BLOG #46. The Doom of Constant Anticipation – Some Personal Impressions from Munich High End Show-2018


BLOG #46. The Doom of Constant Anticipation – Some Personal Impressions from Munich High End Show-2018

We recently shipped an order to a Far Eastern country. A few days after the order has arrived to its destination, I got in touch with the recipient to make sure that our merchandize was inspected and everything is OK.

After getting a message that “yes, the order was all ok”, the next message was “what’s plan – any new models?”

Ugh? - I don’t get it…

Honestly, I was taken aback by this question because when we’ve spent years developing our current models the last thing on our mind would had been a question of how else could we improve upon them.

On the opposite, we’ve already been doing anything in our capacity to deliver in our products as much quality as we realistically could.

So if we could improve our stuff we’ve already done that.

Compared to a lot of others, audio became a very stagnant industry a long time ago, both in terms of the materials used, and the technologies implemented, especially, in audio transducers’ department.

Balanced Armature drivers’ technology is the best example of the latter, tinkered with BA-driver recent models notwithstanding, the nomenclature of the drivers – including the ones used almost in every ear monitor - stays exactly the same for the last several decades.

So, when asked about some “new models” after a period of just a few weeks after placing an order, symptom of what such a question can be?

What can then be a purpose for a new model, especially in the context of technological saturation of the industry?

Yes, it’s relatively easy to just re-shuffle the same, or some very similar, drivers, and, may be, even to tweak the whole design a little bit, but why?

Some gradual improvement of a well thought out design does take place over the time, but it doesn’t deserve a new model designation, right?

I don’t want to sound like some luddite (and, even more so, like some ‘luddite with an agenda”), and I do appreciate technological breakthroughs, but what could be a purpose of such a superficial manipulation of a current well thought out line of products?!

This association, via very mixed impressions from the sonic results, which were demonstrated by a new TWENTY FOUR BA-drivers ear monitor model from a Ukranian company called Ambient Acoustic at this year’s Munich High End Show off-shoot (semi-legitimately) - called CanJam - finally, leads me to my personal impressions from the show itself.

There is no doubt that the shows like this are fundamentally based on a deeply engraved human passion for a substantial musical experience.

Such shows are supposed to be revolving around a habit loop of satisfying the craving for such an emotionally charged experiences as the highest appreciation of some deeply meaningful music.

But, unfortunately, it seems to me that lately such events spurn that ultimate satisfaction of this human craving as such and are cultivating and capitalizing on a completely different habit loop.

The latter surrogate habit loop substitutes a chance to find that deep SATISFACTION experience with a constant ANTICIPATION (of that experience) buzz, which temporarily relieve the craving.

This substitute is realized with a help of the only one remedy the vast majority of the whole audio industry nowadays is capable of prescribing: to trade one just bought gadget for another - even newer - one.

So, the constant deep satisfaction is replaced with a continuous chain of high expectation from “a something new”.

Is our industry as a whole afraid of losing its grounds if all of us would start to buy some deeply satisfying musical equipment?!.

Is it because if we all would reach the sonic Nirvana, we would stop spending our precious time wandering along audio shows’ rows of exhibits, would stop reading specialized media, would stop buying any new gear, etc?!

Is that why, because of this industrial fear to lose its customers, the vast majority of audiophiles (in Mick Jagger’s wording):

“…can't get no satisfaction, …can't get no satisfaction
'Cause [we] try and [we] try and [we] try and [we] try…”?!

Quite possibly, that’s the conundrum the industry can’t deal with (or, don’t want to): the anticipation buzz for “something new” is what makes this circus to go around, and if the anticipation buzz effect would exhaust…then what?!. A total kaput for all, right?!

(Wrong, but why it’s wrong - that’s for another story.

I would give here just one example of a viable alternative business model, even if there are many.

For instance, I would rather save for a long enough money first, and then I would buy a once-in-a-lifetime very expensive and already proven product which would satisfy me for all 100%.

…Than I would do a multitude of purchases of some “best-bang-for-a buck” - but relatively speaking - crap via endless “a brand new needle for even a newer piece of soap” trading schemes driven by my constant dissatisfaction and by, without doubt, even larger overall spending than with that first approach.

So, even if such purchases are once-in-a-lifetime ones, because we’re talking here about some fairly expensive products, in my opinion, such business proposition can be a pretty viable business model.)

