Take a look at DAR’s Favourite bits of 2017 and what do you see? The majority play to a similar aesthetic: rectangular boxes dressed in black; and despite this selection being the best of the best and reflecting DAR’s Future-Fi manifesto.
Granted, the KEF LS50 Wireless are also available in white, the Sony WH-1000XM2 in champagne-beige and Chord offer a handsome red-stitched leather case to house the Mojo-Poly. Taking a broader view, the audiophile world is drowning in silver/black-boxed electronics and wood-veneered loudspeakers. Audiophiles wouldn’t buy anything else – or so we are told.
And yet one only has to look at CES’ rapidly shrinking high end audio exhibitors and reliance on dedicated audio shows to know that the mainstream doesn’t really wanna know. Playing it safe on looks could be the slowest of deaths.
Such aesthetic conservatism probably stems from the prevailing demographic: cashed-up middle-aged white dudes. This we see on both sides of the fence: middle-aged men making products for middle-aged men whose popularity is on the decline.
What to do? The guy who pulls his pants too high above his waist or wears socks with sandals probably isn’t the arbiter of visual taste he once was. For that we need forward thinking from more youthful-minded folk, men and women.
Talk of diversification might never be too far away but actions speak louder than words: high-end audio’s appeal would be more expediently broadened were its individual player to move beyond the woolly, over-simplified marketing message of “Hey kids, here’s a turntable. You like vinyl, right? RIGHT?” to making products that show a little more daring in function and (especially) form; where “It sounds as good as it looks” is inverted to read “It looks as good as it sounds”.
Which comes first: new buyers or products that appeal to new buyers? I’d argue for the chicken before the egg: that manufacturers must take the lead with bolder use of colour and alternative form factors.
For the curious customer visiting a hifi store for the first time in a long time, how does s/he separate A from B from C from D when everything looks sorta the same and the tech talk sounds like “blah blah blah”?
Devialet didn’t join Bose and B&W in high-end retail outlets or get to pitch its products in Hong Kong’s busiest shopping mall or London train stations because of its loud touting of Class A/D hybrid amplification or shorter signal paths. They got there because they understand how to generate an experience; how to bring a customer closer with gear lust before getting into the unit’s technical innovation.
A Future-Fi class leader, Devialet’s Phantom reminds us that there’s no use being the smartest guy in the room if you dress like everyone else; or – more poignantly – that you don’t even have to be the smartest in the room when you dress with style.
This brings us to DAR’s Product of the Year 2017.
Like any year before it, 2017 saw plenty brilliantly engineered products come to market — but offering the most advanced circuit, the lowest distortion or broadest digital file support is only a part of a product’s appeal.
Is the smartphone app intuitive? Does that volume knob feeling nice to turn? Is it convenient to use? How does it integrate with my lifestyle? What does it say about me? Will it look good in my home?
Only die-hard audiophiles wear inconvenience as a badge of honour, thump the table with talk of “they don’t make ’em like they used to” and dismiss anything that breaks from the norm as “a lifestyle product”. As if wanting a product that sits in the lounge room as a piece of audio furniture to look good were a bad thing. As if the convenience of Spotify Connect or Bluetooth were a sin. As if strong aesthetic appeal also meant sound quality had been severely compromised along the way.
This is nothing but the sound of the generation gap, from (sometimes) grumpy old men whose Music-First Audiophile years are but a memory. For the rest of us, optimal sound quality is only part of a product’s appeal. Some listeners will happily (and understandably) trade down from the absolute ‘best’ sound if it means a higher dose of visual cool.
Therefore, this year’s DAR Product of the Year award goes not to a single piece but to a category: a selection of products whose industrial design is as strong as the sound quality generated from within. The pictures in this (non-exhaustive) list do the talking. Clicking the product titles will take you deeper on technicalities and price (of which there is a broad range).