A Place for Extravagance in High-End Audio

One of the compensations of maturity is that it enables one to cast away guilt. As a hi-fi enthusiast I used to be riddled with angst in various manifestations - but no more! Though I still find the arguments for and against valves or silver-wire or absolute-phase secretly fascinating, I was frightened in the past of committing that most terrible of drawing-room crimes: being boring about the hi-fi. And that was simply the tip of the iceberg. I was racked with fears that ran deep. Fears I know others share. Just talk to the owner of an extravagant display of audiophile quality equipment and watch how they shift nervously from foot to foot explaining - almost apologetically -that it is only a means to an end. It is, they'll explain, the music which really interests them. Is it not odd that we should we feel the need to justify our obsession?

I shared too, the nagging doubt that I spent too much time fiddling with the hi-fi and not enough listening to the music. But my contrition was without foundation. A few years ago I got interested in flying light aeroplanes and, as anybody who has ever done any flying will tell you, as a pastime absolutely nothing comes close to flying for the amount of time spent doing something other than pursuing the purpose of the hobby. If you think sailing is bad - try flying! At least fifty percent of the time spent at a flying club consists of peering out at dismal, foggy airfields drinking cups of revolting coffee. Ninety percent of the rest of the time is spent standing in the blistering cold checking, mending, waiting and watching other people flying aeroplanes. Add preparing flight plans, load sheets and other paperwork and only about two percent of the time spent anywhere near aeroplanes is actually spent flying them. By comparison hi-fi as a hobby is an orgy of indulgence.

I suffered too the commonplace anguish that I spent too much money on audio equipment. But, I argued, other people spend greater sums of money on their cars and decorating and furnishing their homes so there was nothing uniquely extravagant about spending my money on hi-fi equipment.

And then came the blinding realisation that I was simply weighed down by a twentieth-century, northern-European puritanism. The end need not always justify the means. Historically, people have sought to surround the act of making music with the best acoustic, the best craftsmen and couched the process in opulent surroundings. Audiophile hi-fi equipment is the modern manifestation of this old, and noble, tradition. What is wrong with enriching our lives with objects which both serve a purpose and - by virtue of the care and skill with which they have been crafted - are an end in themselves? All ceilings need to be painted - raw plaster is unsightly. But if Pope Sixtus IV had put up with a coat of distemper we shouldn't have Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. The Ponte Vecchio in Florence is only a bridge with shops on. I suppose it could have been constructed out of bricks and girders and look like Blackfriars railway bridge. It would serve the purpose just the same, but the world would be a poorer place for it. To argue always for bland utilitarianism is to argue there should be no interiors by Robert Adam, no carving by Grinling Gibbons, no architecture by Vanbrugh, no cars by Ferrari, no fabrics by Zandra Rhodes, no fashion by Channel. We should have drunk all the vintage claret, swopped our Parker's for Biros and let Rolex go into liquidation.

I'm sure God hears the petitions of a sinner rising from the vaulted halls of an English cathedral no-more and no less than He hears the prayer of a starving man in a shanty town. Extravagant opulence doesn't hold any absolute value but which of the two men would you rather be. Come to think of it, if it were not for extravagance in human affairs I doubt we should ever have stood up. Extravagance is everywhere in the world where people have thought to themselves, "Let's fashion this a little better than it needs to be fashioned - let's make this pleasing to look at, uplifting whist serving its purpose."

It's craft, not art, that enriches the material lives of ordinary people. I don't own even a minor masterpiece of the quattrocento and I confidently expect that I never shall but I can own well crafted things for my home. I've learned to stop being priggish about the minor extravagances of hi-fi. In my own mind I'm sure that there is more to do with a delight in extravagance behind the use of precious metals in hi-fi than there is to do with electrical conductivity.

It is because this "extravagance factor" is eradicated in double-blind listening tests that subjects in these trials fail to detect differences between pieces of equipment which they can distinguish when they know which amplifier combination or CD player is playing. "Which" magazine recently ran a report on CD players which concluded that, without knowing which player was in operation, there is no discernable difference in the sound quality between players in any price band. But with an experience as emotive as listening to music, it really is nonsense to ignore the peripheral psychological effects of where, when and how the music is being produced.

The anguish I associated with hi-fi was born of the mistaken belief that it is a profanity; a material obsession riding on the back of music which is unworldly and spiritual. I now know this is nonsense. Music is physical. It is a rich, wonderful, intense sensory experience which triggers deep psychological associations. It's "aural sex" if you like! The time, the place and the extravagant paraphernalia of the production of music go hand in hand with its inherent capacity to move and inspire. Monteverdi sounds its best in Venice, Mozart in Salzburg or Vienna, English cathedral music needs to be heard as it disperses amongst groined vaults. Listening to hi-fi at home, different values obtain. It is one of the great delusions of hi-fi that it can ever aim to recreate the concert hall in one's own home. The experience of listening to music at home will always be very different to the experience when listening in a concert hall but the same rules apply. All that a hi-fi ever needs to justify its existence is that enhances and complements our pleasure. If, as in my case, that means serried ranks of glowing valves - so be it. The only necessary truth in the "fidelity" of high-fidelity is the truth that is beauty, the beauty that is truth.

So I have cast away my guilt, remembering that if everything in this world were judged purely for its utility - how well it served its purpose - there would be no music to put through our hi-fi's circuits. For what could be a more pointless, extravagant folly than a group of grown up people banging drums, blowing down coiled-up brass piping and scraping horse hair across stretched cat-gut.