What Is High-end Audio?
High-end audio sometimes gets a bad rap, for a couple of reasons. First, 'high-end' sometimes seems to refer, not to any quality inherent in the equipment, but just to the region of the price range such equipment tends to occupy. Secondly, there is a sense, among some music fans, and more so among musicians, that 'audiophiles' (those interested in high-end audio) are more interested in sound than in music, that is, more interested in the quality of a recording than in the quality of what is recorded. As with all such generalizations, there is a bit of truth, and a bit of exaggeration. I'll try to disentangle these shortly.
What is high-end audio, then? Or better, what is the goal of high-end audio? I understand it as devotion to the ideal of perfect reproduction of recorded music. This has two parts, and it is because it has these two parts that the second of the charges mentioned above is sometimes made. As a purchaser of recordings and equipment, the most one could hope for is perfect reproduction of a particular recording: One has no control over its quality; one has, that is to say, no control over how well the recording engineer and his colleagues have captured the original performance. It is natural to hope that the recording should itself present as accurate a representation of the original performance as possible: And especially when one has a system capable of reproducing a given recording faithfully, one can easily come to prefer good recordings to poor ones. I recall listening, some time ago, to Joni Mitchell's Hejira, which I regard as a truly great album. I enjoyed listening to it immensely, but I will admit to finding certain aspects of the recording itself annoying. Joni's voice seems to have been recorded in a small chamber, maybe some kind of 'glass box'. One could easily hear the fact that she was in a very small space: Yet other instruments arranged around her, outside that small box, but somehow impinging on it, as if the sound of the drums were both outside and inside the box. That's annoying: One's brain is attempting to construct a coherent representation of the space from the sound emerging from the speakers: And there is no coherent space that corresponds to what is presented on that recording. (The recording ends up sounding like a painting whose perspective is all askew.) Does that mean I won't listen to Hejira anymore? Of course not. Does it mean I'd rather not have to put up with these artifacts of the recording process? Absolutely!
In this kind of case, of course, there is nothing rightly described as 'the original performance' to which the recording might have been faithful. Like many recordings nowadays, especially rock recordings, Hejira was made by multi-tracking; pieces of the final recording were recorded to different tracks of a tape, edited, altered, and so forth, and then assembled or 'mixed'. So there is nothing but the recording to which the reproduction can be faithful. One can yet ask, of course, how faithfully a given system is reproducing a given recording. (I thus disagree with J. Gordon Holt, founder of Stereophile, who declares, in an early column, that nothing but natural recordings of live performances (preferably of acoustic music) can count as 'high fidelity'.)
Audiophiles bring just criticism on themselves when they cast such recordings aside for reasons which have to do with the quality of the recording and not with the quality of the music: There is great music on many multi-tracked recordings; there is great music on some very, very poor recordings. Anyone who might think to disagree with the first claim is invited to cue-up Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at their first opportunity. (This record also proves that the recording studio can be an instrument in the right hands.) Those who would disagree with the second should listen to Michelle Shocked's Texas Campfire Tapes, which was recorded on a Walkman.
Nonetheless, as I said, I prefer good recordings of good music. And fortunately, there are many such things to be had. Many of these are old classical recordings from the so-called Golden Age of Stereo, the late 1950s and early 1960s: RCA's Living Stereo series; Mercury's Living Presence series; and certain London and Decca recordings, among others, fall into this category. Many of the jazz albums recorded during this period can be equally astonishing: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue is wonderfully recorded, and almost everything Rudy van Gelder recorded is, too. There are many more recent recording of this kind, too, often cast as 'Audiophile' recordings. Some of them contain crap music: But some of them do not. Check out Terry Evans's Puttin' It Down, on Audioquest Records, if you don't believe audiophile labels are capable of releasing great music.
Whether one is listening to a good recording, well reproduced, is relevant, not just to one's overall enjoyment of the music, but to one's appreciation of that music, too, in the sense that one can hear and listen to the music better. For example, suppose I'm listening to Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. There are many recordings of this piece, of varying quality, both in themselves and in terms of the performance. (One of the best remains the old Living Stereo recording, with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony: It's been re-released, on vinyl, by Classic Records, and is also available on a well-mastered CD.) This is a very complex piece of music: Much is happening in various parts of the orchestra at various times. Listening to a good recording, on a real good system, one is able to 'pick out' the various parts of the orchestra, distinguish what each of them is playing, in much the same way one can if one is attending a live performance: For example, the first and second violins do not blur into a huge mass; there is a clear differentiation between them. It obviously makes a difference to one's appreciation of the music whether one is or is not able to make this kind of differentiation. (Of course, it's easy to do so 'live'.)
So the goal for the high-end audio consumer is: Perfect reproduction of recorded music. And a subsidiary concern is: Perfect recordings.
Of course, one can not achieve perfection in either case: These are ideals. What one can do is keep the ideal in mind and buy, or seek out, equipment which leads in that direction. This brings us to the defining characteristic of manufacturers and designers of high-end equipment: That their goal is to make components that embody this ideal, whether they are expensive or inexpensive. Of course, the closer a manufacturer tries to get to the ideal, the more his or her product is likely to cost: And there are undoubtedly some high-end products that cost an extraordinary amount of money: Amplifiers that go for $60,000; speakers that cost $125,000; phono cartridges that go for $7500; etc. But one does not have to spend that kind of money to get truly 'high-end' sound. Even more importantly, it does not matter how much one is spending: Whether one is an audiophile is not determined by one's bank balance. To be an audiophile, one need only accept and pursue the ideal: Buy equipment which is made with the ideal in mind; decide that every cent one spends will purchase better reproduction, not bells and whistles.
Fortunately for those of us with limited incomes, the fact that stereo systems come in pieces, or components, allows us to construct our systems a piece at a time, and so not to have to lay out prohibitively large chunks of change all at once. That's the secret I'll discuss next.