When one thinks of high-end audio, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Sadly for most people it is an image of extremely expensive, esoteric audio equipment that is extremely difficult to configure, nearly impossible to control, and which requires an advanced degree to operate. In fact, the mere thought has kept many people from even exploring the possibilities of a high-performance audio system becoming a reality. They sometimes read articles, look at price tags in stores and settle for something affordable that will let them hear the music that they have purchased or listen to on radio.
In fact, even those that can afford the extremely expensive, cost-no-object equipment and the rooms that are custom designed to get the most of out their purchase many times believe that the more they spend, the better it will sound. They listen to salespeople, read the ads and make their decisions based not on the strengths or weaknesses of what they are purchasing, but rather use the price tag and advertising campaigns to dictate how good their system will ultimately sound. Sometimes they are satisfied in the end and sometimes they are left feeling that the world of amazing sound is a myth or worse that they are not able to appreciate the finer aspects of audio playback.
Take for example a fairly recent experience in my own life. An uncle of mine has been an audiophile for years and has a fairly expensive and extremely high performance system. For some time he has been experiencing trouble with his CD player and one Sunday morning it just decided that it wasn't going to play anymore. So, while he planned on having it repaired he resigned himself to the fact that until it was fixed he would have to live without using a CD player, after all, a new one was too expensive for a causal purchase. Luckily, he let me take him to a local store and we found a universal player that worked perfectly in his system, cost far less than some of the cables in his present system and allowed him to continue listening to his music. In fact, he has since decided not to repair the expensive player, deciding instead that the new one was far superior to the one he purchased for nearly twenty times the price.
It is not about how much you spend, or the features that a certain piece of equipment offers to the consumer. It is certainly not about being able to impress your friends, peers, or family. It is rather the world of high performance playback is about finding the best possible configuration of components in your price range, which will allow you to listen and experience music in a way that will leave you gasping at the experience and anxious to find the time to listen to recordings and live performances over and over again.
So how does someone get access to enough information and the right types of experience to be able to make an informed decision based on facts and feelings rather than costs and hype? Well, it is not quite as simple as just going to your computer, typing keywords into a search engine and looking up various websites which purport to represent the truth about audio and video equipment. While many of these, and certainly Enjoy the Music.com is an example, do a great job of giving the facts as unbiased as possible a manner, they still rely on the preferences of their reviewers to give their impressions of how things sound. What happens though when a specific reviewer does not share your tastes in music, does not feel the same way about how things sound the best or worse reviews a piece of a equipment far outside your price range?
Well luckily there are several books which give a consumer many of the basic facts about high fidelity, what things to look for in a system, and more importantly what things you do not want to find present in a system you are looking forward to purchasing at some time in the future. Perhaps the most well known of these is Robert Harley's book entitled The Complete Guide to High-End Audio Systems. Now in its third edition, Robert Harley, who is the Editor-in-Chief of a well respected audio magazine, The Absolute Sound, gives a reader an extremely in depth understanding of audio principles, system construction and even some interesting engineering tidbits which might leave many people wondering what they have gotten themselves into. There is an old adage that says, "Too much information is not always a good thing."
Now, that is not to say that I would not recommend the book to just about anyone I know, in fact, that is as far from the truth as possible. I have been telling people who are interested in learning more about high end systems and debunking the myths for quite awhile now. But, Mr. Harley recognized that not everyone needs or even wants that level of detail or that amount of information. Further, by reorganizing and changing the way chapters are laid out in the book and adding details to one section and deleting some from others he is far better able to meeting the needs of desires of a far larger audience.
Therefore Mr. Harley has recently published a new book, Introductory Guide to High Performance Audio Systems. This book which I will review in more detail later in this article should not be considered a replacement for his earlier work. In fact, this book is just as the title states an introductory guide meant to bring a reader gradually into the world of high-audio without overwhelming them with ancillary facts or information that might make them feel uncomfortable should they not understand it. It also is substantially smaller than his earlier work which makes it easier to read completely in a reasonable amount of time.
Well thus far we have only covered the misconceptions of the high-end system and the availability of material such as Mr. Harley's book to help someone understand more about what high fidelity means. However, we have yet to cover the most important thing, what information does the book really contain. So, the rest of this missive will do just that.
