What is high-end? What defines it? When is a device high-end and when not? These are the questions posed again and again by music lovers as well as manufacturers. And I think, that – to some extent – those questions have no answers.
Because ‘high-end’ (and its subcategory ‘top high-end’) is just a conventional category. The name was created due to its similarity with ‘hi-fi’ and had to signalize something better than mediocrity. But we have to mention, that this is not just ‘better hi-fi’, because ‘high fidelity’ is a historical name, related to the creation of a group of devices with higher measurable parameters in the 50-ties (or late 40-ties as some sources state) of the 20th century – and thus better sound (in the beginning of that era). This group of devices in time encompasses all the production and the branch. In the 70-ties companies specialized in expensive gear started to see hi-fi as something ‘worse’ than the things they offered – at least in their own opinion. Hence a quick career of this description.
There is a paradox related to this: it is commonly accepted, that high-end is related to the product price – the higher it is, the more likely it is, that we do not deal with hi-fi, but with HE. And this is true to some extent. Good products are almost in 100% expensive, because the price needs to accommodate for the time spent searching for the achieved sound and for the materials used. I placed those two elements in that order on purpose. This because starting from a certain level the second category has less influence – the cost of manufacture gets proportionally smaller, while time and money spent on research pay the main role.
So now is a good moment to show two groups of hi-end products – some come from big manufacturers (for the reality of the audio world), like: Krell, Audio Research, Pass, Accuphase, Sonus Faber, Willson Audio, KEF, Nagra, or even Avantgarde Acoustics, while other from small, sometimes even one person companies like Kondo, Ancient Audio, 47 Labs, Leben, Air Tight, Spectral, FM Acoustics and many, many more. If I would like to split those groups quantity wise, then the latter would be bigger, I am sure of that. And this split is important for me, because the division of means is different in both groups, and their ‘weight’ in the final shelf price. In bigger companies there is more emphasis on new technologies, research, measurements, laboratory, manufacturing quality, etc. Smaller companies mostly use technologies and ideas developed by the bigger ones. However the price of products made by both groups is similar, because in the first case larger number of units sold allows to compensate for the research costs, and in the second group lower costs are ‘consumed’ by the time the engineers (and we talk about one or two people at most) spent fine-tuning the sound. So the final effect is similar – high price.
But the price and quality are not bound symmetrically. From my experience I know that high class equipment is expensive or very expensive in almost 100% cases. I repeat myself, but I have to. And secondly: not everything expensive is automatically good or high-end. The first thing is quite unpleasant, but true. We can sometimes find products with a ‘friendly’ price and superb sound, but those are special cases, and it is never top high-end. The second thing is equally unpleasant, and it is also the reason that the work of an audio reviewer (we are specialized journalists, but this description is rarely used) is so important: we need to eliminate the valuable things from those that aren’t valuable.
What are the criteria a journalist uses to assess the equipment and when does he qualify them as HE? First of all, each one of us has a different ‘threshold’ for this category, one that is a result of personal experience, taste, etc., so it is to some extent a subjective category. We could think, that this is a ‘blurry’ category, where we could attribute any device without any problems. And here comes the surprise: this is not true. Because high-end is relatively easy to identify – a suitable system is the only thing needed. This does not have anything in common with sound analysis. The most important determinant allowing to place a product in this group is the way, in which the listener gets into contact with the performer. Something unusual, from the point of view of a certain ‘spirituality’, because a large part of recorded sounds, is the only thing that remained of some artists, those who are dead. And here we are to get in ‘contact’… But this is how it goes in hi-end – it is all about the emotional contact with the musical matter. We could say of course, that such emotions can be called in the listeners even with the most simple systems – this is what happens for example in the ‘initial listenings’, when we hear something of much higher quality, than we are used to, for the first time. Everybody has such an episode in his or hers biography, and it is an experience, that will not be forgotten as long as we live. In case of high-end there is a certain foundation added to this: I told earlier, that the analysis of individual aspects of the sound is not the most important factor here, but it is a basic one. This is not a contradiction, because I am talking about that in such systems, elements like: tonal balance, timbre, space, dynamics, frequency response, vividness, microdynamics, etc, are displayed in a natural way. Those components may differ from each other, but we know, that they reached a level, where this dismembering of the sound into prime factors in only a prologue to what is happening beyond individual sounds. And there miracles happen.
Three days ago I went to a concert of three cantors. This was the inaugural concert of the Krakow Festival of Jewish Culture, that took place in the Tempel Synagogue in the Kazimierz district. Three outstanding cantors sang: Ashkenazi – Moshe Schulhoff (USA) and Yaacov Lemmer (USA) and a Sephardic one – Emil Zrohan (Izrael). The first two represent the mainstream of the Jewish liturgical singing and are plain brilliant. They performed most of the pieces during the concert. But when the stage was taken by Emil Zirhan, alone, without a choir or any instrument, he sang in such a way, that I almost cried. I did not know, that a human voice can do such things! This small man sung in such a thrilling, brilliant way, that we all sat enchanted and could not believe, that he actually already stopped singing. Schulhoff and Lemmer were fantastic, this is the premier league, but Zirhan is something above that… (the video recording of this concert can be found HERE). And this just like it is with audio systems – high-end moves the deepest strings of sensibility in a man. One needs to have some experience in dealing with audio systems, so that it is not a “borderline experience”, but just another listening session, but this is the goal.
So finally, what is high-end? It is a package of emotion. The basis for it is of course very good sound, but HE starts where the evaluation of individual components of the sound ends (and I mean evaluation and not description). I do not write about similarities to live sound on purpose, although this is how the ideal sound should be, because audio – whether we want it or not – is something different than a document. This is a copy of reality, distorted first by the choice of a certain recording technique, later by a certain carrier, and finally by the way it is played back. Such construction does not have anything in common with ‘live sound’, and is a creation – either purposely or not – and the only thing WE can do, where WE can strive, is to reproduce the sound as it was recorded. And this is something different to ‘live’ sound. The sound engineer is responsible to record the sound as truthful as possible. And this is a completely different story.
Editor in chief
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"High Fidelity OnLine" is an internet magazine, published since may 2004, devoted to high quality reproduction of sound and picture. It is a monthly magazine, but the articles are uploaded twice a month - in the beginning of the month and in the middle. The news column is updated on on-going basis, if possible. The main sections are: "Tests", "Events" (interviews, reportages, and similar), "Hyde Park" (user tests, opinions) and "Who asks..." (readers questions and HFOL answers). Articles from earlier issues can be read in the "Archive". Have a nice read!
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