Observations and Thoughts from the
Rocky Mountain Audio Fest
By Earl Geddes
First I want to thanks all of the kind people who came by the GedLee room. I hope that we both learned something from these meetings.
The Fest this year had about twice as many exhibitors as last year, but alas appeared to have only about half as many attendees. (This is no reflection on the promoters – they did an exceptional job.) A very interesting situation! From a business perspective this means that we have twice as many products chasing after half as many customers. If I remember my business lessons correctly – supply and demand – the consumer should be able to reap some significant benefits in such a market. On the other side of the coin however, the suppliers of these products must expect to see diminishing revenue and profits. This later aspect is a serious concern to all who make these Hi-end audio products. Many of these suppliers will be forced out of business - my fear is that they will be the wrong ones. I continue to be baffled by listeners who are seeking the global ‘good sounding” loudspeaker - the Holy Grail of loudspeaker design. By this I mean the loudspeaker that makes any and all source-material sound good to them. Unfortunately such a thing is not possible to achieve because no loudspeaker can make ALL the bad (as well as the good) source-material sound good. Some of it perhaps, but not all of it. This problem, as I see it, is manifested by the significant number of listeners who evaluate loudspeakers using whatever source-material happens to be playing at the time. If the listener is unfamiliar with this material then the evaluation is actually of the source-material and NOT of the loudspeakers.
If the listener in this situation does not like what they hear, then the loudspeakers are, obviously, not very good. While the astute reader will realize that this logic is faulty, and that one should always evaluate loudspeakers with well know (and I mean very well known) source-material, the fact is that less than half of the listeners in our room brought their own source-material. When doing comparisons across several different loudspeaker brands, a continuity of source-material is a must.
One of the most interesting comments that we got about our speakers was that it was not at all obvious on first listening if they sounded good or not. First impressions of them are usually somewhat flat (pun intended) and unexciting. Especially when listening to sourcematerial that you’ve heard a hundred times. Actually, this is to be expected. A good set of loudspeakers should not reach out and grab you. It may take several minutes and perhaps even a few different cuts to actually come to a firm and stable opinion. Well, this is true for good loudspeakers - really bad ones can be spotted pretty fast, but good ones take some time. In fact the better the loudspeakers are, the longer it should take to realize this fact. The above situation is not a good one for a loudspeaker manufacturer. A crisp in-yourface sound will often grab the listener right away. Powerful bass (usually hi-Q) and crisp highs are real ear-catching techniques for the quick capture of the listener. (Can you say fatiguing”?) To my taste nearly every (other) loudspeaker that I heard at the show had that in-your-face quality about it. (Duke LeJeune of AudioKinesis was a notable exception with his Cheetum speakers. Perhaps this is not a coincidence.)
One thing that did get a lot of attention at our room was the fact that the front-end electronics on our speakers had a total cost of about $220.00 (Toshiba CD player, $50 @ Costco; Pioneer receiver Amps, $150 @ Costco; RCA cables, $20 at Home Depot). Some people could not believe the sound that was achieved with such low cost components while others listened intently until they became convinced that they could hear the poor quality in the electronics. I really have to admire those privileged few who could hear the difference between $220 of electronics and thousands of dollars of electronics. These people have the advantage of be able to spend all that extra money admiring something that most others can’t even perceive. That’s a rare and privileged group.
On this same subject, I noted that there is a group starting up (at the show) among “Hiend” manufacturers to join together to save “good sound”. (For obvious reasons I declined to join.) You see, the Hi-end is dying (as the show clearly suggests) and this group hopes to save it through “education”. By teaching people how to hear cables and capacitors and evaluate tubes, and ribbon drivers, they believe that they can revive and continue their previous success in the Hi-end. I wondered if it has ever occurred to them that perhaps the marketplace has actually tired of getting duped into buying products that are claimed to yield an outstanding performance that they failed to deliver, or, at best, delivered with something less than expected for the money. I am not saying that there are no audible differences in amplifiers, cables or what ever; I really don’t care either way. You see, to me, there are three things in audio playback that make up 95-99% of the experience; the speakers, the room, and the speaker to room interface. Everything else falls into the “negligible” category; audible by some - probably; statistically significant across a large population - I doubt it. So go ahead and argue about the audibility of cables or what-not, I’m really not interested. It’s so hard to get that crucial 95% right that I don’t have the time, and especially the money, to worry much about the other 5%.
So to this “Hi-end” group I say good luck, but please don’t continue to fool yourselves into thinking that all this “Hi-end” stuff really makes that much of a difference, because it doesn’t. I fear that the desire for good sound quality will die for a time owing to the massive scam that has been perpetrated on the general public. They go to Best Buy and buy a stereo and, yea, it’s not the greatest sound in the world, but they did get their money’s worth and they don’t feel cheated or misled. With their Hi-end purchases, I am afraid that all too many have been burned once or twice and have moved to the safer (and cheaper!) ground of the skeptic. It may be quite awhile before the masses will again drop a few grand on cables that will “transform their audio listening experience”. Unfortunately, they will also be skeptical of spending a similar amount on something that really does make a difference, like the loudspeakers. So off to Best Buy they will go, returning happy as a clam with the great deal that they got on a mediocre, but certainly listenable sound system. As a manufacturer of Hi-Fi loudspeakers I am ashamed to say that we did this to ourselves, and now we have to pay the piper.
Earl Geddes Ph.D.
"I wish I could score everything for horns." - Richard Wagner. "Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts." - Friedrich Nietzsche