It seems that, out of the same fear, instead of delivering on their promise, the vast majority of manufactures are going through the same motions of being engaged in a habit loop of their own “business-as-usual” schemes and are making marketing plans for their next show…

…Which will definitely include some new cosmetic changes for the upcoming new models…

As a result of that cosmetic “make-up” crumbling, within the next twelve months the vast majority of the current hectares of the latest hardware on display at this show would look as no more than a representation of a huge junkyard from the perspective of the next one.

So, they MUST to put a fresh new layer of a “make-up” for the next year’s show…

Isn’t it a much better option to originally start with “a beautiful face” first, which, actually doesn’t need any “make-up” at all, than to resort to applications “tons of it” in the future?!

Is such an obsoleting a necessary price to be laid on the inevitable technical evolution’s altar?

As I already mentioned above, I don’t think so, especially considering that the viable audio technologies reached their saturation point many years – if not decades – ago.

If we all would focus our efforts on the UNIVERSALLY claimed main priority - the sound quality, then the vast majority of the most satisfying solutions which are manufactured now are exactly the same as the ones which could be made many years ago.

Even in the Digital Audio Players’ department, with its alleged technological lead in the field of portable audio, some ten-year-old models still demonstrate much better sound quality than the much more expensive latest ones (supercharged with all the (unnecessary) latest bells and whistles).

There were several cases in point at this show.

The newest DAP models from lotoo or cayin which I managed to audition in Munich – with all their sharp looks and all their technical “proficiency” - including cayin’s tube output - failed to impress me in a direct sonic comparison with my venerable “HiFiMan-801”, the first sample of which I bought more than ten years ago.

The sonic fate of the HiFiMan company itself is no less dramatic: their latest DAP – actually, still not finished prototype of that that was demonstrated at the show – was another example of a path to nowhere: a futile attempt to impress a young “hip” crowd with some slick looks and some overblown sonic promises (which are still not delivered).

The same goes for the most of the current headphones crop.

One good opportunity not to miss at the show was the two long tables at the end of the M.O.C. lobby - which the organizers of the show called the “Horbar” (the “Listening Bar”).

About 40 headphones – mostly, the expensive ones - were connected to the same source and were driven by the same amplifiers (if I am correct, provided by Sennheiser).

The “Horbar” installation allowed the headphones featured at this section of the show to be directly compared “on-the-fly” with each other. Which was a revelation, not so much because it represents a rare and easy opportunity to pick up all the difference in the large variety of the samples’ sound, but it was also a blatant demonstration of how “raw” (in each case in its own way) the sound quality of the most of these – mostly, brand new - products was.

The latter, actually, proves my point: these products seemed to be stormed to the market not when they’ve reached “the best it can be” stage of their development and could serve their customers forever.

But all of latter seem to be released as soon as they are happen to be just barely “good enough” to be positioned into some bogus marketing schemes with an intent to entice the same customers to purchase already their next incarnation.

One notable exception at the “Horbar” was the venerable Sennheiser HD-800 headphones.

In my opinion, it represents a product polished to a stage when it did reach “the best it can be” stage of development (while the just released closed caps’ version of it, positioned at the next spot at the table apparently still demonstrates all the sound quality and the usability limitations of the dynamic driver technology).

I am fully aware that the main customer base’ shifted priorities – from priority of satisfying the craving for a deep musical experience to the priority of satisfying the next new gadget anticipation buzz – could be the sign of the times (especially, considering that The Portable High End Audio still needs to overgrow its overall “mid-fi” phase of development).

But, if not changed, such a disposition established on denying the sound quality priority for the sake of priority of some superficial latest “bells and whistles”, undermines the whole long term prosperity of this industry.

…Even if it does help to short term survival for quite a few of its current participants (including the manufacturers, the various dealers, the show organizers, the specialized social networks, the specialized media, etc).

The latest final decline in home audio, which some time ago also struck the same “novelty” path, is the best example.

While the home audio shows still leave an impression of “business as usual” (sort of), the vast majority of the local audio dealers have already “clogged their feet”, with the manufacturers, no doubt, rather sooner than later, will follow (actually, they already are).

This Munich show was the first one where our company had our own booth (actually, shared with our headphone brothers-in-arms from St. Petersburg – Kennerton).

It’s amusing, but about 80% of the time at the Munich show I’ve being speaking in Russian.

The majority of people stopped by at our booth were all from Russia, the Ukraine, from other former Soviet republics (even Uzbekistan!), or the “Russian” emigres to the West.

The most of the “foreigners” at this show glanced at our products and then behaved like they were afraid to pick up some “communist germs” from us.

