People Just Need to Experience Aural Sex

In Jana Dagdagan's recent interview with Bill Leebens "Do We Need A High-End Audio Industry Association?", Bill offers the thought:

I think newsletters are worthless in that regard. I think this is experiential. Not listening to music reproduced well and trying to get people to bite into high-end audio makes about as much sense as sending newsletters to people about wine without allowing them to taste wine. I really think it's an immersive, experiential deal, and unless they can hear it, feel it, it makes no sense whatsoever. When I was in college in the '70s, a number of the larger manufacturers like Pioneer and Panasonic had 45' trailers that went from college campus to college campus. They'd have demo systems in these trailers and they wouldn't actually sell anything, but you would at least get the experience—a taste of what they were trying to sell. Obviously that's something that requires deep pockets, but I think it's not just vital but really necessary in the big picture, to expose the maximum number of people to this.

He's dead right.

Why did you get into high-end audio? I betcha it was because, one day, you got to sit in front of a killer system and had your first eargasm. Mine was at my first CES in the Sands high-end exhibits when I was starting HeadRoom. Don't remember the speakers or gear, but do remember sitting in bliss...not just listening but being enraptured by the sound. Pure ecstasy.

As Bill basically says, you can dance about architecture all you want, but you're going to have no idea what it's really all about until you're in the presence of the art itself. The high-end is really good at that.

What I'm not so sure about is if an industry association is really the right vehicle for spreading the gospel. Companies waxing poetic about eargasms is likely to be taken as just more of the same marketing bullshit. I think there's an alternative/adjunct way to organize around evangelizing high-fidelity.

For a long time now, on, then, and now, headphone enthusiasts have been rabidly self-organizing meets (large and small), loaner tours for headphones, and numerous other group activities. In Jana's interview, Bill points out the biggest hurdles for an industry organization:

As always, efforts like this come down to two things: 1) people providing time and leadership; and 2) people providing funding. Both are difficult to come by.

From what I've seen in the past, I would say that if the hobbyists themselves become willing to take up the mission, many, many hundreds of man-hours, and leadership, may be available free for the asking. And if they become invested (like Bernie supporters) raising funds $27 a pop (on Kickstarter or GoFundMe) can become a viable financial resource. But I don't think the enthusiasts will go along for the ride with industry in the lead.

I think a hobbyist, member driven, organization would do very well to gain the traction and then the drive needed to spread the good news that you too, Joe Public, can have as many eargasms as you'd like...and at a variety of price points.

For example, have a look at the websites for the National Model Railroad Association, Academy of Model Aeronautics, or National Association of Rocketry, to name just a few. These organizations exist to, among other things, help beginners get into the hobby successfully; hold enthusiast events and contests; teach safety and enthusiast techniques; and to provide personal security for non-professional event organizers by underwriting local club activities. While some of these things do happen in the headphone forums, the forum structure itself is very poor at presenting information in a manner conducive to easy access for beginners, or collating and organizing the collective learning done by enthusiasts.

I think the best of all worlds would have both industry and hobbyist organisations that knew how to work together. Imagine the industry organisation putting together boxes with five headphones in each of similar type and price, and a hobbyist organization that can manage the logistics of getting the box around to various meets and a website that can record and re-display listener's expressed experience evaluating the gear. Or, a single manufacturer could put five identical looking units in the box with various tunings, which the hobbyist assn. distributes to get feedback. I know I'd be damn curious to hear that...I'm sure others would be too.

More importantly, for outreach, collaboration between industry and enthusiast associations would enable hobbyists to be creative in finding ways into colleges, festivals, and other venues, and could supply the manpower to man the exhibit, while the industry association could provide collateral materials, equipment, and venue fees.

Bill's right, we need to give people eargasms, and an industry association is likely part of the solution. But I also think engaging enthusiasts in the mission by having their own audio enthusiast organization hugely magnifies the number of feet on the ground, and the likelyhood that one of us will slap a pair of headphones on someone to give them their first eargasm...and a friendly place to point a n00B towards to pursue their personal aural pleasures.

Jim Tavegia's picture

I am going to start a digital audio/recording club before school 2 days per week on digital audio fundamentals and on working with a DAW. We will cover just the basics and give the kids a chance to listen to music from mp3s up to 24/192 and some SACDs I will bring to my room for them to audition and see where it goes. We will also conduct some hearing tests.

Since most of my middle school Math students don't like Math it will be interesting to see if they can make the connection of just how important Math is in their daily lives...cell phones, music players, HD TV, their computers, music streaming, and social media, etc. It should be eye-opening to them.

