Mr. Ray Purchase ponders on The Demise of Home Audio..?

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Editor’s note:

Today we welcome Mr. Ray Purchase as a guest contributor. His first piece for you sets the pace, tone and style of his writing. I'm not usually a talent-scout; well not in the conventional sense anyway. However Howard drew my attention to the carefully considered comments that Ray has applied to some of our posts. The quality was such that we just had to invite him, and so Howard was despatched to do so, and Ray kindly agreed.

We haven’t edited his text. There was no need. However we have taken the liberty of inserting sub-headings where appropriate. You might ask why? Well, simply because both research and experience shows that online readers find the reading process more comfortable when such headings are included.

In conclusion, thank you so much Ray – and welcome aboard.

Neil McCauley / OLC editor

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Introduction

At this moment I am listening to a CD titled Apple Venus by British New Wave band XTC on a very good stereo system turned up to moderate volume. The rich sound pervades the room and the individual instruments and voices seem to occupy their own spaces, generating a powerful experience. Aside from the artistic, cultural and intellectual aspects of the music, I think it is as powerful an experience for the senses as driving a Bentley, drinking a fine wine, eating a gourmet meal or taking in the view from the top of a mountain. Like the finest examples of anything in life, it combines sparseness and restraint where there should be, with fine, strong flavours and, sometimes, almost-overpowering contrasts. Unlike reading a book or watching a film it is sensual and of the moment, and not reliant on absorbing a story or narrative before its virtues are revealed.

It feels like an expensive, luxurious experience: as though it should be bad for the environment, injurious to my health, inconvenient or completely beyond my means. Yet it brings into my room, up close and personal, all these wonderful things for very little cost. Why is it that I am one of a tiny proportion of the population that still understands this? Is the word "still" even appropriate? Did home audio (a.k.a. 'hi-fi') have a golden age and is it now in decline, replaced by ear buds and iPods?

The honest answer is that I don't know.

All I can do is to remember my childhood and teenage years in the 1970s and 80s, and read of other people's experiences in books such as Ken Kessler's lavish tomes on Quad and Kef, or David Briggs' book on Wharfedale speakers.

To a teenager in the 1970s an audio system represented so much: sophistication, wealth, lifestyle, culture. Those two speaker boxes meant stereo, not just the boring old mono that the average kid had with his 'record player' or transistor radio. Stereo speakers could be placed in the room in interesting ways, maybe at jaunty angles in the corners or on bookshelves. The advertisements in the Hi-fi magazines (that we consumed voraciously) showed stereos in situ in beautiful, elegant rooms, or even artistic, bohemian ones, often with hints of associated adult pleasures.

On the drive or street outside one could imagine a Lotus, XJS or Jensen Interceptor - or at least I did. The bigger the speakers the better, obviously, and they could be like pieces of furniture with elegant grilles and wood veneer; the rectangular shape was fine with me, and still is. Brushed aluminium and wood, illuminated tuning dials, sloping consoles, slider controls, complex tone arms with dangly weights, and that ultimate desirable object: the reel-to-reel tape recorder, that the frugal teenager envisaged providing unlimited music for free recorded from the radio, albums borrowed from friends or the library, and that just looked fantastic.

Every boy or man craved a hi-fi with big speakers, or so I thought at the time.

But it wasn't all about size and style: I was aware that older, cultured people possessed hi-fi systems also, listening to classical LPs or concerts on Radio 3. I had a wealthy relative who fitted into this category and whose hi-fi equipment was supplied and installed by a proper dealer and was a cut above the Garrard/Rotel/Wharfedale type of stuff I might aspire to.

But all this audio 'romance' seems to have gone (except for a tiny clique of middle aged men who will pay hundreds of pounds for a mains cable, and the super-rich who spend hundreds of thousands on what some may regard as vulgar-looking exotic amps, speakers and turntables). Obvious explanations for the apparent demise of the home audio industry include:

  • The one time popularity of hi-fi was simply because there was nothing else to do in those days, and now we have the internet.
  • Hi-fi was new, and now it's passé.
  • The popularity of hi-fi coincided with an explosion in musical and cultural creativity which has passed.

Other explanations might include:

  • The Sony Walkman took music out of the living room, and rendered headphones as the default method for listening.
  • The advent of digital technology took the romance, anticipation and ceremony out of the process of listening. As objects, CDs and their tiny artwork are nothing like as desirable as LPs.
  • Walls between houses and rooms are thinner than they used to be so people don't have the opportunity to turn the volume up, anyway.
  • The people who once bought hi-fi now have home theatre and there's no place in the living room for anything else.

Holy grail

With digital and solid state, the hi-fi holy grail was found, but before they'd even refined digital audio, the 'high end' industry seemingly realised it had nowhere to go but backwards, regressing to valves and vinyl, setting in train an insidious process of branding its own highest achievements as inferior, locking the average customer out of the equation, and killing any incentive for music producers to cater for anyone but ear bud listeners.

I would guess it's a combination of all of those, but the main point is probably that home audio may not have been as important to most people as we enthusiasts think it was. Maybe it was just another passing lifestyle fad like the TV tennis game, pressure cooker and hostess trolley. Despite the heavyweight hardware, most people never experienced real hi-fi anyway, and for them the sound in headphones beats anything they ever heard on their speakers.

Epilogue

What they're missing, I think, is the extra dimension that a good, modern audio system provides. We listen to music on several levels, and I would suggest that we don't need hi-fi to appreciate music in terms of its artistic and intellectual aspects. But what true hi-fi does is to change the listener's perception of their physical environment.

An average audio system can create a 2D wall of sound that fills the listener's ears, but a true hi-fi system, even from a mere two channels, conjures up what appear to be clearly-defined, solid sonic objects that exist outside the ears and override the listener's circumstances. The drabbest room is transformed into a cavernous concert hall, or into an experimental studio pulsating with inventiveness and colour.

How many of the hi-fi buying public in the 1970s ever experienced this? Not many, I would imagine. I don't think I actually did at the time.

Ray Purchase December 2013

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