The word ‘braggadocio’ has recently achieved some currency.That renowned wordsmith Donald Trump started the ball rolling when he said: ‘I wrote the art of the deal. I say not in a braggadocious way.’ Although it hadn’t appeared in a properly formed sentence, the word ‘braggadocious’ immediately attracted attention. ‘Braggadocious’ really is a word, though it isn’t common enough to be included in many dictionaries. But many felt that it was too recherché a word, and that it had too many syllables, for Trump not to have made it up. Whatever the case, his use of ‘braggadocious’ brought the less recherché ‘braggadocio’ into vogue. Braggadocio rap music, for example, is now a thing. And the other day I heard the term ‘braggadocio car’ used in connection with those visually aggressive supercars that the wealthy possess not so much to drive, but as status symbols. I therefore started to think about whether there might be braggadocio hi-fi.
There is. This is not so surprising. But what did surprise me, after extensive online research lasting minutes, was that the two outstanding examples of braggadocio hi-fi I had found both came from Germany’s Clearaudio, which I hadn’t thought of as a manufacturer of wide-boy bling. One is a cartridge, the other is a turntable, and each has ‘statement’ as part of its name. The cartridge is the Goldfinger Statement. There are gold windings inside the cartridge, which is fair enough, I guess, but the cartridge body is also 24-karat gold. And there is a diamond on the front of the cartridge. Clearaudio will no doubt claim that taken together with the James-Bond reference in the name, this bling is just a bit of fun – a joke. But the joke, such as it is, struggles to be funny at any level. Except one. For with a retail price of around 24 grand, Clearaudio and their distributors are laughing all the way to the bank.
They must be laughing even louder on account of the Statement Turntable, which costs a quarter of a million bucks. Looking at images of the Statement, it’s difficult to recognise it as a turntable at all; it’s more like a piece of fancy gym equipment, with a large part of its 350-pound mass consisting of barbell-style weights dangling beneath the lower of its two platters, the one that goes in the opposite direction to the other one. There are what seem to be some attempts to justify the Statement’s cost in the accompanying description. There is,for example, a gnomic reference to the use of a material called ‘panzerholz’. I wondered whether this name, which inevitably makes one think of Blitzkrieg, was another joke, but after a few more minutes of exhaustive internet research, it turned out that it’s a wood so hard that it might be used for tanks and armoured cars.
Naturally, having bullet-proof wood doesn’t go anywhere near justifying the expense of the turntable. But here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s supposed to. In fact, in a scales-falling-from-my-eyes moment, I realised that the outrageous cost of these and similar items is their main selling point.
It saddens me that a standard bearer of the vinyl revival has chosen this path. One’s first impression is an overwhelming sense of bad taste, of course. But Clearaudio have also failed to realise that with these products they are not only undermining themselves and their reputation, but also demoralising their customers. What, for instance, is an owner of one of their mid-range turntables to think? Having an upgrade path is no bad thing, of course, because a hi-fi enthusiast is inevitably on a journey. But what is the nature of the so-called ‘statement’ items? Are they better than the other products in the range, or not? Are they worth it, or not? If they are, then given their out-of-reach position, the rest of the range is compromised, and the owners of these lesser products will be perpetually yearning, Tantalus style, for what they cannot have and will never enjoy. But if the statement products are not worth it, then there is no acceptable reason for making them.
There is also something else about statement products, something deeper, something that profoundly disturbs me: I believe such products undermine hi-fi itself as we enthusiasts know it and experience it. The philosopher Jacques Derrida argued that our worldviews and our experiences are the results of processes of construction related to how we think, and he suggested that thinking itself involves forming dualisms or binary opposites. Prominent examples of these dualisms are reason-emotion, truth-fiction, and human-animal. In forming these binary opposites, Derrida suggested, we valorise one term or one side of the equation, and we devalue the other.
So how do we define hi-fi, what do we value in the process, and what do we relegate or exclude in the same process? Hi-fi is a pastime, a hobby, and, as mentioned, a journey. DIY-style experimentation is an important part of all this, especially for vinyl users. We all like to try different arm-cartridge combinations, for example. But statement products, with their rhetoric of being ‘ultimate’, put an end to experimentation, and are inconsistent with the idea of a journey or a voyage of exploration. They want us to believe that it’s the destination, not the journey, that’s the thing. And at the very same time they effectively put the destination out of reach.
Statement products subvert the defining conventions and expectations of the hi-fi genre. In the 1980s the British Minimalism movement advocated what we may regard as a black-box approach, according to which any ‘bells and whistles’ on hi-fi equipment attracted ridicule and scorn. We can now see that British Minimalism was aggressively parochial insofar as it sought to bully you into buying a locally designed Linn-Naim system. But its black-box philosophy still rings true because it’s an expression of a much longer standing, indeed defining, way of thinking about hi-fi. This is the proposition that performance should be assigned an absolute priority over looks or status-engendering qualities. In other words, statement products are not what hi-fi is about; they are the antithesis of genuine hi-fi. In Derridean terms, they are an antithetical ‘other’ – something you construct in opposition to yourself.
It’s therefore nice that hi-fi companies who position themselves on the other side of the equation from the makers of ‘statement’ items do exist. Typically, such companies begin as DIY or semi-DIY outfits whose products pertain mainly to vinyl. New Zealand’s Design Build Listen, makers of high-performance but relatively inexpensive tonearms, will already be familiar to readers. I also recently discovered Canada’s Audio Musikraft. I was browsing eBay for a step-up device suitable for my Ortofon Cadenza Bronze moving-coil cartridge. A second-hand Denon transformer seemed a likely candidate, but the word ‘Denon’ brought up Audio Musikraft, who make body upgrades for Denon 103 and 103R moving-coil cartridges.
These Denon cartridges have a trademark dynamic presentation, and they are ridiculously affordable. But like most of the Decca London range of cartridges, they have a flimsy plastic body that deleteriously affects their performance. In order to rectify this problem, various cottage-industry companies produce aftermarket bodies for Denons and Deccas. Musikraft are, however, unique in allowing their rigid metal body shells for the Denons to be ‘tuned’ by tightening tiny grub screws, and by inserting spacers made of different woods.
Although the Denon has a notoriously long burn-in period, after about fifty hours of use my Musikraft 103R mounted on a Wand tonearm from Design Build Listen already sounds very impressive. Preliminary A-B comparisons have revealed that it’s even comparable to the Cadenza Bronze. The Denon and the Bronze have different characteristics, of course, but if I had to choose, I could happily live with either. This is remarkable considering a Musikraft Denon 103R installed in its metal body will set you back around a thousand bucks, which is a third of the cost of the Bronze.
Design Build Listen and Audio Musikraft are, then, the antithesis of statement-producing companies. It might even be necessary that statement products exist so that a contrast such as this is evident. But I also wonder whether having non-statement equipment is itself a kind of status symbol, and I suspect that my non-statement items might function as status symbols for me precisely because they’re not trying desperately to be status symbols. So I ask myself whether there are good and bad status symbols. Or is good status (and good taste) always one’s own as opposed to someone else’s – a construction involving the creation of an antithetical ‘other’? I’ve just realised that I’m in a room of mirrors and there’s no way out. Damn you, Derrida!
Dr Walter Kudrycz