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Maybe we really do get what we deserve: to be dissed wherever and whenever. It’s as if the hi-fi community, any and all of us— enthusiast, manufacturer, retailer—revels in being regarded as, well, weird. In case you thought that “geek” and “nerd” were terms restricted to describing computer addicts and owners of Sta-Prest slacks, the world outside of our little en counter group thinks that we’re actually less admirable/cool than even the most pizza-breathed Net-surfer you could imagine. And we ask for it.
My colleague Steve Harris nailed it on the head with the delicious truism, “The trouble with ‘popular science’ is that the more popular, the less scientific.” Okay, so you’d expect newspapers, mainstream magazines, and television programs to have a real problem conveying the intricacies of new technologies; they’re forced to avoid technical details. So we face dilemmas. How do you explain to a computer / hi-fi-illiterate audience what advantages DVD offers over existing formats, when that audience is still wrapping its minds around the concept of 8-track tapes? How do you communicate to a herd of knuckle-dragging, RV-driving, beer-swilling Al Bundys (or their opposites—a bunch of BMW-driving, Chardonnay-sipping, post ‘80s yuppies) why flat speakers are revolutionary or why a handcrafted Class-A power amplifier sounds better than a boombox?
I’m beginning to think that you don’t explain. Or can’t. Perhaps it’s time we give up proselytizing. Maybe we should suspend any missionary tendencies to convert the Great $99- Speaker-Owning Unwashed into music lovers who would appreciate more refined sound. Why? Because the only magazines that treat the subject with a modicum of intelligence and respect—i.e., hi-fi magazines—preach to the converted, and non-enthusiasts will never pick up such publications. Therefore, the only dependable sources will never reach these lost souls. Which leaves the mainstream press. And it is convinced that we’re nerds, geeks, and social misfits with personality bypasses and the sexual histories of monks—well, some monks. And that hi-fi is the biggest snooze going. Think about it: If a mainstream publication or TV show feels compelled to run a feature on a specialized subject—be it Italian supercars, gambling, French wines, upscale kitchen appliances, cigars, digital cameras, hunting equipment, or anything else even remotely topical or interesting—then it will try to present that subject in a digestible, comprehensible manner. The exceptions would be intrinsically odd topics, such as crop circles, UFO spotting, or the Pinky Lee Fan Club. For the most part, though, it’s a safe bet that responsible media would not, for example, portray skiers as a bunch of sick obsessives or suggest that cigar lovers need to employ the services of computer-dating agencies. Said media will hire writers or re porters au fait with the subjects. Why? Because the editors assume that what those authors have to say will interest their readers. And they will want to use experts who have no antipathy toward the topic if they’re to convey its worth to neophytes. In other words, neither Reader’s Digest, nor Playboy, nor Time would hire a bag lady to write about the latest fashions on the Parisian runways or a nonagenarian Nazi domiciled in Bolivia to write about Israeli cuisine.
So why would a music magazine, read by millions of potential hi-fi connoisseurs, run an article about cutting-edge hi-fi that plays it for laughs? Yes, a music magazine with exactly the sort of audience that deserves to learn about a better method of enjoying its raison d’être. And yet Rolling Stone hired a computer journalist (‘nuff said) to report on the current state of the art and the people circulating in the loftiest audiophile strata.
Now, I’ve never met Rogier van Bakel, who’s probably a nice guy who likes dogs and children, but I have tried to read Wired, a magazine for which he is a contributing editor. His article on audio in the November 28, 1996, issue of Rolling Stone is subtitled “Strange But True Tales of Stereo Obsessives,” which tells you immediately that this article was intended to generate chuckles. (The biggest surprise is that the byline wasn’t Hunter S. Thompson or P. J. O’Rourke.) Its headline? “Geek Love.” But, as I said, I have sampled Wired. In which case, we are the “kettle” and van Bakel is the “pot.”
