"Are Audiophiles Music Lovers?"

By Keith Yates


Like many audiophiles I have often sped home from a concert to fire up the audio system, and then, to the sore vexation of my wife and guests, spent the rest of the evening plunged in the morbid contemplation of what, exactly, was missing.

That’s how I led off a piece for Stereophile a few years back (Vol.11 No.4, p.58). Live, unamplified music–the sine qua non, the benchmark, the mantra, no? Most of us desperately want to believe in this “absolute sound,” but is it possible that for the majority of our tribe it remains a ritualistic chant, intoned by many and practiced by few?

There is fresh and troubling evidence. Peter McGrath, a friend, fellow high-end dealer, and noted recording engineer, estimates that, as a group, audiophiles spend 100 hours reading about tone cones, speaker cables, and audio miscellany for every hour spent in the company of a flesh-and-blood orchestra, chamber ensemble, jazz trio, or blues group. Says one industry guru, who insists on anonymity (nearly all of them insist on it), even disgraced televangelists show more integrity: They may have trash cans full of empty booze bottles, and bimbos scattered around town, but at least they show up to church every Sunday. Dealers like McGrath, Jim Smith of Audition in Birmingham, Alabama, and speaker-maker Richard Shahinian are easy to cite for their deep, active involvement in live concert music precisely because each must be considered, in the purely statistical sense, a rare bird indeed.

Industry-wide, there is a shortage of concert-going and a surfeit of finger-pointing. High-end dealers complain that their suppliers never listen to live music anymore, and that even the factory’s listening rooms have fallen into desuetude or been converted to sales offices. The manufacturers grumble that many of their dealers are merely merchants in the merry position of having clienteles with expensive habits (footnote 2). High-end dealers and manufacturers concur–usually over drinks and out of earshot of the press–that most of their customers wouldn’t know the sound of live music if it reached up and bit their earlobes. For their part, consumers grumble that most dealers are hardware hawkers, not music lovers, then shuffle off with their audiophile magazines and devour every page, footnote, and ad while the concert halls fill up with their neighbors–the ones who’ve never heard of Mark Levinson or J. Gordon Holt.

These charges and countercharges have been woven into the industry’s background noise ever since it transformed itself from garage roots to status as big-bucks business a decade or so ago. For the last ten years of my involvement in the industry I parried the growing grousings with faith and platitudes. “Put your customers in front of the real thing and you’ll see them blossom. You might even sell a few more good power amps because of it. Take charge. Lead the way. Get involved in live music.” I told them I kept my bass trombone in the store for an occasional reality-check when no one was around. I told them I was serving on the board of directors of the Sacramento Opera, and had a standing store policy of refunding the price of any ticket to the local symphony, opera, or ballet. I always beamed when I told my pals and peers about that policy, and exhorted them to follow suit. After dinner one year, another dealer, a stubby, hard-bitten entrepreneurial type, took a ceremonious puff off his cigar and fired back, “Ever had a customer take you up on it?” His brazen insolence struck me dumb.

When I recovered my composure, I had to reply that, well, no, no one had–but give them just a little more time. Maybe I needed to spread the word a little better. In the meantime, here was this scrofulous character delegitimizing high-end audio from the inside out. He made his living off the high end–and a very handsome living, from the smell of things. He made my blood boil. And he filled me with a resolve. In 1989 I undertook to set things right-side up, to do something that had never been attempted in the history of audiophile retailing: I designed and built an ambitious, state-of-the-art, high-end facility around a real live concert venue. Not a concert hall pieced together from leftover scraps of space in some remote corner of the building, nor merely a regular shoebox-style soundroom with space for 20 or 30 folding chairs that masqueraded as a concert hall, but a real, up-front-and-center, built-from-scratch Concert Hall.

