I’m flying to Vegas this weekend to catch “Pat Benatar and Neil Geraldo: A Very Intimate Acoustic Evening.” I have been a fan of theirs since the 70’s and am thrilled to get to see them once again. Unlike so many other older artists who simply run on autopilot, Pat and Neil have just gotten better and better with age, reinventing themselves in fresh ways while still remaining unapologetically true to their rock hard roots. No longer having megastar status has actually freed them to be truly great. Rather than being carefully manicured by the contrived glitz of big concert venues, they truly shine in intimate settings where they can stroll out on stage and warmly greet the audience wearing sweat pants and holding Styrofoam mugs of coffee.
My upcoming concert trip inspired me to upgrade my music system. I used to have an admittedly insane $50K worth of audiophile equipment, but like many others I have gradually traded away all that great equipment for the convenience and unlimited access of the digital age. I know that many people are perfectly happy with their crappy ear buds (see here), and are convinced that high-end audio is just pretentious nonsense, like people who insist that a $1000 bottle of wine really is worth every penny. But whether you can hear it or not, to people who can and do appreciate fine audio, you get what you pay for.
While for a long time the very alluring benefits of digital libraries and streaming access have forced us to compromise on quality, the industry has made huge strides. The good news is that today most of us can now get really, really good quality for a very affordable price. You no longer have to invest $20K and dedicate a room to get very good audio that rates at least a B+.
But as a consequence, concessions to digital convenience has pushed the dream of an A+ quality experience even further out of reach. For a while, I feared that truly exquisite high end audio had been essentially killed by digital. But I am pleased that the industry is not remaining satisfied with mass market B+ audio. Streaming services have invested heavily in delivering high quality source material, and the traditional audiophile industry is catching up to provide new digital-friendly equipment that can take those who care enough to the heights of sonic rapture.
Yesterday I visited a local high end audio store here in Tacoma called Advanced Audio (see here). I have to say that the staff there were incredibly warm and friendly, not at all the cliché snooty types that all too often manage these stores. I picked up a Sonos Playbar for my television (see here). The audio is very nice for both music and movies. Certainly not audiophile quality, but excellent for the money with amazing ease of connectivity to all my digital equipment.
Victor, the owner of Advanced Audio, took me into a listening room to show off his combination of Sonos Connect, Auralic Altair, Macintosh MC275 tube amplifier, and small-format Focal Sopra N1 speakers. He let me listen to “Papa’s Roses” by Pat Benatar on the system. I’ve used this track as my reference piece for many years, along with a few others like “Big Love – Live” by Lindsey Buckingham. I know from experience that these songs simply get better and better as your equipment gets better.
I’ve auditioned Papa’s Roses on the best of the best and thought I knew how gorgeous it could be, but I was still blown away this time. I had never heard it reproduced this beautifully. It was like a heavenly orchestra of angels. The song was rendered with such exquisite detail as to bring tears to ones eyes.
I was particularly blown away because the source was streaming digital! It is very gratifying that the high end audio industry not gone the way of vinyl records. Instead, it has met the challenge to bring stunning quality to the digital world of music. Now it is true that if you want to experience this acoustic nirvana, you will have to fork out around $25K. But while out of reach for many, it is still good to know that it is out there waiting for you and yielding technical breakthroughs that will improve everything downstream.
If you decide to audition a high end system, I can offer some practical advise. While an expert like Victor can talk your head off with acoustic science and engineering, here are 10 simple guidelines to help you pick out the best system for you:
- Don’t be swayed by specs. They don’t matter in the final analysis. The only thing that matters is the listening test.
- Don’t be fooled by complexity. The best speakers I’ve ever found have been simple two-way speakers, not gimmicky contraptions with 38 emitters designed to wow the unsophisticated buyer.
- Bring your own source material that you know very well.
- Some systems only sound good with particular types of music. Unless you only care about a particular music type, audition a representative range of genres.
- Some systems only sound good with sufficiently high quality sources. This greatly limits what you can enjoy. If I cannot still enjoy my beloved but crappy-quality Nina Hagen recordings on a system, I don’t want it.
- If the salesperson won’t let you play your own source material, walk away. He or she is trying to cherry pick only that particular music that flatters the system and avoid music that exposes its flaws.
- Don’t be wowed by heavy bass. I don’t want a system that sounds like a woofer array in the trunk of a ’79 caddie.
- Look for natural balance, dispersion, and clarity that flatters all parts of the music. Every instrument should stand out clear as the clearest bell. You should hear fingers sliding on the frets, breath on the reeds, and the subtle reverberations of an actor speaking in a hallway.
- Test it at all volumes. A great system should sound full and satisfying at low volumes. It should also still sound great – and not tire you out – at 100+ decibels.
- Don’t be rushed. The only test that really matters is what I call the “can I walk away” test. Many systems will knock your socks off for a few minutes, then leave you fatigued and ready to enjoy some silence. A great system leaves you wanting ever more and more and more. You desperately want to play everything you own. You could listen for hours and not get tired of it. If you cannot stop listening, you’ve found the right system for you.
Claiming that the experience of true audiophile quality music enjoyment is just made up, is like claiming that watching Star Wars on your television is just as good as experiencing it at an extreme digital big screen 3D movie theater. Great music can only be fully appreciated with great music systems. And I am overjoyed that digital and audio technologies are today converging and synergizing to make that experience accessible to more and more people.