Actually, I do know why we scared away the most of such visitors: our products simply didn’t look sufficiently “new” to them (while the Russian-speaking crowd didn’t care  - possibly, about our products either, and for the same reason -  but being mostly tongue-tied  in the “foreign” languages, they were just longing for chatting about anything with anybody in their native one).

Thereby, from our perspective, this largest and the most significant audio show in Europe (and, most likely, currently in the whole world) was a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it still draws the biggest crowd, but, on the other, with so many distractions at the show floor, and such a diverse attendance, a tightly focused small specialized portable audio shows of the CanJam variety up until now would always give us a much better return on our investments.

Nevertheless, every show is not without its highlights.

My personal highlights at this show was, first and foremost, a rare chance to see and to spend some great and some very valuable time with our partner in the SPearphone project Chris Sommovigo.

Then I could see a lot of my Russian colleagues whom I can see now, paradoxically, only at the foreign shows like this one.

Then it was Lyn Stanley’s live performance at the Playback digital gear room.

Then, we’ve had a several of potential business cooperation offers.

And, finally, I’ve been lucky to meet there Mark “Dr. AIX” Waldrep whose new outstanding book “Music and Audio” I am just reading.

After he went through our SB-7A/DACCA combo demonstration at our booth I managed to briefly chat with him over the latest “hi-rez music” tidbits (I’ve been very excited to discuss the matter with him as he’s considered as one of the best experts in the whole world regarding these issues).

Incidentally, before we met, Mark has already heard about me because I was the only Russian who visited his unique recording studio in Los Angeles (one of the facilities where a few years ago I went through personal “calibrations” for my Smyth-Research “Realizer”).

I’d like to conclude my last Munich show report with a slightly twisted reiteration of its main themes.

There is no doubt that it’s not an easy task to deal with our hard-wired psychology mechanisms, development of habits included.

Except, if we ARE conscious of them and we DO want to change them.

That is why, for instance, I would like that every audiophile would be aware of the so-called “Vinyl Renaissance”, which is another proof that every “new” can be simply “a well-forgotten old”.

Such phenomena - is no more than a symptom of closing that surrogate habit loop mentioned above.

That is, it what happens when some people are trying to buy all the latest and the trendiest stuff, buying a one new gadget after another, they’ll eventually run in a full technological circle (which, to me, smacks of a craziness, like that latest cassette audio decks’ one).

So, paradoxically, in their pursuit for “the latest and the greatest” eventually they will end up with a completely irrelevant and outdated technologies on their hands.

Therefore, I would like to express my hope that suchlike examples will be lessons to learn about what can happen if we wouldn’t become fully conscious about our occupation, and about a necessity to realize the exact reason why we engage ourselves in this audio “arms race”.

The technical evolution is inevitable.

But the audiophile community should be fully aware of “seeing the forest for the trees”.

That is it should be also fully aware of why they would built such exquisitely-made simple and relatively inexpensive products which sounded great in the past, and why they can get away with almost murder prices building some over-complicated and shabby jobs with an inferior sound now.

(I wouldn’t be surprised at all to the fact that the analog audio and the power supply sections of all the latest and the most expensive DAPs would cost peanuts compared to what they cost in some of the oldest players).

The audiophiles should be fully aware that their currently cultivated surrogate habit loops will never bring them to a musical satisfaction, especially, when started with the wrong cues, which can be disguised as a slick case or a set of some “cutting edge” specs, with the latter’s sole intention is just to perpetually exploit the community’s anticipation buzz.  

Beyond anything else, to get of rid of that buzz and to reach out for our complete sonic satisfaction – which we are fully entitled to! -  we must stay conscious of our intent, of its purity and of all the undercurrents in our industry.

Otherwise, if that surrogate anticipation buzz for “something new” is not dethroned, and if it is not replaced with some clear-cut pathways to the sonic Nirvana - which were fully established a long time ago but seemed to be forgotten by now -  the High End Audio community is all doomed to no more than just to roll endlessly its “Sisyphus stones” up to the steep hills of its members’ personal ambitions.

In the latter case, audiophiles, beware!

As some of the heaviest “stones”, as I have heard some rumors at the Munich show, will be soon made of gold…

(At the attached picture taken at our booth at the last Munich High End Show-2018: my business partner Dmitry Sokolov is on the left, our cable manufacturer Chris Sommovigo is on the right, and I am in the middle)

21.06.2018 // Author:  (Bigmisha) // Number of views:  1403

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