High-End Sound Systems … With Looks To Match

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If Aga can produce a lavender cooker, and Sub-Zero can make fridge-freezers sexy, why should any household commodities be ugly? Form follows function, and no-one’s asking Black & Decker to make pretty power-drills, but home electronics have needed their own Trinny and Susannah for a half-century. We think they may have finally arrived.

It’s never been as big a problem as fussy homeowners have made it out to be, a stance maintained ever since the first ‘radiogram’ was split into its constituent parts in the quest for better sound. In the 1950s, when hi-fi became a hobby, hardcore music fanatics discovered that a single piece of furniture housing a record player, a radio and the necessary amplifiers and speakers wasn’t the best way to reproduce sound in the home. At least, not with any semblance of true fidelity to the actual sound. Such music centres were and still are intrinsically compromised, using so-so components and designed more as furniture than as hi-fi. They live on, but only for those who don’t value music very highly.

It was the advent of stereo in the late 1950s – sound from two separate speakers – that rendered consoles obsolete, and for one very real reason: you simply couldn’t get the speakers far enough apart to spread the sound correctly. That’s where the trouble began. Or did it? With the exception of the loudspeakers, which have to be directed at the listeners, the rest can be hidden in a cupboard.

It’s always been about the loudspeakers, only about the loudspeakers, and any other arguments used to prevent the spouse or partner from investing in exotic hi-fi usually get down to money, not aesthetics. If that sounds terribly sexist and politically incorrect, you can bet that it’s the male who wants the gear and that it’s the distaff partner who’s the most likely to bellow, ‘You’re not putting those in the living room!’ Just ask any audio retailer. The industry even has a name for it, the Wife Acceptance Factor, and uses it with all seriousness in their market research.

Until recently, the mere term ‘hi-fi’ conjured up images of huge, wooden coffins with horrible grille-cloths, and a stack of silver or black boxes festooned with knobs. Throw in a few glowing valves and a tangle of wire, and you can understand why architects and decorators gag when they find out a client is an audiophile. Two trends, though, have forced audio manufacturers to deal with aesthetics, and that’s why images of walnut veneers and flashing meters should no longer deter anyone from enjoying the best sound reproduction imaginable.

Without doubt, the arrival of home cinema is the most important cause for the rejuvenation of consumer electronics. DVD is the fastest-growing format ever, one which showed the manufacturers that customers love movies as well as music. The advent of surround-sound in the cinema, translated by Dolby and DTS to surround sound in the home, made the experience much better than a ‘TV in the corner,’ in some instances even better than at your local cinema.

Of course, there was a downside: the need for five or more speakers instead of two. This, in turn, inspired custom installation, the second trend to cause an industry re-think. Custom installation was a necessary adjunct to the arrival, alongside DVD, of home automation, which enabled homeowners to combine the control of everything electrical or electronic – air-conditioning and heating, security, lighting, home computing and gaming, and, yes, home entertainment – into a centralised system. Unlike a basic hi-fi, which can be set up in a couple of hours, fitting a fully-wired home automation system is as complex as all-new plumbing. And what was the first thing the installers heard from their clients? ‘We want all of this stuff, but we don’t want to see any of it.’

Kevin Andrews, MD of cutting-edge installer Sound Ideas, is convinced that aesthetics are the over-riding priority for cost-no-object installations. ‘Exotic audio/video equipment is expensive. It follows that homes with state-of-the-art sound and vision are upscale. We know that how we can make it look will be the deciding factor as to whether or not the customer will even have it in the home. If we can’t make it invisible, most clients would rather not have it at all.’ So you can understand why traditional hi-fi companies feel about as secure in the 21st Century as do manufacturers of moustache wax.

Electronics were never the problem, because every serious installation has a separate control room where all of the black boxes hide, alongside the heart of the security system and every other part of the control package. But you still need a visible screen – obviously – for viewing, and speakers have to be unobstructed if they’re to be heard. Enter the world of audio camouflage.

Screens, being flat, lend themselves to wall-mounting behind curtains, or a painting on a powered lift system. Other screens roll up like a blind. The speakers? A classic solution is to hide them behind ‘acoustically transparent’ curtains, but purists will tell you there’s no such thing: even the wispiest of cloths can filter out the highest frequencies, making the music sound dull. And with that goes the visceral sensation that’s the only reason for indulging in a super sound system in the first place.

It’s all about priorities. As Andrews notes without passing judgement, ‘Typical customers for £100,000-plus systems are not obsessive audiophiles, and are just as concerned with how the systems look and operate as with how they perform.’ Ironically, the most vocal and visible (though least numerous) consumers for stand-alone hi-fi separates are enthusiasts who will put up with the proverbial nest of wire. It’s the consumers who love music but aren’t slaves to it, appreciate sound quality and will pay for it, and who still like to hear music from traditional sources like CDs and LPs rather than via the internet or small digital players who need systems that perform without encroaching on their lives.

