Many a long year ago (in a galaxy far, far away? -- Ed), when I still owned XLO, I went to New York to visit a friend who was reviewing equipment for one of the major high fidelity audio magazines. While I was there, he told me that he had been invited to meet and speak to an all-Chinese audio club in Queens, and asked if I would like to come along. Being already there, enjoying his company, and always eager to make new audiophile friends, I accepted and we drove out to the home of the club's president to meet him, preparatory to him introducing us (actually all he had intended to introduce was my reviewer friend, but, as long as I was there and in the industry, he decided to introduce me, too) to the rest of the group.
When we got to his home, we were greeted graciously and invited into his listening room to see and briefly hear his System. It was, for the time, really quite excellent, with a Goldmund Studio turntable and tangential tonearm, a Koetsu cartridge, a C.A.T. (Convergent Audio Technologies) preamp, a Jadis Defy 7 amplifier, and Avalon Ascent speakers, all hooked-up with Cardas cable. After a brief listen, our host told us that a meal (Sorry, I don't remember if it was to be a late lunch or an early dinner) had been planned for the whole club – all 23 members and as many of their wives or significant others as chose to come – for later, and asked if, in the couple of hours until then, we would care to see/hear some of the other members' Systems. When we (actually, my reviewer pal, who was to be the Guest of Honor) responded that we were mightily impressed by his sound system, and would love to have the opportunity to hear those of some of the other members, we took off for the home of (let's call him Member #2), and found that – other than the room, itself – his system was an exact duplicate of the president's: Same turntable setup; same electronics; same speakers; same cables; and even the same recordings played for us to demonstrate them all.
As before, we were impressed (among other things, by the considerable expense of the System), and we listened for a few minutes, "ooh'ing" and "ahh'ing" not just politely, but appropriately. Then, remarking on how very fine the System was, and how fine (but not how identical) its components were, we thanked Member #2 for his hospitality, said that we would see him later, at the restaurant, and moved on to the home of Member #3. Who, again, had the exact same System. After enjoying a short listen, we again moved on, but this time, in the car on the way to the home of Member #4, or perhaps to the restaurant, we commented to the club president on how much we had enjoyed everyone's System, and how surprised we had also been to discover such great similarity in all of the Systems we had heard thus far.
His response absolutely knocked us off our feet: "Ah yes", he said (paraphrased, of course, after all these years) "All 23 of us have, of course, made it a point to own exactly the same System. How could it be otherwise?" When we asked why, he gave the perfectly reasonable but utterly astonishing answer that, for every kind of component there can only be one that is the best. He and his club members, he said, had, by study, by seeking expert advice (Could that have been the reason for inviting my reviewer friend to speak before the club?), and by a great deal of listening – always to the same recordings, to "keep it scientific", had discovered the best of everything, and had all bought it. After all, "If you know what's best and can afford it, why would you get anything different?" When we asked what the club would do if something new came along that they all agreed was better, he said that they would, of course, all buy the new thing and sell-off whatever component it had replaced.
At the restaurant, later, the food and the
company were great but, as you can tell, the thing about that visit that still
sticks in my mind after so many years is all those guys with all those identical
expensive Systems. That's not the way we
play hi-fi. When I and my friends get together at the home of one or another of
the group, we'll normally spend hours either swapping components (five different
preamps or this many cables) in
and out of the system, trying different speakers, or moving the existing
speakers a quarter of an inch at a time or adding, removing or re-positioning
acoustic treatments to get everything to sound and image the very best it
possibly can. Then – usually around three o'clock in the morning –
after each of us has started trying to leave around midnight, and whoever's
house and System it is has said "Wait, let's try just one more thing"
for the very last time – we'll all drag ourselves home, fire-up the System,
play one or some of the things that we've been listening to all night, smile,
and before we crawl off to bed, each of us will gleefully say of his own System
in his own listening room; "Mine is better than his."
For us, hi-fi, besides everything else, is a competitive sport, with each of us – armed with the (at least imagined) pure gold of his ears; the golden wisdom he has (hopefully) gained from his years of reading, conversation, and experience; and the gold in his pockets (at least until he spends it all for some new hi-fi toy or goodie) – trying to come up with a better-sounding system than all of the others.
From our point of view, the Chinese guys were
simply wrong: Because no one will ever have exactly the same listening room; the
exact same hearing or listening abilities, or exactly the same tastes and
preferences as everybody else, there can never be any one single product of
any kind that's the best for everybody. And, even if there were, the
dedicated and innovative geniuses who design and build our equipment for us
would soon come up with something even better. On the other hand maybe, to at
least some degree, the Chinese guys were right: It's possible that, with all of
them having the same system; maybe, when they all got together and there was no
competition, they had more time to just lean back, close their eyes and...
Enjoy the music!