High End Stereo: Simplicity For A Price

If there's a guide to the future design of electronic products, then it may be found, strangely enough, in music. The high-priced world of "high-end" audio equipment provides a glimpse into what it would be like if all our home and office equipment were designed specifically for enjoyment and easy use.

High-enders are audiophile fanatics forever searching for the "perfect" sound. They are supported by a small band of U. S. and British entrepreneurs. These aficionados eschew the complexity--not just the mediocrity--of mass-produced equipment for the simplicity of hand-assembled audio electronics. Their motto: Less is often more.

High-end audio equipment typically has few buttons and fewer flashing lights. Indecipherable manuals are verboten. "We have an audio system that sells for $150,000," says Andrew Singer, owner of Sound by Singer Ltd. in New York. "It takes me 30 seconds to show a customer how to use it, and he never has to ask me again." There are just three controls: volume, balance, and selection, which chooses among CD, tape deck, and other sources. "The point is to play music," says Singer, "not to operate a computer."

SOFT TOUCH. One look at a Proceed PCD 2 compact disk player and the audiophile's minimalist philosophy becomes perfectly clear. The face of the player has just five buttons, clearly marked on a clean gray surface: "play," "stop," "pause," "preview" to go back, and "next" to jump ahead. The machine is not low and horizontal like most Japanese models but built like a bread box, putting the controls closer to eye-level. A button marked "drawer'--to extend the shelf for the compact disk--is off to the side, along with other controls that can shuffle songs around. The buttons are soft. Friendly. "Most of the American audio equipment has just a few controls, and that's it," says Michael Kay at Lyric Hi-Fi in New York.

At $2,150, the Proceed CD is pricey. But its maker, Madrigal Audio Laboratories Inc. in Middletown, Conn., put the money into producing better sound. In Japanese CDs priced that high, the cost tends to go into a multitude of programming functions and displays. The minimalist approach can even be found in some lower-priced equipment. The NAD 5325 CD player sells for just under $300. And it is simple. The Boston-based Anglo-American company markets its products as "bringing extremely high-quality performance into a machine that is easy to operate. . . ."

HOMEGROWN. As the audiophiles tell it, the American consumer is a victim of Japanese marketing. In the 1950s and early 60s, turntables, speakers, and tuners were almost all made in the U. S. or Britain. Remember such names as Dynaco and Garrard? Then, the Japanese came in with new solid-state products. "They brainwashed Americans into thinking more is better, that lights and buttons were more important than playing music," complains Singer.

By the time compact disks replaced vinyl records, the Japanese had taken nearly all of the U. S. stereo market. By then a group of homegrown startups had begun a grass-roots rebellion. Led by Audio Research Corp., Mark Levinson, and others, these rebel audiophiles started building high-end equipment design-ed for great music, not for computer proficiency.

Now the wheel may be coming around again. Some 60% of the high-end audio equipment built in the U. S. is exported to Japan. The Japanese, it seems, know a good thing when they hear it.

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