Oh, does this break my heart! After penning the March “Mondo Audio” and finding myself in a gloomy funk over the parlous state of the high-end audio market, it nearly killed me to see not only that a major music publication would perform a hatchet job on hi-fi , but that the little axes would be none other than the very audiophile celebrities who should know better. Maybe they didn’t realize that they were being set up, portrayed as clowns or freaks or social misfits, like those guys you read about who collect pocket lint or make masks from human flesh. Or maybe, because they rarely venture outside of hi-fi circles, they didn’t realize that you can’t talk to civilians about expensive cables, tubes, and Mpingo discs and expect them to comprehend such high- end mysteries. You even have to be careful when discussing high-end pool cues, fishing rods, or camera tripods, because civilians just won’t understand. Worse—it’ll scare them away.
Maybe van Bakel is really a hi-fi junkie himself and simply wasn’t aware of the article’s negativism, because he also wrote that one of the systems he heard “...sounds simply magical” and it was “hard to imagine ever getting tired of listening to great records on gear this good.” And yet, in the opening paragraph, he quotes one reviewer as saying that a listening session is “. . . a way of being in touch with myself, to know my self, of being able to touch greatness.” (The words “pretentious” and “moi” spring to mind, as do “hoist” and “petard,” so much so that “gag order” takes on a new meaning.) But this sets the tone for the article. The number of words about the crackpot element equals the number of column inches that try to convey what high-end audio equipment is really all about: better sound.
-- THE MAINSTREAM PRESS THINKS THAT WE’RE NERDS, GEEKS, AND SOCIAL MISFITS --
Perhaps most unfortunate is the article’s use of an apocryphal, tragic tale to illustrate the lunacy of audiophiles. It is well known that those Decca cartridge mavens, Australia’s Garrott brothers (and their wives), committed suicide en masse in 1990. It is also known to those who bothered to find out that one of the brothers had a terminal illness and that the families were in dire financial straits. The article carries the quote that “These guys committed suicide be cause of the CD.” No wonder three or four million Rolling Stone readers now think that audiophiles are, well, crazy.
Sloppy reporting about hi-fi is just as bad on TV, here in the United Kingdom and in many other countries. Take that most banal of science popularizers, the TV show Tomorrow’s World. Given that it’s a long-run- fling staple of the BBC, you can safely assume that its audience is never smaller than two million—impressive stuff for a so- called “science” program in a country with a population of 53 million. But, alas, this is the same show that, in 1983, described the CD as indestructible; there are still civilians out there who raise hell in record stores when their scratched-beyond-redemption discs will no longer play, quoting Tomorrow’s World as their main defense. The program’s latest bit of half-baked re porting involved the new flat loudspeakers (see “Mondo Audio,” February), which— inevitably—the BBC got wrong. Amusingly, part of the confusion was because the BBC is state run and loath to mention brand names, even when reporting on new technology. This reticence meant that viewers didn’t know if the flat speakers in the show were made by NXT or NCT—to the embarrassment of the former, as the show discussed those made by the latter. Here’s why: In typical mainstream manner, To morrow’s World wheeled in a handful of man-and-woman-on-the-street types, all of whom were unable to distinguish between a flat-panel prototype speaker and one of the most highly regarded, fully developed electrostatics on the market today. “Gee, I couldn’t hear the difference!” is the moronic war cry that drives hi-fi salespeople to drink. Worse, the electrostatic happened to be easily recognizable to anyone who ever looked at a hi-fi magazine. And you can be damned certain that plenty of audiophiles watch Tomorrow’s World simply because there’s nothing else on TV in the U.K. that might even touch on their favorite subject. So a BBC program is now responsible for telling the British public that there’s no difference between a Martin-Logan and a speaker that exists only as a prototype and rolls off at around 200 Hz.
A week after the broadcast, I met the editor of Tomorrow’s World at, amusingly, a press conference for NXT held by the Verity Group. As expected, he adopted the usual lofty BBC attitude and hid behind generalities concerning the difference between re porting in the specialist press and communicating with a mass audience via television. He pretty much refused to accept that the show was in error, irresponsible, or an insult to one’s intelligence. And for the first time in my life, I wished I were a lawyer. Martin-Logan’s lawyer.
The next time you hear about the “dumbing” of America, you might find so lace in knowing that the rest of the planet is undergoing a lobotomy, too.