From a knowledge of wines to what shoes to buy, from the finest fountain pen or wristwatch to the most exclusive resorts, the average consumer’s understanding of luxury has increased to the point where it is arcane only in its pricing.
Only one sector bucks the trend: audio. The lowest common denominator always grabs the biggest market share – just as tabloid newspapers outsell the big-words broadsheets, so inferior headphones, speakers and wireless components trump complexity. However, the higher end of the industry is gradually changing.
Encouraged by the custom-installation market and the ease of set-up and operation thanks to apps, wi-fi and Bluetooth, serious component-makers have addressed all the concerns that keep their superlative wares out of elegant homes. The days of ugly, box-type speakers or laboratory-look electronics are over, these items having been replaced by hardware an owner would happily show off.
Domestic acceptance of luxury audio has been aided by a generation of sophisticated installers such as Ideaworks and Cornflake, which are creating listening rooms and home cinemas in which everything is integrated and the usage has been simplified and personalised. In 2016, the music lover is more likely to operate his or her hi-fi system with a tablet or smartphone than with a conventional hand-held remote control.
While the dominant brands are still the plastic merchants who sell mediocre gear based on price, their success guaranteed by huge advertising budgets, they can no longer claim the sole ease of use that plug-and-play technology offers. The most sophisticated amplifiers in the world – previously the province of hard-core audiophiles prone to technobabble – have been made streaming- friendly. Even the enthusiast with a wall full of vinyl is now likely to have a MacBook Air or Samsung tablet hooked up to the system for listening to Deezer, KKbox, Rhapsody, Songza, Tidal, Spotify, Amazon music, Pandora or internet radio.
Combining all this are home-automation systems from the likes of Crestron, which makes products that deal with the controls actually used by the client. Behind that attractive, intuitive app screen, and of no concern to the user, are the on/off and timer operations, source switching, the feeding of signals throughout the house to any or all rooms and the integration with elements peripheral to music playback: lighting, heating, security, computers, gaming consoles, ‘smart’ appliances and anything else on the home network. What has changed over the past three decades, the rise of home automation running concurrently with that of home cinema, is the matching of top-level audio components to the quality of the home itself. Because the components tend to be larger than compact all-in-one systems, sniffy interior designers and architects have done their best to preclude them from their initial concepts. I still reel in horror at the thought of one decorator, who painted a pair of limited-edition Sonus Faber speakers in gloss, despite the colour of the wood actually matching the walls. Fortunately, she was stopped before she painted the drive units. It’s arguable that only a feverishly devoted music lover would care about absolute sound quality and that mass-market offerings are ‘good enough’ if they fill the room. Such a disregard for ultimate quality, though, doesn’t seem to apply to, say, white goods. Even those who rarely cook ‘know’ they must have Sub-Zero, Viking or Miele appliances in their kitchens, but think £299 is all they need spend on a music system.
Clearly, one doesn’t install a pair of Wilson Audio’s phone-booth-sized, flagship XLF speakers in a 3 x 4m study, yet neither should a consumer accept two speakers the size of coffee mugs in a 6 x 9m lounge, nor a ‘soundbar’ for the audio portion of home cinema. Thanks to the inherent flexibility of modern high-end hardware, with many items now fitted with USB and ethernet inputs and wi-fi or Bluetooth wireless connectivity, there is no reason beyond a lack of awareness for accepting budget gear.
Previously, there was a catch, especially in existing properties: installing the finest systems meant tearing apart the home to route and hide the wiring and control hardware, which included wall-mounted keypads. While this wasn’t an issue for new buildings, where developers addressed such concerns at the pre-wiring stage, or for homes being redecorated to the degree where cutting into walls was plausible, those with finished interiors had to consider carefully their willingness to rip it up and start again.
Purists maintain – with absolute justification – that hard-wiring is superior to wireless connectivity, but convenience dictates that, for room-to-room purposes, wireless is perfectly acceptable. The generally accepted practice is that the music lover with a dedicated listening room can employ cables the size of marine hawsers because they stay within that room, behind the speakers, while the rest of the home enjoys wireless ‘distributed’ sound. The freedom the latter provides is the ability to add secondary systems to the central set-up, with streaming and server sources available to every room independently.
No longer are integrated audio systems incompatible either electronically or aesthetically with the best home audio gear. Forget mass-market brands, and revel in the glories of brands you may not know but every audiophile admires: Audio Research, McIntosh, Nagra, Dartzeel, D’Agostino, Linn, YAR, Burmester, Chord, Wilson Audio, Constellation, PS Audio, and others.
If this still seems alien, and you fear running such names past your architect might cause his or her blood pressure to soar, think of this analogy as to how it will elevate your enjoyment of music: it will be like the first time you abandoned wine with a screw cap and savoured a 20-year-old Sassicaia or a correctly chilled Montrachet. Yes, high-end audio performance is that good.
Ken Kessler is senior contributing editor at Hi-Fi News & Record Review. He writes about audio, watches, music, pens, wine, cars and luxury ‘toys’