Introductory Guide to High Performance Audio Systems begins by giving the reader a very brief course in what it means for a system to be considered high-end audio. He very succinctly gives an explanation of what really is an integral part of high-end and also what is not. In fact, while the first chapter is brief, my personal experience has been that people who have read the section usually have a far different outlook on things then they did prior to reading it.
The next few chapters of the book deal with issues such as defining your system and developing a budget which will allow you to get the most out of the money you spend when you ultimately buy your system. He brings up a very important detail that many individuals overlook, just how you going to be listening to your music. Let's face it, if you are going to be watching movies and listening to multi-channel materials then you are certainly going to have a different set of guidelines than if you are going to just be listening to stereo material through two speakers. In fact, even if you have the financial resources to purchase the best of everything, you are still going to have to make decisions on how best to design your system to meet all your needs and expectations.
Another important issue Mr. Harley bring up in the initial chapters of the book is how best to utilize the various sources of information and resources at your disposal to best educate and allow you to experience things before you make your decisions final by making your purchase. One of the most important things he stresses is that you need to, as my great-grandmother used to say, "consider the source." You need to listen to everything you are told, but you need to do it in a constructive and beneficial manner, just because someone more learned than you in some areas tells you something does not mean you should take it as gospel. Rather you should take it as advice and then form your own impressions and make your decision according to these.
Before getting into the different parts of the playback system the fourth chapter of the book provides another important concept which will influence your decisions. The chapter entitled, "Becoming a better listener," goes into detail about what things you should look for in your system, how to understand the terminology used by reviewers, critics, advertisers and salespeople. It provides you with a way of really evaluating things for yourself and deciding what is most important to you personally.
Starting with Chapter 5, the book goes into various parts of the playback system. These include the digital front end, the selection of speakers for your system, and deciding what cables and other components are required to get the best performance out of your system to name a few. The chapters are basically laid out the same, beginning with some information about the specific part of the playback system and ending in specific things you should look for to make your experience even better.
One of the newer things that this book adds is information on correctly identifying and setting up systems that will not only be used for music, but for television and movies as well. In Chapter 10, entitled, "Audio for Home Theater and Multichannel Music," Mr. Harley does a respectable job of defining the specific requirements for your system, illuminating the various options you might chose and giving some perspective on the unique challenges that you might face while finding the correct system for your environment and preferences.
By the time you have gotten to the end of the book, you are likely to have a new and probably different view on just what things are possible from a high-end audio system. While it is not important to read each chapter in order, or even to read all the chapters at all, you should at least read the ones that pertain directly to your specific situation. For example if you are not going to be utilizing a turntable in your system, you could skip that chapter entirely, although personally, I think that would be a mistake because you might find out it is worth trying at some point.
However, to get the most out of this book, there are several chapters which are definitely recommended by this reviewer. These are the first four, chapter 10, if you are thinking of multichannel or home theater, chapter 11 which deals with some of the other important parts of an audio system and finally chapter 12 which focuses on getting the most out of the system you ultimately chose to purchase. Once you have completed them, you will definitely be more qualified to make your decisions and will certainly be happier with your purchases.
There is one more facet of this book which needs to be examined, the readability of the material. As mentioned earlier Robert Harley is definitely considered by many to be one of the most respected and influential people in the audio industry. His opinions are well known and his ability to convey these is definitely impressive. While his earlier book, The Complete Guide to High-End Audio, does go into far more depth on many technical aspects of the playback system and provides more detail about the design of various components, this book is far more readable for beginners or people who want to make quick decisions and require a resource to make the right choice.
So, while there has definitely been some discussion in this review about the book itself, the question remains do you go out and buy the book. The answer is simple, if you have not already gone out and purchased The Complete Guide to High-End Audio Systems, you owe it to yourself to run out and buy this book. You will not be disappointed. While Introductory Guide to High Performance does not replace the other book, it certainly complements it. There are definitely overlaps in the material in both books; in fact, there are sections which have been copied directly, but the more self contained chapters design makes looking up specific information far quicker and easier.
In conclusion, Robert Harley has once again done an outstanding job of bringing the world of high-end audio to a far larger audience than ever before. While my personal opinion is there is no substitute for The Complete Guide to High-End Audio, this book allows far more people a chance to discover and explore a world that was believed unattainable. It allows even the most casual consumer a chance to explore ways to make their present system better and gives them a path to upgrade their system over time into something even better and more fulfilling.