I recently spent a couple of days in a dream-like state of audio bliss at the Munich High End fair. For the uninitiated, this is the annual gathering of the most exalted, esoteric and expensive hi-fi manufacturers in the world. Over four colossal halls and up through three floors, every speaker system, amplifier, turntable, digital device and audio accessory you could imagine is presented to a crowd of music lovers – both those looking to buy and enthusiastic window-shoppers.
The crowd were international, moneyed and 99 per cent male. Maybe a fifth of them looked like my father-in-law (think David Crosby). Preposterously towering loudspeakers that would fill up the average living room were on display and talk abounded of decibels, soundstages, impedance and the all-important WAF points (that’s Wife Acceptability Factor of course). It’s hard to describe the unparalleled quality delivered by some of these systems; journalists reach for mystical comparisons when trying to describe how good these things sound.
Once you’ve built the sound system of your dreams, the big question: what do you listen to on it? Certain genres were prevalent at the fair (don’t expect to hear any rock, apart from the inevitable Steely Dan). Jazz, classical and blues are to the fore with an occasional detour into something more unexpected from Hugh Masekela or Yello’s Boris Blank.
As I wandered around the halls and anterooms, hearing one incredible set-up after another, questions of a philosophical nature came to me. I like to think I’ve got good ears when it comes to this kind of thing and it all sounded phenomenal – but did the £100,000 system sound 10 times better than the £10,000 one? For that matter, did the £1m setup sound 10 times better than the £100,000 one?
Even with the constraints of the fair (unforgiving rooms, low ceilings, noisy neighbours), virtually everything I heard sounded quite wonderful. Were my ears good enough to tell the difference between the CD player with the £3,000 power lead and the one without?
It occurred to me that at this level of detail, with something as intangible, elusive and emotional as music, faith plays as much of a part in the process as any empirical measurements or technical specs. If you’re spending these amounts on audio equipment, you must be certain that there’s nothing better out there to spend your cash on. Buying equipment of this order is an article of trust.
Manufacturers make claims of “night and day” differences with the addition of a wooden control knob or the twist of an interconnecting cable. But it also comes with the promise of an undeniable upgrade to the quality and tone of your music. You can either hear the improvement or make the leap of faith that makes you believe it’s better.
Can you hear it? I think I can.
Paul Noble is a producer for Monocle 24.