My goal will be to see if they can discern good audio from bad, and more importantly, if it matters at all to them. We have very good chorus and band programs at our middle school and many of the kids have heard the recordings I made of the Chorus and Band last year that came in first place in the state competition. The Band came in 2nd. The recordings I made were from concerts two weeks prior to the state competitions and were for them to learn from. The kids listened and worked hard to correct their mistakes and it paid off for them.

I hope the kids find this fun and informative. We'll see. I am in hopes that some of them will want to invest in a small mixing board from the likes of Yamaha or Mackie, or maybe a USB interface from Steinberg or Focusrite, and get a couple of cheap mics and at least use the free Audacity software if they don't want to buy Sony Sound Forge Audio Studio.

I will keep the club going until late fall when I start coaching basketball and maybe just meet once in the early AM before school after that to answer questions and see what discoveries they have made.

Merck's picture

Jim, it was exciting to read your post. I really wish I would have had that type of experience when I was in school. I was a member of my high school's radio club, eventually gaining my technician plus amateur radio operator's license. I would have never accomplished this if it weren't for the exposure I received. Learning about audio is similar, in that the nuances are not readily visible until someone versed in the field presents the possibilities. I stumbled upon this hobby by simply desiring some better quality IEM's, and the knowledge I have gained since then has been wonderful. Keep doing what you do so that future generations may advance the technology related to our shared hobby. By the way, Tyll, I agree about the need for an organization like the examples you mentioned in your article. It just a matter of recruiting enough people with the time and passion to dedicate the necessary time and energy to the project. That's no easy task.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Thank you for your efforts, Jim. All we can do is try to pass it on.
Josuah's picture

For some of us, high-end audio is because we know what non-reproduced music sounds like and it makes sense to want reproduced music to be good too. I started taking music lessons before kindergarten and played piano, violin, and trumpet. I heard other people playing those instruments, and there was also the school band.

This is probably true regardless of the subject. Painter? You want to see real paintings and not prints. Dancer? You want to see ballet or dance competitions up close, not on a small mobile phone screen. Cat lover? You want to snuggle with real cats and not stuffed animals.

funambulistic's picture

… was when my father brought home a quadrophonic system from when he was stationed in Vietnam; four Pioneer speakers (round, furniture finish and look, 10 drivers each - and still working!) Sansui receiver, Dual turntable, Sony cassette deck, reel-to-reel and Pioneer headphones (I’ve been looking for a pair of those for years). The strange thing is, he was not interested in music all that much, but he did love the demo LP of trains running through the living room! I saved up enough money mowing lawns when I was 14 to buy a McIntosh receiver (that’s it – speakers were supposed to come later) but he thought it a waste of money and took me to the Ft. Bliss PX and I picked out an all-in-one Panasonic system (with “Thrusters” speakers). After many, many configurations, I finally assembled my “eargasmic “ system in ’97: Audio Alchemy DLC, Adcom CD player, Sony ES SS-M5 speakers and a Sunfire True Subwoofer. Sure, I would look around for upgrades (maybe replace the CD player…) but it was the most totally fulfilling system I have ever owned. I got married and she, being an audiophile as well, quickly dismantled it (“Let’s sell both our systems and buy one just for us!"). After my divorce (hehe) I started to rebuild (still have my Sunfire – now two of ‘em) but have not been able to replicate the magic of that kit. I am still working on it but, in the mean-time, have had several eargasms via headphones!

Beagle's picture

There were audio salons that demonstrated what you could own. I was a teen and listened to the Ohm L loudspeakers and bought them..I liked the sound and they were in my budget range. A couple of years later, I heard the Mission 770 speakers at same store and HAD to have them. Could not afford them so I save up for 8 months and bought them.

Now people rely on other peoples opinions in order to decide what they might like and what they should buy, often with no point of reference in the first place. To me, that's asinine. Would you ask someone what music you should listen to or what concerts you should attend? If you are spending a large sum of cash, you should travel to where you can hear what you are interested in, or just go hear what is out there.

castleofargh's picture

if it's to agree on standards, make things convenient with universal plugs, stop 5 ohm IEMs, give more reliable measurement requirements or better, have a centered organization to measure gears for all brands, then hail hydra! I'm all for a whatever audio association.

if it's to make up studies that agree with the sponsors (tobacco style), and invests in BS adds all year long, then they can keep it.

about eargasm, I would argue that the best way to really have a blast with music is to never listen to any high end systems. ^_^ when I knew nothing else, my k7 walkman and very bad headphones were the most amazing wonders in the world. nowadays I would most likely react like the legendary Tyll+beat video. is it progress, or is it sad that I can't have the same fun without high audio standards anymore?
in a less philosophicomasturbating idea, people! go try gears!!!! the less you know about audio, the more you will benefit from going at a meet. beginners aren't burned on a cross, they've stopped doing that at least 6 months ago.

tony's picture

don't own homes. Audiophile loudspeakers are lease breakers ( at least thats what we used to call them ). Did anyone listen to those Andrew Jones little speakers at Newport?, those are definitely Lease-Breakers!

