Synchronicity And Serendipity
There's a lot of received wisdom involved in the world of Hi-Fi: things accepted as being facts just because – well, just because they've always been so, and as a result are beyond challenge. It's a nice, cozy way of thinking, taking in all sorts of myths and legends built up over the years, such as 'source first', 'analogue is always best', and 'the more boxes the better'. Some have credence and common sense behind them, some are the audio equivalent of that scrambling in passing that changes 'Send reinforcements, we're going to advance' into 'Send 3s 4d, we're going to a dance'.
Oh, and then there's the one that suggests the true path to audio nirvana is buying equipment hand-fettled by an artisan working in obscurity, rather than anything from a brand that of which anyone has possibly heard. After all, that one suggests, the obscure products are labors of love, built by true enthusiasts for fellow audiophiles, rather than cranked out by some enormous faceless corporation of sometimes unknown ultimate parentage.
'Artisan audio' can lead to hi-fi shows – and the pages of some publications – populated with brands some of which are making not just their début, but also their valedictory appearance. As an exhibition organizer explained it to me, 'A lot of the brands this year are new, and quite a few of the ones exhibiting last year have gone, changed their name, or been taken over. Exciting, isn't it?'
Or, as one of my more cynical contacts in the industry puts it, 'So you've just made an amplifier able to outperform the products of all the big boys? Wonderful: now make a thousand exactly the same, get them through all the safety and other regulations round the world, check the licensing for any software the product is using, get packaging printed, then distribution and shipping organized, and make sure you're ready to support any of them that go wrong.'
Most of the products in the pages of this issue fly in the face of hi-fi received wisdom: most are from large - or at least largeish – manufacturers, from well-sized specialists such as ATC, Hegel and Naim through to the massive Samsung-owned Harman International group, and all of them deliver standards of performance to match the very best in the world.
Visit such companies and it's not hard to see why this is the case: they've invested in the research, development, engineering and expertise required to make their products to a consistently high standard, freeing their designers and audio experts to do all the 'artisan audio' stuff with the backup (and safety nets) required to make commercially viable, and reliable, products.
What's more, while ownerships may change over time – it's almost an inevitability in a world of big business – the chances are a product you buy today will have its warranty honored, and parts available for servicing, for a more than reasonable lifespan. Yes, it'll come with a recognizable name, and less chance of a friend-impressing tale of a converted forge down an unmade lane beyond the reach of satellite navigation, or a chance online discovery, but the prospect of impressive performance over the long haul will always beat a good backstory.
However, I'm sure the stranger backwaters of hi-fi will continue to exist, and those myths will survive. I heard only the other day of a reel-to-reel tape enthusiast – which revival is a 'why?' all of its own – using an open-reel recorder as a way to 'analoguise' his digital music. The sound is apparently fed out of a high-end network player onto a tape deck running in record, and is then listened to using the output from the recorder's monitor head.
It seems it takes all sorts...