This has to be one of the most common questions and complaints in the high-end audio world.
It also has to be one of the oddest things about the audio community. I’ve never heard anyone ask why do “supercars cost so much” or why do Swiss watches cost a fortune. Now, of course, lots of people wonder if they are worth the money, but people know they cost that much because they are “supercars.”
Let’s talk about watches for a moment; you can buy a no-name watch that keeps great time for less than $50. You can buy a Seiko that keeps great time and looks really nice for under $100. You can buy a very heavily gold plated Hamilton or such with the same Swiss movement as the $20,000 gold one for around $2,500. Still, if you want a Patek Philippe on your wrist none of those other watches are going to please you. I own one of those gold plated Hamilton watches and even get complimented on it from people with the five figure watches on their wrist. Still, I never have complained that companies make them. There is a market for ultra expensive watches, and that’s why they make them.
People who own Mustangs don’t go around complaining about what a Ferrari costs. I’ve heard them joke about what kind of person buys them, but not that they exist. I drive a Mini Cooper with most of the John Cooper Works package on it. It’s the most fun car I have ever owned. My wife owns the all-electric BMW i3 which is the quickest car they make and in its own way is incredibly fun. BMW also makes an i8 which is a supercar, and I have no problem with that nor do I feel like I have to own one just because it’s faster, more powerful and handles much better than either of my cars.
Audiophiles – of which I am one – are the only group of people that feel so unsatisfied if they can’t have the best. I think there are a few things we should all admit and come to grips with.
- “High-End Audio” has become a luxury industry. Anyone who thinks an audio system that costs over five figures isn’t a luxury purchase is kidding himself. There was a time when HiFi was a middle-class hobby mostly for men but enjoyed by the whole family. Some of them bought kits and built speakers; others bought products from Scott, Fisher and Sherwood. Even then there was what was called the “Carriage Trade.” It was mostly doctors and lawyers, and they bought products like McIntosh and Marantz. Nowadays doctors and lawyers aren’t the really rich and there are a lot more really rich than there used to be. So, now we have moved from just having a “Carriage Trade” but there seems to be a sizable market of “Luxury” audio components for the really rich.
- It’s important to know that you don’t have to spend five figures to have a great sounding stereo. I have in house right now a pair of the Audioengine HD6 ($749/pair) powered speakers. Combine them with an Oppo BDP-105D ($1,299) CD player and a nice pair of interconnects and for under $2,500 you have a killer sounding system. You can add a really cool looking and great sounding Tri-Art Pebbles ($1,295) turntable, a Grado cartridge and one of several reasonably priced phono stages such as the one from Margules ($799) and you would still have a system around $5,000. This comes in $5,000 under a five-figure stereo. It’s not high-end but it’s certainly HiFi.
- You can get way up the high-end ladder for under $25,000 and if you buy demo and slightly used you can do it for well under $20,000; an example would be a pair of DeVore Fidelity O/93s, a Pass Labs integrated, a ClearAudio turntable, the Oppo 105D and a phono preamp and some cables. That’s less than the price of most economy cars. It has been my opinion since my college days that the cost of my car is about what I’m willing to pay for a stereo.
- Don’t fool yourself though; there are products that will move the price up to fifty or sixty thousand that will significantly improve your enjoyment of the music. There are turntables from people like AMG that give you most of what you get from the ultra expensive turntables and there are racks, power conditioners and cables that will actually give you a significantly more satisfying musical experience. I think when you move into the price of a luxury automobile you need to be honest with yourself and admit this is a luxury product, though with neither the car or the stereo have you reached the supercar status. You do realize there are people who own more than one super car and more than one mansion. Is it any surprise that audio companies try to tap into this money as well as ours?
- Last, one of the things I find most confusing in the audiophile world is which products sell. I know you think I mean the really expensive, but that’s not what point number five is about. I’m talking about which products in a company’s line sell. I have a friend who ten years ago was an Audio Note UK dealer. Audio Note sells their products in Levels. The Level One products and the Level Four or Five products amounted to over 90% of his Audio Note sales. Back then when I purchased a pair of Audio Note AN-E speakers, I opted for the least expensive Level Three speaker; I thought it was the sweet spot in the line. I think we miss the point that truly high-end companies have to make statement products. This doesn’t mean that even they think everyone is going to buy it or that it is the sweet spot of their line. Don’t feel like there is nothing worth owning between a companies least expensive and most expensive product.
Back to the original question, “Why is so much of the high-end equipment so extremely expensive?” I’ve covered some of the reasons I think this question is asked and some of the constructive ways to deal with it. Personally, there is another question that bugs me, why are there so many high-end products and who the heck buys them? When I go to shows, and I see so many different products from so many different companies. There are plenty of established companies but there are also so many small companies. Somewhere there must be a lot more audiophiles than I’ve ever dreamed.
Copy editor: Laurence A. Borden
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