So, how is the High End industry sposta attract the "new" youth to the "Wonders" of wonderful Sound Systems?

These new ( hopeful ) customers do and will own large Flat-Screen TVs and 2.1 or Center Channel stuff but not a large pair of JBLs, much less a rack of Audio Research Corp. stuff.

Besides, they seem to own a little Apple iPod and In-ear devices, that is their Music System.

The Audio Dealer Network is nearly gone. With no functioning Retail Network to guide, what work would an Association Have? Little manufacturers are trying to scratch out a tiny bit of sales, how could an Association help them?

It takes a solid Home and a generous Income to support High-End Audio.
We Car makers already gobble up all the money we can get ( we don't leave much for discretionary luxuries ). Besides, these youth would rather own an Audi A6 than an Audio System.

Tony in Michigan

ps. The Pro-Audio people have an Association, I'll bet some folks ( like Emotive ) already belong to it. I imagine anyone could join.

ps.2 The headphone meets are a great place to audition pre-selected gear. Used headphone stuff on Ebay is typically half of Retail pricing, headphone stuff is affordable and superb as far as Sound Quality is concerned. Do we need High-End ARC stuff?

Argyris's picture

When I read this article, I thought of the Bose and Beats displays I've seen at various big box stores and how those likely move lots of headphones, even aside from the marketing and hype. I've also seen displays for Sony, Skullcandy and House of Marley (surprisingly enough) in my local supermarket. Chances are, lots of folks who have never heard anything but iPod earbuds try some of these headphones and are blown away. Displays like these are likely where modern music listeners have their first eargasm.

Trouble is, most of the consistently high performance brands don't have widespread distribution or mainstream appeal, so they don't get to live in displays like these. For instance, I've yet to see a Sennheiser anything as a display model, unless you count the HD 280 I briefly listened to in Best Buy over 14 years ago. Some folks report better luck finding Senns, but that just shows that exposure of even well-known, internationally-distributed brands is spotty at best.

I'm not sure how to remedy this, since it would require headphone manufacturers to try to get the stores typical consumers buy their electronics from to stock their brands, and we run into the chicken and the egg problem where no store will take a chance on an expensive brand most consumers have never heard of, and consumers will never hear about said expensive brand because they never encounter their products.

I dunno. What I do know is Beats are getting better. I recently tried a pair of the Solo 2 from one of the displays and thought to myself, I would be willing to pay up to $50 for this. Maybe a younger, less experienced me would have had an eargasm right then and there.

tony's picture

On the Top of the Page of Innerfidelty is see a Best Buy Banner Ad offering a Sale on Big Screens. I clicked the banner and went to their site, clicked on Audio, clicked on Over Ear Headphones to discover : Audeze, Sennheiser HD800, HD650, HD600 and scads more of the very Headphones that Tyll has on his Wall of Fame.

Best Buy is a High End Headphone Store!

Here we go, Big Box High End Audio !! Geez, I'm glad I don't still own Esoteric Audio.

Tony in Michigan

Shardnax's picture

None of the BB locations near me carry Sennheiser's lower lines, let alone flagships from them or others. I don't imagine they'd let people demo them at every store even if they stocked them. They've never once let me demo a TV and I'm always prepared to buy when I want to demo something.

funambulistic's picture

A percentage of Best Buys have a Magnolia high end section where they sell, well, high end equipment. They have a live headphone display where you can listen to the brands mentioned above. If one creates a good rapport with the salesperson, they will take the HPs off the rack and plug them into various sources. Sadly, the 3 I have in my areas are rather poorly kept - the Pro-Ject or Marantz turntables are usually not working or damaged...

Mrsnikoph78's picture

High-end audio needn't default to super high-end prices. That is the first mistake. I've owned enough gear in various forms (top of the line, bottom of the line, etc.) to have "figured out" that the best values in audio are never obvious. Case in point, today's "wireless" bluetooth and other speakers. Waaaay too expensive for what they are, and if it ain't battery powered, it ain't wireless. Kills me that most lack an even basic display for the sake of setup / playback problems. The Pioneer SMA4 I bought sounds amazing, but my god is it counter-intuitive to setup and use in most conditions. You just can't take unplug it, drag it outside, and be back on wi-fi in seconds. The Jawbone? Impressively easy for the most part, but I've never felt an enclosure rattle more - is that a bass enhancer?

