by E. A. Barbour
The Wikipedia fan gang and audiophiles are an amazingly similar cohort: man-children with no attention span and plenty of money (audiophiles) or spare time (Wikipedians). People complain about Wikipedia being a man’s world. Audiophilia is far, far worse, yet bears some disturbing similarities.
I know this well, after watching the “high-end audio” scene for 30 years. Audiophiles are unbelievably neurotic and demanding, basically like 13-year-olds with no attention spans and considerable money to spend on toys. The average American audiophile, and probably in all other countries as well, is a white or Asian male, over 40, a semi-successful professional (doctor, lawyer, investment banker etc), with a failing marriage (if he’s not gay, which many of them are) and a wobbling career. He seeks validation, not sound quality. Audiophilia is a disease of middle age, of what they used to call “male menopause” or “midlife crisis”.
And such man-children demand the moon, while not actually being able to hear differences in cables or tube brands (which are usually undetectable anyway). They don’t want good sound, they want someone to stroke their massive egos. Manufacturers in it for the long haul end up hiring PR people who are able to deal with this kind of fool. It’s a specialist business in more ways than one. Little different from wine snobs, gourmets, or the collectors of vintage sports cars, in fact.
Audio nerds are easily swayed by insane magazine writers like the ever disgusting Harry Pearson, man-child princes who are pretentious, snobbish, arrogant, completely irrational, and unreasonable. And most important, know how to talk to other man-children. One has to parrot their egos back at them, and talk about listening to typical aging-baby-boomer recordings (Led Zeppelin, late Beatles, Deep Purple etc, usually “remastered” onto horrifically-expensive limited-issue vinyl “audiophile” pressings) through the gear. And waxing rhapsodically over its magnificence. At length. Not much different from the tedious, tiresome, and voluminous dribble on a Wikipedia noticeboard or in arbitrations, except in the subject matter.
I know too many people who tried to manufacture tube amps and preamps for this “high end” audiophile market, and lost their shirts. It’s EXTREMELY difficult for a new company to break into the market. There are already too many firms as it is, too many toys for man-children to spend their pennies on. Don’t believe me? Look at this list of the “world’s most expensive loudspeakers”. For many years, the supremely-egotistical Dave Wilson, of Wilson Audio, made the “world’s most expensive speaker”, the WAMM system. It was more than $500,000 and was installed in your home by Dave himself. Apparently, there are now so many “ultimate speakers” on the market, Dave gave up and now concentrates on more modest surround-sound installations for home theatre.
There’s a similar list for amplifiers. Note that at least half of them are tube amplifiers. Plus the turntable list. One could think of them as “industrial sculpture”, at least. Do they make music sound “better”? In my experience, the quality of sound of random manufacturers is exactly that: random. If you spend $500,000 on an amplifier or speaker system, you probably won’t get utter crap. The weirdness really starts in the middle ground of the market, where $30,000 is a typical expenditure for a system. That is where you find total raving madmen marketing deliberately obscure gear, sometimes badly designed, because the company owner is also the designer, and frequently knows nothing about electronics. I could mention some names, but prefer not to be sued.
Making audiophile hardware as a new company has to be approached as warfare, not business. You need to have major financial backing, a very detailed marketing plan based on costly market research, and a willingness to backstab and break skulls. Because all of the high-end dealers are always swamped with brand-names they have to sell, so finding willing distribution partners is very tough. For anyone wanting to make high-end gear, I’d seriously even suggest hiring professional assassins, to eliminate the principals of the dominant firms in the field. Yes, it’s THAT difficult to break into.
The product? Doesn’t matter. Get it made in a Chinese contract factory, keep your costs low. It doesn’t even have to sound very good–I am reminded of the Hovland tube amp, which I first saw at the 2000 CES. It was very pretty and sounded terrible, no bass and screeching distortion, yet reviewers went away and raved about its sweet introspection of tonality. Kent Hovland later went bankrupt, because he was a terrible businessman, not because of his bad product. It was still selling well even as he showed up in bankruptcy court.
That kind of thing is liable to make one a bit cynical. Just a bit.
How is that any different from the Wikipedia man-child? Wikipedians simply trend toward youth, rather than male-menopausal age. In my experience, the vast majority of WP patrollers started as teenaged boys, in secondary school or university, with video-gaming and cartoon fetishes and plenty (plenty!) of spare time. Wikipedia becomes a war-game for them, and they do not ever come to understand its original purpose: an educational resource. Will we revisit these man-children in 20 to 30 years time, and find them all hiding in their bat-caves, with $500,000 speaker systems and giant tube amplifiers instead of Xboxes and Wikipedia?
Image credit: Flickr/Qole Pejorian ~ licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)