The Need for High-End Audio

The Need for High-End Audio

For me, high-end audio is all about the emotion.


Hold that thought for a moment.


In a recent column, my friend and colleague Adrienne Maxwell asked, “Do we really need high-end audio?” She outlined many valid reasons as to why the answer may not be “yes.” Certainly, high-end audio would not be at the bedrock of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And the path to high-end nirvana can have many challenges.


As a consumer, there’s the expense (though one can assemble a wonderfully musical system without spending outrageous sums of money, as Adrienne pointed out), the concerns of system and room matching, the need for proper setup, and the possibility that after investing all that time and money your particular combination of room and gear just might not work well together. (The advice of an expert can be invaluable in avoiding this pitfall.)

As a salesperson or dealer, you have a responsibility to provide your customer with what they want. It goes without saying that this requires skill and insight, not just a desire to earn a big spiff.


As a high-end manufacturer, you have to balance the sometimes opposing factors of price, performance, aesthetics, manufacturability, business costs, and market demand. If you’re going all-out on a product that strives for ultimate quality, it will almost certainly carry a high price tag, and the law of diminishing returns will be staring you in the face.


And, yes, sometimes a large speaker might cost $30,000 or $100,000 or more. But consider their multiple top-quality drivers, complex-geometry cabinets with expensive woods and finishes, elaborate crossovers, premium parts, and so on. These don’t come cheap, and manufacturers and dealers have to make a profit. And such speakers can outperform other designs, sometimes dramatically so, especially in presence, scale, dynamics and bass extension.


As a reviewer, I can attest that properly reviewing high-end audio gear is demanding. Let’s say you’re doing a speaker review. You need to listen using different amps, cables, source components, and even rooms in order to try to factor out what the speaker is doing from what the other equipment is doing.


Then there’s the psychological pressure. You have a responsibility to get it right because the stakes with a high-end review are high. Because this gear can be so expensive to produce, a negative review can financially harm a manufacturer, especially a smaller one.


So why get involved in high-end audio at all? And, as Adrienne pointed out, what the heck is it even, anyway?


There have been many definitions of “high-end audio” over the decades, most defining it as the ability for components or systems to more accurately or convincingly reproduce the sound of music than typical products. Harry Pearson, founder of The Absolute Sound, characterized high-end as the ability to reproduce the sound of real music—the absolute sound—in real space. Certainly, when most think of high-end they think of expensive prices.


But, like I said, for me—and for so many others—it’s all about the emotion.


A high-end system is one that crosses the line from a mere (even if high-quality) reproducer of sound to one that conveys the emotional impact of music.


It’s a system that draws you in and engages you. It makes you forget that you’re listening to reproduced sound and makes a direct connection to your feelings on a primal, soul-deep level.


This is an elusive quality. Just ask an audiophile dedicated to the pursuit, or anyone who’s spent hours or days setting up a system at an audio show or a dealer or a customer’s home. A system might sound good, or it might even sound bad, and after painstakingly adjusting speaker placement, cartridge alignment, vibration-isolating feet, room treatment, or what-have-you, there’s ideally a moment when everything comes together and the sound becomes right, locked-in, and, at the best of times, magical.


I fervently believe that high-end audio is worth defending, preserving, and encouraging. (Disclaimer: I’m in the high-end audio industry. And let’s set aside considerations of possible overpricing, marketing hype, accusations of “snake oil,” and other frown-inducing aspects for the moment.) High-end audio reflects not only a constant striving for excellence but a noble (if also commercial) effort to bring listeners ever-closer to the music.


And when you get that closeness, it’s one of the most wonderful feelings in the world.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

