On The Slippery Eel of "Value"

(originally published as "What's It Worth?" in The High Fidelity Report on January 13, 2014)

In my last installment, I posited that Harvey "Gizmo" Rosenberg was the kind of writer that could get us to ask the difficult question as to why we are involved in this hobby at all. Is it for the worship of gear? The stimulation of sound-effects? The art behind the music? Or the ecstatic-transcendent effect of music on our consciousness? In this installment, I'm interesting in exploring the value of Value when it comes to those things deemed to be "unreasonable" by ordinary measures.

 

Within the realm of our enthusiasm there are seemingly countless brands plying their trade, vying for attention and, ultimately, looking for their slice of the pie. There are those especially well-known brands that already have their slices, up-and-coming brands that are getting talked about in the popular audio press and in more of the mainstream audio blogs, and there are the brands that can't seem to get above the waterline except to score a review here and there from the second and third-tier audio blogs and "magazines" that publish on the internet. The audio rat-race. Large and small, famous and invisible: High End Audio manufacturers almost always start off in the same place: with a limited bankroll to fund a passion in the hopes of building a business as a means of becoming more intimately involved with the object of their enthusiasm. In other words:

To eschew the stability of an ordinary career in exchange for an unreasonable risk in an unlikely industry with a highly-improbable chance for success.

This is typically true whether you are talking about the founding of Sonus Faber and Audio Research or the founding of Arteluthe and Randall-K. That is not to say that there aren't those that enter the field with larger plans in mind, with some serious funding behind them, and with access to some very sophisticated manufacturing tech and the intent to mass-produce. Some very competent audio gear is offered from companies that have the ability to marry mass-production and offshore manufacturing with some very decent designs to arrive at high-value products. Emotiva and GoldenEar Technology come to mind, for instance. Both very well regarded and both operating at the nexus of excellent design and extreme value. And "value" is truly the name of the game, regardless of what it is you are getting into. But there is value, and then there is Value - and as a means to frame the discussion's extremities, I offer this:

(v)alue: Lower-case "v"

  • Indicative of a component or audio system that delivers far more perceived performance than its asking price would suggest. This could apply to something priced quite low and performing within the "entry-level" of what we collectively consider (abstractly) to be High End, but isn't necessarily limited to "low price" as it is more about "exceeding expectations" - although the higher the price gets, the higher one's expectations tend to be.

(V)alue: Upper-Case "V"

  • A work of artisanship made in limited quantities by someone who has sacrificed their chances at a normal life in order to pursue an utterly unreasonable and idealistic pipe-dream.

In the former case, we might generally be talking about gear that is made in quantities large enough to require a staff of builders. Not much "art" is introduced in this process simply because this gear typically needs to lend itself to aspects of mass-production such that "employees" will be able to build and test in large quantities: Appliances.

In the latter case, we're talking about a different animal altogether: Art.

Between these two extremes exist varying degrees of expression and execution, which is where most of the action in High End Audio seems to happen. To wit: An individual visionary of some sort is typically behind the effort, and therefore the company and its products are an extension of someone's very particular vision and philosophy. The "High End" wouldn't exist if it weren't for this kind of pioneering, unrelenting, unreasonable character deciding to buck the system and strike out on his or her own. From the kitchen table empires are launched, some larger than others, but it all seems to begin in humble circumstances (although humility is hardly a component ... it takes some serious stones to dodge the corporate life and commit to tiny cottage-industry enterprises).

How this will develop as a business will determine where along the Appliance vs. Art continuum they fall. If the vision is to build a high-utility, low-price product with high-performance attributes - we're talking "mostly appliance," whereas if the vision is to hand-build every single tube amplifier by hand in a workshop-cum-atelier ... we're in the "mostly art" category. As with most things that aren't strictly "appliances" - notions of value/Value get a little bit squidgy ... where does the strictness of utility end and the desire for provenance and philosophy begin?

This will be a very personal assessment, obviously, mitigated by things like exposure and experience, as well as more ordinary concerns (such as status among peers, for instance). But there is also the other intangible property of performance that is characterized often as "signature sound" - the identifying property of the component that lends it some manner of character which seems to stick with it. This is considered to be the outcome or overt manifestation of the designer's philosophy, and thereby the component carries with it - radiates - the presence of its creator.  

