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Positive Feedback ISSUE 64
There's an often-told story that when cake mixes were first developed and put to market, they sold poorly. According to the story, this was because, as initially offered, all a housewife had to do to make a "homemade" cake was to add water, stir, put the resultant slurry into a pan, bake it, and, when it was done, frost it as desired.
Yummy, no doubt, but no fun, either. The ladies wanted to make something special for the hubby and kids; wanted to feel like they had made it themselves; and, as the story goes, just adding water didn't give them enough of a feeling of participation―they felt like there was no "love" in it! The cure for that, some brilliant marketer discovered, was just to leave the powdered eggs out of the mix and let homemakers feel the earth-mother power of cracking "real" eggs into the batter with their own dainty hands.
Ah, the joy of creation! Just that one thing, the story goes, was sufficient to turn a ho-hum but perfectly okay minor product into big business not too many years later.
I don't know if that story is true. Snopes says it isn't, and it might not be—at least for cake mix. But for HiFi? Absolutely! Let me cite just a couple of instances:
The first and most obvious audiophile example of the power of participation is the continuing—and apparently even growing―appeal of vinyl. Think about it; with a CD, all you have to do is to take it out of its "jewel box", put it into the player, and hit the "play" button. With some other digital media, you can even skip the "take it out of the box" stage and just play it—it's already there in storage. This latter is sort of like the early "complete" cake mixes, but you don't even have to add the water!
With vinyl, however, it's completely different: You get to carefully take the record out of its sleeve; lovingly wipe it clean (or Nitty-Gritty vacuum it); spray it, demagnetize it, or de-static it (or any combination or all of the above); place it on your (often) VIOLENTLY expensive and Rube-Goldberg-complicated turntable; and finally—after brushing and/or anointing the stylus in your costly and all-too-fragile phono cartridge with precious unguents, lower that stylus, at the end of your carefully positioned, leveled and VTA-adjusted tonearm (itself often a wonder of delicate complexity) into the groove, with your very own hand, at the precise point where your desired musical selection begins.
Ah, the joy! Ah, the creation! You're not just playing a record, you're MAKING music!
Perhaps the weirdest thing I have ever experienced in all my years as an audiophile, a reviewer, and an audio-industry professional was long ago, when Michael Gindi was still reviewing (for TAS?) and he was invited—and invited me to accompany him—to visit a HiFi club somewhere in New York State. All twenty-three members of the club had exactly the same system: There were twenty-three Goldmund Studio turntables; twenty-three Koetsu cartridges; twenty-three CAT preamps; twenty-three Jadis Defy 7 amplifiers; twenty-three identical sets of cables; and twenty-three Avalon Ascent speaker systems.
Who ever heard of such a thing? HiFi is not about feeling warm and fuzzy sitting around your identical system with twenty-two other guys, playing "Kumbaya", and bonding. It's about going to a friend's house, sitting around with a bunch of other guys in front of your friend's different system, listening to the same couple of minutes of some audiophile recording over-and-over-again until three o'clock in the morning, while swapping different components in and out of the system or moving the speakers a quarter of an inch at a time to get the "perfect" soundstage, and then going home, playing the same couple of minutes of the same audiophile recording on your own system, and, at the end, triumphantly declaring "Mine is better!" before finally staggering off to bed.
Unlike Home Theater, which, for some people, can be little more than an entertaining home improvement done for them by an architect, a contractor or an interior decorator, High End two-channel audio is an act of love and continuing creation. Anthony Cordesman said it was more than a hobby, and called it a "sport". For many of us it's even more than that; it's an art form and a means of self-expression. It's definitely—at least once you've gotten fully into it—something that you do for yourself, and that fact has meant problems for more than one High End manufacturer.
Bennett Sound Corporation was a division of Kinergetics Research that built some truly phenomenal self-powered speakers. The proprietary and patented technologies that they developed and employed allowed them to not only solve important spurious resonance problems and thereby achieve unparalleled clarity of reproduction, but to extend their speakers' bass response flat to as low as 10Hz—at least one, and perhaps as much as a full two octaves below the very best of their competitors. The problem was that, despite a glowing review in the absolute sound, the general public had never heard of Bennett speakers and, even though they were fairly priced, audiophiles wouldn't buy them: The reason? No participation.
Bennett's technology required the use of Bennett's own amplifiers—usually one proprietary channel per driver, and that was their downfall. Bennett, like many other High End audio manufacturers, discovered that audiophiles like diddling with their system and (except for powered subwoofers) don't like having to be "stuck" permanently with any particular amplifier—or anything else, for that matter.
In a sport or hobby or art-form where so many of us not only have our own individual ideas of what music to listen to, but also of what it ought to sound like and what kind of equipment we should listen to it on, that may be a reason why integrated or single manufacturer systems, even from people like Meridian, Bang & Olufsen, and Bose so often seem to be relegated to purchase by other than what we normally think of as committed audiophiles. Maybe they're for the people who like the convenience of having the eggs already in the cake mix!