrozzeria Touring and his comment was along the lines of “I can’t drive yet, but I’d love to have one of those and I’d be happy to just look at it in the garage”Views_Music_First

Some will disagree fundamentally with my whole premise and say that all that matters in audio is the sound that comes out of the speakers and that they could build something that sounds as good or better for twenty seven and a half pence, but this to me is to totally miss the point of high-end audio. Yes the products have to sound exemplary and yes I’m sure the sum of the parts of lots of high-end gear is nowhere near the selling price demanded, but so what! I could sit in my listening space with a pair of cobbled together horns made from bits of this and bobs of that and I MAY be able to sonically emulate the Duos to a degree, but I can guarantee anyone reading this article that I would not get the same level of exhilaration and delight from them as I do the Duos, though I also recognise that some get gratification from the whole “I made it myself” process. Like someone that owns the Disco Volanté motorcar, I know that I have something that not everyone is going to have; the speakers were specified a particular colour, they feel magnificently crafted, they are tactile, they are numbered, they look freakin’ awesome…and I really love all this stuff and this level of detail, and that’s before they are fired up.  And I don’t think it is the prices that these high-end items command that exhilarates me and others!

I’m immensely proud of these speakers (as well as other relatively high-end audio paraphernalia we own) and everyone that comes into the house is treated to the experience of sitting down in front of them and enjoying them… and I know that if I owned a beautiful car I would want others to experience my bliss and would want take them for a drive in it. This is not willy-waving or a “look at me and how clever I am” situation, I genuinely want to share the moment when someone sits down in front of our speakers and has an experience they’ve never had before…I know when I’ve been offered the opportunity to hear gear I could never expect to be in a position to buy I’ve jumped at the chance. As I said before, it’s the exact opposite of schadenfreude.

Like the car, our speakers are pretty visually imposing and they are not going to be to everyone’s taste, but I don’t give a monkey’s toss about that. I love the way they look and that is all that matters to me, as it’s me that’s laid out for them. I don’t personally really “get” the Disco Volanté visually, but I can appreciate it is a thing of great beauty, of meticulous craftsmanship and that it harks back to a time when these things mattered, and the same is true for high-end audio I believe – just look at the latest amps from someone like D’Agostino or the GS150 from Audio Research…there’s loads more I could mention including the likes of the Airforce One Turntable (below).gs150angle_2040867445



Chimps And Reverse Snobbery

There are a number of people out there in the world who will sneer at people wanting to own luxury cars, have nice watches and possess high-end audio, and I am well aware that in a world of inequality and hunger there is a large degree of opulent over-consumption going on here and I do get that…I really do, but I think there’s a real sense in the audiophile world that you can only truly have a great system if it looks like it was put together by a team of short-sighted chimps and costs no more than a bag of bananas. There’s a good degree of reverse snobbery going on here I reckon, and whilst I love to get a bargain as much as the next man and applaud and celebrate those companies who manage to make great sounding kit at affordable prices, there is nothing wrong to my mind in having gear at the other end of the financial spectrum if you can afford it, or want to sacrifice other luxuries to make it happen.

Getting back to cars, I’ve always wanted a Porche and I said I’d have one before my thirtieth birthday…that never happened and I think at thirty I was driving a Vauxhall Astra. Then I said I’d have one before forty and that never happened either…possibly a Mondeo or other rep-mobile at this time. Now I’m approaching fifty the Porche question has raised its head again, and whilst I may be able to afford a used one (at a push and with considerable cost cutting and saving elsewhere), I’ve come to the conclusion that I have other priorities and that’s fine by me, I’m reconciled to never having the 70s 911 Targa in the garage. However, I can still admire the car from a distance, feel no reason to lecture those who own one and still sort of secretly (or not so secretly now) covet one.

Stuart SmithViews_Music_First

Read more Views Of Stu. 

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