The L-Word

Why is 'luxury' a dirty word in audio?

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The L-Word

The high-end audio world can be an odd place. It makes products that should be unashamedly in the luxury market, yet seems afraid of ‘the L-word’. While people who actually buy audio today seem perfectly comfortable with the sybaritic nature of the whole transaction, those who sit on forums and appoint themselves judge, jury, and executioner of high-end’s kangaroo court refuse to accept anything apart from bluff boxes at low prices.

Ever since the Sony Walkman, but especially in the wake of the success of the iPod and iPhone, high-performance audio has become primarily a luxury item. No one today ‘needs’ a good audio system in the way they might have done half a century ago, because a perfectly acceptable audio system sits inside the smartphone in their pocket. Yes, the difference between what a smartphone and what a good audio system can deliver is fairly significant in sound quality terms, but not so big as to render the sound of a smartphone ‘unlistenable’. Those who think otherwise have either not heard what a smartphone is capable of with the right partners, or are burying their heads in the musical sand.

If good audio is in a luxury market, why isn’t it thought of alongside other luxury goods? Why is ‘luxury’ such a dirty word in audio? High-end audio brands should be rolling off the same tongues that roll out brand names like ‘Sub-Zero’ and ‘Poliform’ when it comes to interiors, but because audio fights shy of admitting its luxury roots, audio (aside from B&O, Bose, and Sonos) gets overlooked and ignored. I find it bizarre that someone who might spend tens of thousands on getting the right doorknobs dismisses the entertainment system without any research. Some of this comes from the interior decorators and the décor magazines, who seem set to singularly remove anything with a plug from their photographs, no matter how important to the room or the owner of that room. But part of it falls to us collectively.

We do ourselves no favours here. We make and recommend products that have at best a ‘brutal’ charm, which will disenfranchise any non-audiophile in the area. As a result, we have justified the existence of the ‘man-cave’, where we can be alone with products that look like they were pulled out of a burning B-17 seventy years ago.

Good audio should be one of those things bought by aspiring professionals with money to burn. And in some parts of the world, that is precisely how good audio is perceived – it’s a mark that you’ve made it, and that you are a more civilised soul than the petrol-head tearing up the city streets or the wearer of some ostentatious arm-candy wristwatch. But that’s not how it is viewed in much of the UK or the US, where enjoying a spot of audio luxury seems to be something of which we should be ashamed.

If you can get past this puritanical streak that runs through audio, there are some truly wonderful pieces of audio that sound good and look good. They are often expensive items, but that brings a sense of pride of ownership. And here’s the key thing: buying something that looks good doesn’t mean you are buying something that sounds bad. Many excellent sounding products look very good too, but they are often dismissed and belittled by those who think looking good is a hedonistic war-crime.

The world is changing. We are beginning to see design-led audio boutiques opening in the big cities. Meridian Audio, for example, has dedicated stores in nine major cities around the world, and World of McIntosh has recently followed suit, renting one of the most expensive townhouses in Manhattan as an ideal events venue (http://www.worldofmcintosh.com/mobile/the-wom-townhouse), in the process showcasing what the likes of Audio Research, McIntosh, Sonus faber, and Wadia can do to a captive potential audience. This was a concept thoroughly nailed by Bang & Olufsen and is still proving successful, despite some hiccups along the way. Those brands that seem to understand the importance of reaching new customers, and are unafraid of luxury status, are venturing past the conventional audio store. It’s a bold venture, but an important one for the audio world in the 21st Century.

The motivation for all this is the new Pryma 0.1 headphone, designed by Sonus faber. If we are being truly honest, headphones are by their very nature an extremely personal thing, but many derive their design cues from the studio. That concept was thoroughly broken by Pryma, as I discovered when a box containing the headphones turned up in the Sircom household. The review of the Pryma will be published in issue 131 of Hi-Fi+ and will be 'co-written' by my wife, who threatened all kinds of privations if I didn’t hand them over immediately. That's never happened before in a quarter of a century of writing about this stuff. But I suspect it is precisely what happens when you make a pair of headphones that go for the luxury market… real people get interested in audio.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with pursuing a minimalist aesthetic of brutalism in audio. Yes, it’s possible to get great sound from design-free rectangular boxes, and yes, some of these boxes will be cheaper than the more design-led products as a result of the basic design criteria. But audio is a broad enough concept that there should be room for things that sound good and look good, as well as those that sound good and look bad.

Not all of us want – or can have – ‘challenging’ designs in our homes. Why should manufacturers, designers, and end-users who want something to look as good as it sounds be demonised?

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