The core ‘functions’ of an audio system haven’t changed in decades. In reality, the only functions that the audiophile really needs are two speakers and a volume control. But industry uses technical improvements and extra features to get at the customer’s wallet, and the result is usually progress that benefits everyone in the long run. So digital audio supersedes analogue, and computerised systems offer greater convenience, providing such wonders as streaming, downloads, searchable databases, artist info and playlists.
But as time has gone by, audiophiles have found themselves engaging with music less than they used to. Casting around for something to blame, they have developed a meme that says it is the new technology that is killing music. This ignores possible factors such as older people simply ‘having heard it all before’ and, as the old codgers they are now, being incapable of re-living the days when music was inextricably linked with fashion, youth culture and contact with the opposite sex. Today’s younger people may be less connected with music than they used to because they have never been exposed to boredom. Maybe they have more to do with less time available: tweets to send, new emoticons to express. Music with tunes is now seen as so un-hip it’s positively Clarkson-esque, and anyway there’s a theory that the only way modern youth can rebel against their parents is to be cautious and conservative. All of which could conspire to render new music as somewhat bland.
Whatever the actual reasons, it appears that something is killing music for both old codgers and da yoof. The chosen narrative is that it must be the new technology.
As a result of this perceived disconnection from music, part of the zeitgeist of the audio world is a view that progress in itself is a bad thing. In its place there is a push for the introduction of artificial inconvenience and imperfection in the hope it will make the experience of playing a record more authentic. In the world of commerce, this is surely an unusual phenomenon. The larger companies that would naturally have been innovating and introducing new features to tempt the customer to replace their systems, are left with nothing to offer. Smaller companies and one-man garage operations find themselves able to operate entirely within their comfort zones, with no need to keep up with the larger companies at all. All they have to do is to re-hash technology that hasn’t changed for many decades – a very unusual technological industry indeed. One of the biggest advantages that large companies have, that of being able to make advanced products at extremely low prices, does them no good. And if they try to compete by flogging a flimsy turntable that is less advanced than the ones they stopped selling in 1989, it just looks like pathetic bandwagon-jumping. (I recently saw such a ‘named brand’ turntable in Richer Sounds, selling for nearly £150…)
Antiprogress means that audiophiles are only impressed by equipment that is perceived to be hand made and sold at a “reassuringly expensive” price. By even trying to enter the current ‘high end’ market, the large companies are effectively legitimising antiprogress, and killing their own future business. By pushing the vinyl thing, the music industry has further tainted its biggest product, the digital download.
Put it all together, and it could look as though the audio and music industries have sleep-walked into some major marketing problems, and audiophiles have trapped themselves in Groundhog Day. We may find soundbars, Bluetooth speakers, surround sound, and all-in-one streaming systems in ordinary high street shops – yes, it makes me feel queasy to think about it. We may find turntables, valve amplifiers and passive speakers that cost £20,000 in specialist shops – an equally nauseating prospect. We may find mid-fi separates here and there. But I suggest that we are unlikely to ever see a large, Meridian-style DSP active speaker system for sale at under £1000 anywhere. For me, that would be the worthy successor to those systems of the 1970s; purist’s hi-fi that is startlingly good, and is not ‘discreet’ or hidden away, and doesn’t need added ‘authenticity’ and a comically-large price tag.