Top flight amp for $1000? No Thanks. When Alpine dumped their MRX line, I knew why - it was because you got 90% of the PDX performance for a fraction of the price. But that was a good thing!

With headphones: $400 for my HE-400s? Why? I got a 5.1 piece Pioneer setup for about $400-$500 all in, and frankly it is a way, way better value. I find myself often regretting the "10%" improvement in sound I pay dearly for, but I'm usually excited about the awesome sound I paid relatively little for.

In case you missed the news, most people in America aren't getting richer every year - there is less money to go around for everything - especially for "luxuries" like high-end audio. If you want the 10% to pay for industry growth, keep making pretty furniture with drivers for them. If you want guys like me to pay for industry growth, stick the to features that really matter and make that price too darn good to pass up. Oh that and, maybe end the shipping costs from China - is it REALLY cheaper to make stuff there then boat/fly/drive it all over the country?

Oh while I am dreaming of a better world, I live in a relative backwater and can never demo anything high end without significant travel. So I don't demo. I rely on reviews, like most people. My bad. Someone should figure out a smart way to put these fancy high-value products right next to the one on the shelf in Wal Mart and Best Buy etc. The severe weakness of the Internet shopping age is needing to make purchases largely with 100% trust.

Skycyclepilot's picture

You make an excellent point. I have a pair of HifiMan 400i headphones, only because they were a gift. I bought a JDS Element amp to drive them. The amp is connected to my PC, of course. I have some hearing loss in my right ear, and I use a program called "Equalizer APO" to correct for the hearing loss. I do most of my high end listening on this setup. At home, I rarely turn on speakers to listen to music.

However, I listen to more music on modest equipment in my car and at work than anywhere else.

I love super expensive hifi equipment as much as the next guy, but like most middle class workers these days, I can't begin to afford it. But, the music is far more important than the equipment - as it should be.

I used to own a $10,000 home audio system - many years ago. I was showing the system off to a friend one day, and he made a remark I'll never forget...

"When you have a system that is that expensive, do you not find yourself listening to the equipment, and not the music???"

Building expensive hifi systems is a great hobby, but don't forget to stop and listen to the music once in a while, and not the equipment...

Mrsnikoph78's picture

Thanks for sharing that.

I think my car audio system was about $600-$700 all-in with a few recycled components. I stuck to time-alignment, a little EQing, an awesome 8 inch JL sub, 5 inch components, and a Class D amp. Probably the best car system I've ever had overall, but not the loudest. If I got better/larger drivers and doubled the power, I'd be out $1500 with only a marginal gain in "daily" performance. I know that because I once spent closer to $2000. If I can do it, most of this system will go into the next car. I'll get a new deck with updated features and new components. Car audio has never been cheaper for the most part - but its not competition but the fact that OEMs have caught on to the gravy train and make systems you can't really replace/upgrade.

Home Audio? Dirt-cheap Pioneer - 5 towers(!). The $500 subwoofer is the most expensive component I picked up, but I realized $500 is the approximate price for genuine 20 hz "slam" and movie theater-like performance coupled to actual music performance as well. I've got the same Yamaha Receiver I've had for 10 years, but will probably upgrade once I figure out room correction systems and 4K HDR compatibility - I'm tempted to spend at least $600 on the AV reciever, and have realized that maybe $1,500 is the magic number. So, maybe up to $2,500 for the finished 5.2 setup (I have an 8 inch sub also), but a great big TV can be had for $500-$700. I assume I can get 5-10 years from a well-selected setup this way. AV receivers and the "Bass" are by far the hardest values to figure out.

For Headphones I am probably stopping with my O2 amp, ODAC, and $100-$300 budget for cans. That setup is once again close to $1,000 and I see no reason at all to spend more. I've gotten very good sound in the $200-$300 range and though I want to try some Oppo PM3s, it is just a no for now. Otherwise I have 3 pairs of phones circulating as it is, and something needs to break before its "ok" for me to move on - again. : )

There is nothing worse than becoming an audiophile! But man do I love exploring new music on a great setup.

Skycyclepilot's picture

I just don't listen at home, except on headphones. A pair of Oppo PM-3 headphones are on my wish list as well. The HifiMan headphones I have are open, so I can't use them late at night in bed - don't want to wake up the wife.

I love the sound of open planar magnetic headphones - except for the fact that they lack bass punch - so the Oppo headphones are interesting. I can't decide between those and a good pair of in-ear monitors, though. I'm guessing the Oppo headphones would sound better. I hear you can call Oppo and buy refurbished ones for $320, if you can catch them with any in stock.

davidespinosa's picture

I agree, one sound is worth 1000 words, but next time, please skip the sensationalist headline.

davidespinosa's picture

I realized, the main offender is the homonym between "aural" and "oral".