The Creator And The Gizmo

A gizmo is a thing that is endowed with spirit and therefore speaks to us. Anything can be a gizmo. Every child knows that a plastic toy speaks to it. A well-used baseball glove can be a gizmo. How does a gizmo get endowed with spirit? Either the maker or user must make the endowment. Usually both the maker and the user share in this endowment. Of course if the user doesn't have the gizmological fire he cannot experience the spirit of the creator gizmologist. Musical instruments are well endowed. Hand-made bamboo flyrods are well endowed. Custom hot-rods and custom motorcycles are well endowed. Wooden sailboats are heavy with endowment. Obviously our favorite audio gizmos are well endowed. Gizmos are the tools of  e c s t a s y.

~ Harvey Rosenberg, from "The Search For Musical Ecstasy" 
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The Story of Ongaku

There is a difference in value perceived among cognoscenti between an Audio Note Ongaku as crafted under the direct supervision of Hiroyasu Kondo himself vs. the latter-day Ongaku as crafted by those who are now running the original Japanese company (Kondo-san passed away while attending the 2006 CES), vs. the UK variant as crafted by the artisans at Audio Note U.K. - a subject rife with controversy in and of itself.

Three integrated amplifiers built to largely the very same specifications, among which the Objectivists might agree are functionally equivalent according to the accepted standards of measurement at this time, and yet which have very different perceived Value by "those in the know" - and for whom the exalted price is within reach (for how else does one register one's opinion as "authentic" without also voting with one's investment?).

Such is the power imbued by Kondo-san in this legendary amplifier that the avoidance of the story of its provenance became critical to the legitimization of the company after his passing!

To wit: Audio Note Japan made this short film to talk about the Ongaku as emblematic of the spirit and philosophy that inhabits their company, and here we can begin to understand how (V)alue is perceived to emanate from the kind of extraordinarily expensive objects which make Objectivists cringe with horror: .

Did you notice the deference and respect that was paid to Hiroyasu Kondo, founder of Audio Note and designer of the original Ongaku?

Me neither! His name was not even mentioned once, despite the fact that he was the visionary and the designer that manifested the Ongaku from his dreams and philosophies into reality. He was the prime-mover, the gizmologist supreme ... and you'd never know his name if all you knew of Audio Note's Ongaku was this video.

Ponder that.

Why?

As a guess I'll fathom that it has to do with the perceived difference between a Kondo-made Ongaku and a "new" Ongaku made by the artisans now operating under the authority of Ashizawa Masaki, the one-time Ongaku "assembler" and now president of the company. Even though the product itself will probably be built to the same exacting standards in place when Kondo-san was alive and supervising the build of this signature amplifier design - some say that the transformers are built even better now - to call attention to that provenance too closely would only create a market for "original" Ongaku amplifiers while undermining the potential market for newly-built ones made under the authority of Masaki-san. In essence, he would have run the risk of devaluing present-day production of this signature design by virtue of overvaluing the vintage instruments.

The High End Audio world seems to mimic the Art World more than it operates like and mimics the more mundane Consumer Electronics industry in that it seems to be a Cult Of Personality. It produces Art-objects that land somewhere between Appliance and Talisman, and invests those products with more than mere "performance" in the ordinary sense - the artist is considered present in the art.

Connoisseurs participating at this exalted level are hardly rubes and hayseeds, yet the Objectivist will dismiss them as idiotic, superstitious simpletons for exchanging ca: $100,000.00 USD for the "privilege" of owning a used (original) version of this exotic bird, and upwards of $120,000.00 USD for the privilege of owning a brand-new one.

As with fine wines, however, it would be unfulfilling (to say the least) to look to the Objectivist for advice on matters important and obvious to the asthete and the connoisseur.

I've used the Audio Note Ongaku as an example for two reasons - first, that I have personally coveted this amplifier since the early 1990's and so I like writing about it, and second because of the interesting circumstances that surround its "iconicity" - namely, that there are at least three "official" versions that an enthusiast might find: an original, a new version from the post-Kondo Audio Note Japan company, and the version being offered by Audio Note UK. In all three cases the perceived (V)alue is high, but there seem to be some interesting distinctions between them and these distinctions are only able to be appreciably parsed by those connoisseurs versed in the meaning behind those distinctions.