Growth beyond the hobbyist sector coincided with the increased awareness of most other luxury goods beyond their traditional clientele, a trend that began the 1980s. And as with wine and watches, the premier audio brands were there all along. They just didn’t enjoy the cachet of a Patek Philippe watch or Manolo Blahnik shoes. To appeal to the people who could afford their wares, as opposed to magazine-reading audiophiles with high hopes and shallow pockets, audio had to rid itself of the whiff of solder.

Credit for this goes to one Mark Levinson, whose eponymous brand (now a part of the Harman organisation), raised the bar for audio in the early 1970s. Levinson upped the performance, applied a heavy dose of mystique and – by virtue of extravagant pricing – ensured its exclusivity. Levinson’s products were large, severe and imposing. But it was the sound that made his high-end audio so noteworthy.

At last, music in the home could come eerily close to the real thing. That, after all, is what ‘high fidelity’ means: faithfulness to the original musical performance. You know you’re in the presence of a majestic sound system when you experience moments – however brief – when you’d swear the music was real, and in the room.

To clean up their acts, high-end manufacturers had to stop concentrating on audiophiles, the ones who’d put up with stuff so ugly that it would make your eyes water and your decorator swoon, so long as it sounded wonderful. And one pair of manufacturers stands proud of all the rest.

Sonus Faber of Italy was the first to show the world that loudspeakers didn’t have to come in boxes only slightly more attractive than apple crates. Ricardo Franassovici, of distributor Absolute Sounds, took on the brand and notice an immediate change in attitude when he first started offering these speakers fashioned from solid woods, finished like fine furniture and bearing curved surfaces rather than dull, cubist forms. ‘Sonus Faber combined classic Italian skills, like their amazing wood-working traditions, with modern technology. Their speakers have always sounded as good as they look, and that’s because designer Franco Serblin is first and foremost a music lover.’

Sonus Faber applied unbridled Italian style to the speaker cabinet, using solid staves of walnut or cherry, with curves and swathes and finishes worthy of the finest violins. Launched in the 1980s, Sonus Faber made its mark with unparalleled rapidity because, as Franassovici observed, ‘Their speakers really did sound as beautiful as they looked.’ By the mid-1990s, they had more imitators than any brand in audio’s history.

It was a trio of speakers launched over the past decade that established Sonus Faber as the Fabergé of audio. Serblin designed three models to honour the great violin makers of Cremona, releasing in five-year intervals the Guarneri, the Amati and this year, the ultimate model, the Stradivari. He resurrected violin-making techniques for the woodwork, using organic glues and varnishes. He replaced boring grille cloth with strands to represent violin strings. And he produced shapes, based on the profile of a lute, that have been cloned by manufacturers in every hi-fi-producing country in the world. As one notorious hi-fi-hating spouse observed, upon seeing the chest-high Stradivari for the first time, ‘I could live with those. They’re sexy.’

Kansas-based MartinLogan had an advantage over box-type speaker builders because it produces electrostatic speakers, which use panels rather than cone-type drivers; panels are intrinsically svelte and elegant, and easier to integrate into a home. The technology consists of thin, transparent membranes, protected by perforated grills, so MartinLogan was able to create handsome forms that provided the customer with a unique benefit: see-through speakers. It’s a form with a small footprint – most MartinLogans require only a square quarter- or half-metre of floor-space – and the speakers’ gloss black frontal areas can be accented by trim pieces in various woods or primary colours. For two decades, MartinLogans have been decorator favourites and ‘wife acceptance’ is a given. And like Sonus Fabers, they’ve been copied by rivals.

So now a sense of style is endemic, and those who still produce bizarrely-styled or poorly finished components have limited their appeal to hi-fi crazies. But the savvy ones are reaping the benefits of their makeovers. Wilson Audio, one of the most successful of the high-end manufacturers, will not separate form from function, so they had less freedom with shapes. To appease those sensitive to looks, designer David A. Wilson decided to finish his highly angular designs with the an unlimited palette of the finest automotive paints available. Mercedes, BMW, Porsche – he’ll match your speaker to your favourite automobile. At the same time, the sound hasn’t been compromised one bit. His new statement model, the £125,000 Alexandria looks sensational in Ferrari’s Fly Giallo.

Better still, it’s spreading to the electronics, too. Meridian, one of the UK’s most adventurous brands, has always boasted clean styling and a freedom from extraneous knobs and buttons. Its new G Series of amplifiers, tuners and CD players oozes elegance in its glossy titanium finish, and the flagship 800 models, once available only in black, were launched in January in an optional Italian ‘racing red’ finish. Classé, another manufacturer of high-end electronics, launched the Delta range, which features uncluttered surfaces, curved panels and a satin finish. The range is so beautiful that it was displayed in New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

While there will always be those for whom audio is living sculpture – no bachelor pad in the 1960s was complete without a massive open-reel tape deck whirring away – it’s with great relief that the cream of hi-fi manufacturing decided it was time to broaden the appeal beyond the propeller-heads. Who knows? Specialty audio might be due for a come-back. After all, LP sales are on the increase.

And you really, really shouldn’t hide your turntable.

(How To Spend It, 2004)