The high-end cottage industry

by Gautam Raja

A couple of weeks ago, a representative from an upscale audio company walked into a California high-end dealership to perform some updates on the floor units. He hefted amplifiers onto a table, lifting off the thick aluminium covers, and connecting a laptop to the circuit board to flash the amplifier’s memory, giving it new abilities.

“The amps were given an amazing new feature,” someone from the shop later joked (fondly, it must be said) to some other reps. “When you press a button on the remote, the volume changes!”

The reps smiled and shook their heads. Up to then, to change the volume via remote control, you had to type in the level you wanted. Is ‘34’ too soft? Type in 38 or 40.

“That’s pretty cool actually,’ said one of the reps as he thought about it. “I don’t think I’d want that update.”

Contained in that story is both the magic and the obduracy of high-end audio, a niche market that’s essentially an expensive cottage industry. Call it a manor industry if you will. These are products with years of R&D, extreme engineering and finishes, and no economy of scale. Many of these top brands depend on one person for their existence, and often feature all this person’s brilliance, and many of his quirks. These products aren’t smoothed and democratised as they pass from hand to hand, committee to committee, test group to test group.

Remote controls seem to be the neglected poster children of high-end audio. When so few people are designing and manufacturing a highly engineered product for such demanding customers, niceties are overlooked. Remotes from most audiophile companies are heavy bars or blocks or even discs, sprinkled seemingly randomly with unvarying buttons. They don’t fall to hand easily, and the layout is utterly unintuitive.

These are products that make me appreciate the ones we take for granted. The remote control on your modern television is an ergonomic miracle. See how the shape of it makes that circular button in the centre fall naturally under your thumb. The volume is always where you think it’ll be, and the only time you have to actually look at it is when you’re accessing those deeper, darker features you almost never use. In contrast, after years of use, I still need to peer at my audio system’s remote for the simplest of functions, even changing volume.

This is a world that is used to elaborate set-up and start-up procedures before playing music. I have a vinyl-only friend who goes through three cleaning steps each time he lowers stylus to groove. So asking users to get up to change the volume isn’t such a terrible thing. And audiophiles like to know that the busy designers of these fantastically priced products use all their time getting the sound perfect. If a volume control on a remote is a long belated afterthought, so be it. Spending months choosing the capacitors on the output stage of an amplifier is so much more rewarding for everybody concerned.

It’s fitting then, that the amplifier that needed the update is a work of art. Its chassis is carved from a single block of metal, and finished to perfection. There are burnished copper heatsinks along the sides. Should you change the volume on it directly, you will be rewarded with a tactile experience so beguiling, you’ll find yourself spinning the notched, weighted, polished volume ring just to hear and feel the oily clicks as it rotates.

It makes you wonder if the update should have removed the ability to use a remote control altogether.

First published in Gulf News, October 25, 2016