1 Comment
  • John Bishop

    Frank, thank you for taking the high-end audio defense challenge by responding to Adrienne’s article, well done. I believe this is a moment in the CineLuxe evolution that should not go unnoticed. Do we have a technical editor?
    ——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-That story moved me to comment the day it came out. I took an objective track to illustrate how high-end loudspeakers by virtue of their drivers, networks, and enclosure design can reduce distortions, resonances, extend bandwidth and manage dispersion to produce a higher performance. But as you said, the emotional component of experiencing music reproduced at this level is the essence of the hobby. And the ‘museum quality’ sculpture of high-end audio products can’t be ignored either; Dieter Burmester famously referred to his components as; ‘Art for your Ears’, and so they are!
    I bristled at the cavalier dismissal of high-end audio in Adrienne’s piece, especially on a blog with ‘Luxe’ in its name. But it was the miss-characterization of projection and TV tech that I found most in need of a second opinion. On a blog named CineLuxe, mediocrity should be subordinate to elevated performance and a genuinely cinematic experience. The world doesn’t need TV or cheap projector advice here, it’s doled out in a hundred other places! CineLuxe might do better treating cinema systems and hardware with the same respect and scrutiny as is given in professional cinema, or photographic equipment circles.
    The annual CEDIA EXPO just ended in Denver. Mass market (aka Best Buy portfolio) products were prolific, and the latest cruel CE joke to be foisted on an unsuspecting public, 8K (‘now images are real’), was launched in all its glory with all the old familiar proclamations; “Makes UHD better, and content is right around the corner”. Now give me $30K and you can have one. Right in there with 3D curved displays.
    But CEDIA EXPO 2019 also displayed legitimate residential cinema via systems using advanced sound and image hardware. And for the very first time, there was a training class on DCI compliant cinema; the ultimate reference for the genuine cinematic experience. In the content section of the DCI class, which I delivered, a reference to the 500mb/s data rate of digital movie files was made, with note of a movement in the cinema industry advocating for a 10-fold increase! Meanwhile we wax poetic at streaming services of 10 to 20mb/s. TV’s are fine with streaming sources because at 3H to 6H viewing distances, you can’t see a difference. But TV’s do not deliver a cinema experience, they can only mimic it.
    In cinema, with 1.5H to 3H viewing distances and superior optics, you can see the difference. But Adrienne’s reference to products that came to market to teach Runco that projectors could be made cheaper, didn’t acknowledge that these cheaper products couldn’t resolve detail with their necessarily cheap lenses, imagers, and video processing engines. Some reviewers express amazement by saying, ‘I can’t even see the pixel structure’. That is not a good thing. It’s like comparing a point and shoot camera to a pro model by counting spec sheet pixels, and not looking at reference images, much less test patterns. In our industry, we make little distinction in projectors beyond brightness and pixel count, and that can’t distinguish a hierarchy easily recognized in professional cinema and photography.
    In our CE world I’ve read mainstream reviews of HT speakers where the reviewer says; “this system sounded good, but once I applied my own Audissey EQ, they sounded great’. This is not credible, and can you imagine some fool applying their own EQ to a pair of Wilson Alexandria XLFs to then tell us how great they sound. Such a process would be laughed out of the audio community, high-end or professional. But in CE it’s accepted. CineLuxe can and should be more serious, and therefore useful to those seeking guidance to a superior experience.
    And that leads us to HDR, which has its absolute reference in cinema, and yet many say that TV’s do a better job. This is not cinematically true, high end projection can match Dolby Vision and IMAX 6P laser exhibition HDR, and that is the original art form! TV’s cannot, and tone mapping a bright LCD screen, or deep black OLED screen does not get you to the artistic intent of a movie. It’s closer to the Audissey EQ example above. Directors didn’t create their dark content to be viewed on an oil slick, and their bright content was not designed to be blasted out at 100’s of foot Lamberts. The reference art is rendered within the charcoal blacks of projected images on low gain white screens, with peak whites at 30 to 60fL.
    Adrienne went on to say that Runco’s success wasn’t because of their ‘significantly better performance than cheaper brands, but that they were sold by trained dealers through limited distribution’. That’s also not true because again; the optics, the DLP imagers (which have 85% market share in professional cinema, and the technical Oscar as well) all contributed to a superior image and absolute accuracy to the original art. To do this, an optically sophisticated projection lens might cost $5,000 to $10,000, many times the value of the entire projector of those entry level brands. Runco was not a victim of ‘better cheap projectors’ but rather an ill-timed purchase where the learning curve for new owners coincided with a dramatic recession. The passing of Runco aside, many projector models have continued to be available with superior optics and technology. For example, today Barco Cinema is bringing a new range of residential projectors to market at 3K, 4K, and 5K resolutions in standard and native cinemascope formats. All models use professional grade optics and cinema derived imaging technology.
    High end audio may be a smaller market than it once was, but it is still a beacon of what the art of music reproduction can be. Residential cinema continues moving forward with a new wave of high-end theater and media room designs arriving it seems every day. Using cinema derived technologies including immersive audio and HDR imaging, today’s cinemas don’t just reproduce the art of movies, they can at the highest levels, recreate the original. This is a unique moment in residential entertainment history and experiencing it at its best is my definition of CINELUXE.
    John Bishop – President b/a/s/ bishop architectural-entertainment services
    EVP Mavericks Architectural C I N E M A div James Loudspeaker
    Director Cinema Experience Engineering RAYVA

    September 22, 2019 at 6:35 pm