Accommodating up to a dozen performers and an audience of 140, my concert space was the store’s centerpiece, its cynosure, its core. With input collected from concert-hall acousticians, computer models, and my own background in playing and recording live music, it took the form of a laterally symmetrical, fan-shaped affair with a stepped ceiling and deep, diffusive side-wall niches. To break up image-blurring ceiling reflections, I hung a massive, complex, triangular diffusor-soffit over the middle of the hall. To keep fan speed low and noise down, I shock-mounted six separate heating/air conditioner units on the roof, each controlled by a master touch-screen computer to keep the 7600 square foot space at just the right temperature under concert conditions. An acoustical engineer specializing in low-noise HVAC systems was retained to oversee installation of the ducting. I had the ceiling sheetrock–no flimsy ceilings going diaphragmatic in my concert hall–suspended from the rafters with hundreds of exotic, Sorbothane-like units for improved isolation, and hung with the aid of lasers. I installed adjustable, acoustically absorptive blinds so I could tune the room’s reverberation characteristics–its RT60–for each musical program. I hung over $25,000 worth of Italian low-voltage lighting fixtures from the ceiling so they could be grouped, aimed, and dimmed to bathe the performers in just the right light.

My acousticians swept the hall with sinewaves, warble tones, and assorted noises, then TEF’d and plotted it and subsequently proclaimed my baby the finest environment for chamber music in Northern California. When they were gone and the Zolatone paint was dry, I rolled in a magnificent Steinway concert grand–one that had been built for and used by the Chicago Symphony as a concert instrument, then lovingly rebuilt by Peter Clark with custom Ari Isaac hammers (footnote 3)

Over the next 18 months Keith Yates Audio staged regular chamber concerts by the leading musicians in the region–generally the concertmaster and assorted principals of the Sacramento Symphony. We did the piano and wind quintets of Beethoven and Mozart; string quartets of Haydn and Debussy; an evening of Bach with harpsichord, flute, and violin. There were duets, sextets, octets; little pieces by Vivaldi and Villa-Lobos, Poulenc, Scott Joplin, Pierre Boulez; virtuoso guitar works, cello showpieces. A joyful vocal recital with San Francisco Opera soprano Sara Ganz. If the composer was still alive, we tried to fly him or her out to attend. Terry Riley joined us in a 25th-anniversary performance of his In C, the landmark composition that launched minimalism. We brought Pauline Oliveros out from New York to perform in a composition of hers. Howard Hersh was on hand for the world-premiere performance of a shimmering, ethereal new work of his.

Besides the guest composers, there were printed program guides, music-related art showings, and complimentary wine and refreshments at intermission. When these heady events made money, it was donated to local nonprofit music organizations. Local musicians cooed over the splendid new venue with the great acoustics. The local papers and NPR radio station ran enthusiastic reviews. An editor from the New York Timesphoned, trying to figure out whether their business or arts section would be the best place for the story.

High-end retailers started showing up from around the world to see what the fuss was all about and to snap pictures for the staff back home. The UPS man brought LPs, CDs, and tapes of artists who wanted to perform in this dramatic space they were hearing about. Composers whose symphonic pieces I’d heard in larger concert halls called to see if we would be interested in doing a few new chamber pieces. Artists and gallery owners wanted to hang their best works.

I tell you, this music-lover/audiophile was on cloud nine. The town was buzzing. A national design magazine called the stereo-store-qua-concert-hall a “one-of-a-kind masterpiece.” Asked whether they wanted to subsidize the venture by extending generous credit terms, our core suppliers–Madrigal, Krell, Vandersteen, KEF, Martin-Logan, Wilson, Adcom, and many others–called it a “go.” The rest of the industry, excited but unconvinced, called it “The Grand Experiment.”

Do I have to tell you how stimulating it was to be making history by bringing “the absolute sound” to the audiophile community itself? Do I have to remind you that our little concert hall formed the very heart–philosophically, architecturally, acoustically–of our enterprise? I probably forgot to tell you that making a six-soundroom high-end shop bend to the exigencies of a real concert venue for 140 lucky audiophiles added $100,000 to the cost of the build-out. But not to worry–I took out a second mortgage on the house to pay for it.

