At The High End Of The Street

Like Mark Twain’s death, reports of the demise of high-end audio are premature. If you think I’m stating this as a career-saving move, my occupation being that of a reviewer, your cynicism does you proud – but it’s misplaced. I don’t need convincing, nor am I totally dependent on the high end. But you’ll say that evidence points to the contrary.

Aside from one or two magazines in the USA which concentrate solely on expensive, pure audio components, nearly every publication (as well as retailer) has moved on to embrace home theatre. Only a few journals, ones that have a perverse desire to see their circulation shrink, are studiously ignoring the A/V market. Moreover, price points of review products have expanded downward in the case of every publication I can name, with the exception of What Hi-Fi, in which case prices have expanded upward.

It’s not What Hi-Fi’s willingness in the past few years to consider products costing more than, say, £99, which leads me to believe that the high-end is safe and relatively healthy. That magazine will forever champion basic gear, which is its editorial brief and where it reigns supreme. If, on the other hand, I suddenly see an issue in which every product starts at four figures…

Nor can I point to the crowds at the recent hi-fi shows in Milan and Hammersmith because hi-fi shows are where you expect to see a horde of people who think that high-end hi-fi is something worth coveting. If anything, attending a hi-fi show and using that experience to reassure yourself of the vigour of pure audio is like going to a motor show to convince yourself that car ownership in the UK is enjoyable. A motor show denies the existence of pure, car-hating realities like Gatso cameras, the current government, the most expensive cars in Europe, petrol with a tax content of 85 percent, etc.

No, what keeps me believing that the high-end is alive if not growing are unrelated occurrences which – by virtue of their ‘unrelatedness’ – suggest that the high-end is a sizeable underground. But, unlike a traditional political or artistic underground of, say, squatters after free housing, it is a counterculture of extreme price tags and wealthy consumers. And the irony of that is just too juicy. Whatever next? Cover-mounted CDs on The Spectator?

Weigh up the following:

1) I receive a phone call from an admitted non-audiophile, someone of whom I’ve never heard. I repeat: a non-audiophile. I was intrigued that this individual wanted to know if he should buy a £5000 DVD transport to replace his CD player, or should he stick with a CD-only machine, in which case, could I recommend the £12,000 Linn CD-12?

2) A retailer friend of mine in the USA told me that he couldn’t give away expensive mini-monitors. (We were talking about the British penchant for manufacturing such, and the European and Asian penchant for buying such.) He said his customers expected something chunky and visually arresting for their $20,000 per pair. Admittedly, his patch includes the homes of Madonna and Sylvester Stallone, but he talks about such speakers the way Julian Richer talks about £49 CD players. I have since confirmed that he’s the No 1 dealer in the USA for one of the world’s best-selling high-end speakers, and yet you’ve probably never heard of his store. Like I said, underground counterculture.

3) In my capacity as a free-lance journalist, I write catalogues on occasion, provided I foresee no conflicts of interest. I have just been hired by a British retailer to produce copy for a brochure. And nearly all of it is high-end. Remember, we’re talking 2000, not 1979. And this dealer has the balls to commit to a luxurious catalogue as far removed from a Richer or Sevenoaks advert as you’re likely to see.

4) Whenever I speak to certain members of CEDIA UK, I hear conflicting reports about the presence of traditional high-end brands in mega-pound installations. Some installers will deal only with major Japanese or Dutch brands because of the implied reliability, while others studiously avoid high-end exotica simply because their customers have never heard of the stuff. Which is why a guy pulling down seven figures a year feels comfortable with say, Sony or B&O or Panasonic, but has to be worked on to consider Krell or Mark Levinson.

But, in every case, the Japanese (and all but one or two of the British) run out of toys above a certain price point, and some of these millionaires won’t be happy with a home theatre costing under £25,000. I won’t embarrass them, but I know CEDIA dealers who loathe the thought of dealing in high-end Yankee exotica, but they’re not masochists: when a client says ‘I have £100,000 to spend on a home theatre system,’ they gladly ring Absolute Sounds or Path Premier and swallow their xenophobic or low-end pride.

Call me a Pollyanna, but I think there’s something in the air, and why there are waiting lists for the new SME turntable, Wilson WATT Puppy 6, Linn CD-12, Sonus Faber Amati…

(Inside Hi-Fi, November 1999)