In a way, then, the Ongaku is emblematic as an extreme example of a notion that seems to pervade the whole spirit of High End Audio as a Kingdom within which ideals and idealism not only matter, but where they are the very lingua-franca and currency with which one stakes their claim and carries their standard. This "Big-V" Value isn't something that can be judged quantitatively or even qualitatively in any ordinary sense, but rather it seems to be an interesting abstraction that manifests at the junction between science, art, and the mystique borne of the extreme idealism and unreasonable obsessions of a passionate visionary.

How it is that some of these people come to be regarded as sages, oracles, saints, and mystics is a matter of myth-making and these functions seem somehow built into the human psychological apparatus as relating to some kind of collectively-inherited (archetypal) desire or need.

The Power Of Myth

Myths are powerful medicine, at the core of human development since the dawn of time. In 1988, Bill Moyers televised a 6-part special program for PBS where he interviewed Mythology expert Joseph Campbell. Entitled "The Power Of Myth," the program was suggested by a professor of mine at the time - Dr. Olaf Rankis - who was teaching a class on "Interpersonal Communication." I admit that I took it because I thought it was a 'code word' for conversation, and that there were some easy credits involved. Instead, I attended a class that was intensely interesting (and not at all easy) ... as was this program, which Prof. Rankis suggested I watch. .

"...so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive"

Not to be dismissed as trivial or insubstantial, this seems to me to be the very essential and core motivation for all kinds connoisseurship. This may be the territory, or meta-territory, within which a continuum is said to be formed between subject and object, observer and observed - that which Zen masters endeavor to evoke in students (or have them evoke for themselves). Such exquisite experiences cannot be bought with mere money, of course - they are not commodities, and so the experience of the exquisite is extinguished by the simple vulgarity of acquisition (or intention to acquire for acquisition's sake). The Big-V Value thereby evades the gear-worshipper in the same way that Big-L Love evades the sex-addict.

Once one has even a momentary exposure to "the rapture of being alive" - one cannot help but want to seek it again. The same or similar can be said of those kinds of exquisite and inexpressibly beautiful ecstatic/transcendent experiences that are sometimes evoked by music, and so it may become understandable as to why some people might go to extremes and seek the work of those sages and oracles, saints and mystics. More than mere "pleasure principle" - the indelible experience of the ecstatic/transcendent is material to our very human need to search for and find meaning and meaningfulness from Life. Not from "living" - as in the mundane experience of the ordinary world - but from Life, as in the extraordinary experience of consciousness knowing full-well that consciousness itself is a mostly-unlikely outcome of the mechanistic, causal universe we are taught to assume as the basis for all of Reality.

To be an authentic connoisseur in this sense is to understand, therefore, that there is no difference between what you are seeking and what these creators of utterly unreasonable audio "meta-gizmos" were seeking, because they were ultimately making these audio objets d'art for themselves ... as gateways, as talismans, as proxies for the fabled Philosopher's Stone in "Their Search For Musical Ecstasy" - transforming what appear to be ordinary objects (by the measure of mundanity) into Holy Relics of a sort. The Big-V Value will always, therefore, evade the vulgarity of base acquisitiveness.

Everyone has money, to a greater or lesser degree ... that's the irony about money: it's dead-common, even if it's uncommon to have lots of it. The substance itself seems as universally human as body hair.

Is an Audio Note Ongaku "worth" over $100,000.00?

What's a glimpse of Infinity "worth" ?

That is not to suggest that these experiences are available only to the well-heeled connoisseur. Seeking begets finding, even if you don't have 100-large to spend on a flea-watt integrated amplifier from Japan (or the U.K.). If you know what to look for, you can find some astoundingly transformative meta-gizmos without having to sell a kidney (or two) in order to participate. Knowing what to look for helps a lot, but knowing why to look for it - really grokking that - is key. The stuff is secondary ... the sound and the experience are primary. When you've got that, your nose will be finely tuned as you seek out the aromas of authenticity.

Meanwhile, there is a question that begs asking in light of the Ongaku-story related above: What is Authenticity? What is the nature of the endowment that the creator lends his or her creation, and can that be provided by proxy in the right doses?

Will it taste as good if Paul LiebrandtJean Georges VongerichtenDaniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, (et alia) provided the recipe and left the cooking to no-name underlings? Would it cause you undue suffering to know that's typically what these masterful chefs do, anyway?

Can we taste the presence of the master even when they are absent?


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