There was only one little hitch. My audiophiles–the ones who for a decade had been buying their gear and magazines from me, swapping favorite recordings with me, and reading my articles–never showed up. Oh, they came during business hours to audition the Levinsons and Krells and Wilsons and so on, but they were nowhere to be found during our evening concerts or even during the music-appreciation lectures put on by the symphony association. I tried everything: in-store signs; notices in the newsletters; a little story in the local classical station’s magazine; private mailings; personal appeals; phone calls in the night. The excuses were richly varied–audiophiles have fine imaginations–but somehow halfhearted, and often sheepish, as if some unsavory little secret had been dug up.

I was stupefied. Customers who’d spent thousands and tens of thousands on state-of-the-art components to “capture that elusive magic of live music” wouldn’t let me sell them a $15 ticket to the real thing. I couldn’t give them tickets.

So who filled the 140 seats? Regular people who read about it in the papers, people who went home to maybe $600 worth of ratty old Sansui gear driving epileptic speakers wired out of phase with 22-gauge zipcord (footnote 4) Some months ago The Grand Experiment sputtered, then went bust, belly-up, bankrupt. A decade in the making, then gone–the store, the concerts, the house–the only winners the attorneys and liquidators.

So what’s the lesson here? That undercapitalization, high overhead, 60% annual growth, and a war in the Gulf can bleed the life out of a company? That’s the obvious answer; any junior loan officer at a bank with a billion dollars in bad foreign debt could tell you that.

But for me there’s something else–another resonance, lingering, more unsettling, closer to home. In the end I confused hardware aficionados and real music lovers. Most audiophiles, I was to learn, don’t “do” concerts. It’s part of the religion, but not part of the life. Of course, the insiders, the survivors, those hard-bitten types, have had it pegged all along. With the experiment over, they’ll go back to making, selling, and reviewing the gear that honors the real thing. But they won’t expose the duplicity that runs deep and quiet in our community. That’s for me, the experimenter, who has now earned the right to suggest, ever so gently, to get thee to a concert hall. Or get a new mantra.

Note about the author: Keith Yates was a founder-owner of both Keith Yates Audio, a high-end retail store in Sacramento, California, and Audio Verite Recordings, a small classical record label, from March 1981 through April 1991. He now designs Home Concert Halls and advanced Home Theater systems (www.kydg.com) and works as a consultant to high-end audio/video retailers and manufacturers nationwide. His writing has appeared in StereophileAudio, and many other magazines.

Footnote 2: An importer of very highly esteemed gear used to invite his dealers to Chicago’s Orchestra Hall to hear the CSO every year at a June CES; interest was so low he finally abandoned it. A few years ago a well-known turntable manufacturer invited me to spend a week at their UK factory. Despite the company’s rhetoric about “humming along with the tune,” my hosts and the rest of the dealer group except one preferred pub-crawling to my repeated suggestion that we spend an evening in a concert hall or jazz club. The exception, Jim Shannon, is now with Madrigal Audio Labs [and in 1998 is with Wadia Digital—Ed.]

Footnote 3: Ari Isaac, a blind piano technician in Toronto, manufactures hammers widely celebrated for their ability to elicit a richer palette of overtones from Steinway and Bösendorfer instruments. Contractual obligations prevent Isaac’s iconoclastic and extensively researched designs from being factory-issue on the great concert grands of our day.

Footnote 4: Perhaps Mr. Yates should have made audiophile recordings in his hall, for release on his Audio Verite label. Audiophiles might then have attended the concerts in order to later compare them with their “real thing”: the recordings of the concerts.–RL [Author’s follow-up note: I did in fact record most of the concerts to digital audio tape (DAT) and in fact had plans to release the recordings as CDs on a private subscription basis. At least one of the compositions, by Howard Hersh, received its world premiere performance in the store’s concert hall.]