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January 2019
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Don't Apologize!
Roger Skoff tells how to bring new people to our hobby.
Article By Roger Skoff

 

Don't Apologize! Roger Skoff tells how to bring new people to our hobby.

 

  If you go back many years ago, when I bought my first multi-thousand dollar preamp (a Klyne SK-5a), I remember telling my wife (Yes, I was married at the time) that it was a fine investment; that we would both enjoy the use of it; and that; over the many years that we would have it, it would cost only pennies a day. In short, even though I was the one who earned the money, and therefore thought myself certainly justified in deciding how it ought to be spent, I still found myself making excuses – apologizing – for buying a new hi-fi toy.

And it's not just me who does it, either. I doubt if there's any one among us who, when confronted with the issue of spending money on our hobby, doesn't – instead of just manning-up and declaring it to be our right and our pleasure – try to give some justification or to make some excuse for why it's really okay or even, somehow, a good thing. 

The fact of it is that we're paranoid about our pleasures, and we have good reason to be. Except among our fellow audiophiles, our toys are not hip and we know it: If a guy goes out and spends three hundred thousand dollars on a Lamborghini, everybody will think he's crazy, but everybody will wish they were him. If one of us, though, were to spend even half that amount on a High-End Audio system, everybody would just think he was crazy. Period!

 

 

And it's that kind of an attitude – one that declares the thing that interests us to be neither part of nor suitable for the population-in-general – that's killing our hobby and killing the industry that supports it.

We've tried all the obvious ways to reverse that: We've tried demonstrating our systems to the Great Uninterested, and what we've gotten in response is either "Well, gee; I guess you must have better ears than I do" or "Where's the bass?" – referring not to the real 30Hz our woofers will put out when it's actually there on the recording, but to the absence of the mushy 80Hz boom that the louts out there get when they turn the bass all the way up on their TV soundbar's 8" "subwoofer", or that can be heard from that custom car cruising-by a block away.

We've also tried reason, explaining that what our systems do is something akin to magic: the believable reproduction of a 120 piece orchestra, a Big Band, a Rock Group, or even a real human voice and the size and shape of the room it's singing in, just by the use of two loudspeakers driven from, ultimately, the two numbers, one and zero, or the electronically-amplified wigglings of a tiny rock being dragged through a groove in a piece of plastic.

Ho-hum; today the magical is commonplace, and our cellphones can hold more, by far, than the Library at Alexandria or any other since then; have vastly greater computing power than was needed to create the atomic bomb; entertain us with movies or music on demand; and (perhaps no longer even worth mentioning), still provide us with instantaneous communication with anywhere in the world.

We've even tried the emotional approach, telling those who will listen that music, well-reproduced, can be an exciting, stirring, or emotionally moving experience, only to have even our most eloquent words fall on ears that – far worse than if they were deaf – simply don't care: Their owners are too busy texting.

The first recordings (Edison cylinders) were met with wonder and instant desire. Much of a century before Memorex, people, caught-up in the apparent miracle of what they were hearing, claimed that those first tinny scratchings were indistinguishable from a "live" performance, and even Nipper was amazed to hear ‘his master's voice." 

 

 

The phonograph, as it matured, found an eager audience and became a part of every home. So, did the radio, when it came along. It was the wonder of these things that first caused the pioneers of our hobby to long for the perfection of them into instruments of high fidelity (to the music) sound reproduction ("hi-fi") and gave rise to the original audiophiles, including such innovators as Avery Fisher and Herman Hosmer Scott. That and the potentially great wealth that would surely come with satisfying a mass market also led to the development of stereophonic sound ("stereo"), which, in 1940, Walt Disney used (SIX channels of it, count ‘em!) played on a special system developed by Western Electric) to help ensure that Fantasia would earn its place among the all-time classic films and soundtracks.

Once developed, though, except among audio professionals, stereo lay largely dormant for years until the 1950s, when the growing popularity of television threatened movie revenues. Then, starting with films like This is Cinerama (1952), The Robe (1953), and other "spectaculars", stereo found its way into movie theaters everywhere, to the delight of an enthusiastic and responsive public.

The great "audience appeal" of stereo sound at the movies made it no surprise that, when stereo LPs and the equipment for playing them were introduced in 1957, home stereo became a near-instant hit and, within a decade, a "stereo" was a feature of most American homes. Just its sheer entertainment value made it a "must have" and the first great Hi-Fi Boom was on and stayed on for decades, augmented by a whole new digital boom starting in 1982 with the arrival of CDs.

 

 

One miracle, though, among countless others soon loses its luster and is quickly replaced by a "What have you done for me lately?" attitude that's hard to overcome. All too soon, with both a surfeit of other miracles on the market and an oversupply of cheap, easily available, and perfectly okay other music and sound sources to compete with it, audiophile-quality home stereo sound found itself on a declining curve, bound, apparently for oblivion or, at best, "curiosity" status, to be carried-on by only a few old men and an ever-lessening number of dealers and manufacturers. 

So how can we save it or even, once again, give it broad popular appeal?

Well, for one thing, talking about "use value" will accomplish nothing: Most people already have something that they either think is "good enough" or they don't care about the subject at all. Besides, who ever heard the driver of a Lamborghini or the wearer of multi-hundred dollar sneakers or thousand-dollar jeans ever talk about the "use value" of his purchases?

When you are either explaining or defending, you're letting your opponent define the argument. We've been doing that for far too long, and it's got to stop. What's needed now, if we're going to appeal to people and draw them into (or back into) our hobby is both a positive and a negative appeal – both, if you will, a "carrot" and a "stick". And both of them can be based in the concept of (whichever you prefer to call it) "cool" or "peer group acceptance".

 

 

Right now, as their market declines and costs spiral higher, high-end audio prices are high and going higher. Certainly this is a limiting factor to newcomers considering our hobby, but what if we were to stop apologizing and make what we do a means of positive display? What if, like the fancy car, the big house, or the violently expensive watch, we were to (quietly and tastefully, of course) actually turn it into a status display? What if, when people see our system and (as they so often do) ask how much it cost, we were to tell them proudly, without any excuses, the actual amount instead of mumbling something defensive? What if, when they ask why do we have such a thing, we were to ask them why they don't (and maybe even imply some wonder if it's because they can't afford it)? 

Economic display and its opposite, economic shaming, are powerful forces to which no one is immune. Why not use them to, like the guy with the Lamborghini, let them think we're crazy but make them wish that they could join us in our craziness?

I have been told that one of the nastiest things you can say of a Russian is that he is "without culture" – "nekulturny". Wouldn't a person without music fall into that category? And wouldn't a person without a decent sound system be a person without music? Perhaps that's another "stick" that we can use to encourage others to join us.

 

 

If we can make our hobby into something that people will brag about instead of thinking they have to apologize for; if we can make it a sign of achievement, social acceptability, and culture; if we can get (as they're already showing some signs of doing) the movies and TV to show High-End audio as both a perquisite and a prerequisite of affluent living; won't people start viewing our hobby in a different way? And, if they do, won't they start coming to us again and in ever-increasing numbers? And if that happens, won't a new Hi-Fi Boom be upon us, with great new products to appeal to a new audience, and competitive forces driving prices down so that even more new people can be drawn-in? 

And won't that mean – regardless of why they initially come to us – that many new audiophiles will be created by their great new systems? Good! It will mean more of us to buy more products, encourage new recordings and technologies, and...

 

Enjoy the music!

-- Roger Skoff

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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