It's easy to take for granted the existence of products that push forward the state of the art in music reproduction. Whether you have an antipathy toward mega-priced components or revere them, you probably don't think twice about the fact that someone had to conceptualize and then create them.
But create them someone most assuredly did. And it's this path from concept to realization that we tend to gloss over without considering the highly unlikely set of circumstances, and combination of talents, required for the product to come into the world.
Every cutting-edge audio product started out as an idea, a conception, an aspiration in the mind of an individual. But to turn that vision into a piece of gear in your equipment rack — a piece of gear that pushes the boundaries of what's possible — requires an extraordinary degree of creative thinking, inspiration, design talent, musical sensitivity, risk-taking, entrepreneurship, and yes, hubris.
Moreover, the designer must possess not just one or two of these skills and temperaments, but all them. The absence of any one of these traits means that the product simply wouldn't exist. One obvious talent is the sheer imagination to envision a circuit, loudspeaker driver, system architecture, or technique that doesn't yet exist. This ability to conceptualize a truly groundbreaking product is exceedingly rare. The overwhelming majority of electrical and mechanical engineers are trained to believe that over-engineering is as great a sin as under-engineering. But the ambitious high-end audio designer refuses to accept the established standards of what is conventionally considered over-engineering. He is compelled to explore what's possible, not what's practical or efficient.
The designer must not only possess the imagination to envision the product, but also the technical chops to turn the concept into a working circuit. It's one thing to imagine a circuit and quite another to build it and make it work. But once built, there's no guarantee that the circuit will advance the art and not have some sort of unforeseen fatal flaw, technical or musical. The designer must also have the musical sensitivity to judge the sound quality of the design, and to correlate technical changes with musical perception — no mean feat.
And then there's the question of motivation to pursue this seemingly Quixotic endeavor. The designer is often driven by a love of music and a single-minded pursuit of musical realism without practical limitations. Without this zealous obsession, the product could never exist.
The individual who possesses this combination of skills and drive must also have access to an infrastructure that allows him to realize his vision. That infrastructure is usually a company with the resources to develop, build, and market the product. Most often, the designer is also the entrepreneur who founded the company — very few existing companies will gamble on an outside designer's ambitious dream. Growing a company to the point that it has the capacity to invest in an expensive, years-long development and prototyping process is a staggering challenge unto itself. This requirement alone dooms many good ideas to the file cabinet rather than to be brought to life on the factory floor.
Finally, the company that the designer creates must embody a culture in which pursuit of the state of the art is central to the company's identity. That's a lot easier said than done. Every person involved in building the products must have the attitude of allowing absolutely no compromise in quality. Wilson Audio founder David Wilson was once asked why the company didn't capitalize on its success by creating a second-tier of products with relaxed manufacturing standards that could be sold at lower prices. Such a move would greatly increase Wilson Audio's market share and financial success. Wilson replied that it would be impossible to have two sets of standards, one for the top-level products and one for the lower-priced models. The people who build the speakers, he said, must be single-minded in their attitude that their only standard is absolute perfection.
These individual qualities, temperaments, and skills often exist independently in different people, but rarely are they found together in a single person. That's what makes the high-end designer who can conceptualize and then realize a boundary-pushing product such a rarity, and worthy of our veneration. So next time you look at a product in your equipment rack, take a moment to consider the odds against that product being brought into the world. I'd estimate that designers with the all the qualities required for that piece of gear to exist in your equipment rack are about one in ten million. They deserve our reverence.