All Sounds the Same to Me

Fred Kaplan is right to defend high-end audio gear, but he misses something in defending it only based on how good it sounds. Now, without a doubt, $30,000 Swedish speakers sounds awesome. Even a short excursion to a basement or a living room with audio gear that cost more than a new Benz is likely to be one that, if recorded sound means anything to you, you’re not likely to forget. Great audio is transporting, moving—it exists on another plane.

But that’s not the only reason to buy it. Men, let’s face it, are the primary consumers here. (Virginia Heffernan offered this quote in the New York Times recently, “if you offer a man a choice between an open-plan office with lots of air and light and social interaction and a dank, stifling, windowless room with a lock, he’ll always take the closet.”) And, as with cars and computers and boats and guitars, there’s a tendency amongst many men to want to be able to show off their toys.

Thanks to recent downward shifts in consumer audio gear—very acceptable, if not remotely top tier, surround sound systems can be had for a few thousand, even a few hundred dollars. The existence of these systems means that audio snobs have to work even harder to prove their listening bona fides. There will always be a market for those who want (and can afford) the very, very best, who won’t settle for merely good when rapturous is an option. Nor, for many, will rapturous alone be enough; great audio sounds even better when you’re sharing it—and boasting of it—with someone else. The appeal is partly in the sound, yes, but it’s also in the status it confers.