Is it Audio, or is it Art?

A casual survey of the latest batch of high end electronics and speakers leads me to an interesting observation. The trend is towards exotic physical shapes which go far beyond any legitimate technical necessity. Taking power amplifiers as an example, electronic “guts” worth about $2000 can be near SOTA. You could put the circuitry in a plain metal box and it would sound the same. But no…we see beautifully sculptured enclosures, and price tags in the multi-kilobuck range. In the case of loudspeakers the number of 6 inch drivers, exhibited without a grill, seems to be a selling point, like the number of cup holders in autos a few years back.

I used to get mad about the prices charged for high end power amps, but not now since I have tumbled to the fact that these items are works of art as much as they are practical sound systems. Are they not proudly displayed on open racks? When you think of, for example, a pair of Chord monoblocks for $75,000, as electronic gear it is completely absurd, but when viewed as a piece of artwork (sculpture) 75 grand is unexceptional. And it plays music too!
Consumer electronics have a long history of decorative art. Consider radios from the 30s and 40s, early telephones, and to some extent televisions from the 50s and early 60s.

There is some stunningly good looking stereo gear being built these days. VAC Phi amps. Shanling CD players and amps. MBL loudspeakers are works of art.

Whether the price of these pieces warrants a price premium is open to debate, but some additional value is achieved in visually pleasing, or interesting design.
Gold, silver, fantastic shapes, exotic veneers and monolithic designs are all intended to flaunt the high cost and high quality of the underlying audio component.

They almost never add anything to the audio quality....but they do look nice and make their owners proud. I think they can improve the enjoyment too....just like a nicely served meal in a classy setting.
a pair of Chord monoblocks for $75,000, as electronic gear it is completely absurd, but when viewed as a piece of artwork (sculpture) 75 grand is unexceptional
Must be an established and exceptional artist to sell that high, dont you think?

Overall it looks more like industrial design to me than sculpture -- but all the same, aesthetics do play a big role and many components are very attractive. Picture the giga$ tube amps or TTs for example...
I think this is a very valid point. There are SOME instances where form follows function, ans there is a visual statement, but this is usually in the domain of big speakers. I was discussing the similarities of the a lot of the high end audio stuff with high end watches (horology?) with a co-worker. It seems that both pursuits share an obsession with complication, in that you are pursuing novel ways of re-soving a problem that has already been solved, in one case time keeping, in the other passing an audio signal as free of measurable distortions as possible. My co-worker pointed out one big difference - the watch often increases in value over time, whereas as high end gear is just consumer electronics at the end of the day, and is usually significantly depreciated the moment you unbox it.
Musical reproduction is an art form so why not the gear too? Isn't that the very reason we pay so much money for this stuff? Isn't the difference between Yamaha and Burmester essentially art? I think it is clear that we appreciate our music as visual and aural art together.
Good looks don't always translate to good sound, but if it wasn't designed to look good, then it probably wasn't designed to sound good either.
Gregm...Agree that the example I used, Chord, does look like something out of a steam engine factory, but that "goes with" high end turntables. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

My point is that the artistic aspect of high end equipment is separate and distinct from its sound reproduction function, and art is what commands the high prices. Have you priced any artwork lately.
Better quality items always come in better packaging. A Sieko Flightdeck watch is a lot better looking than a cheap casio digital. A ford Mustang comes in a much nicer package than a Festiva. Godiva ice cream comes in a better package than Blue Bunny ice cream.

It's like that in EVERY industry, only in audio do people whine about the package. Perceived value has a lot to do with the price a retailer can get for an item. I would rather have my amp in nice solid cabinet than in a flimsy piece of tin.
It's audio -- at best. IMO, except for speakers, it works hard to be anything less than ugly. It's all just metal in boxes. I have nice gear (like a Cary SLP-05, Rowland monos, etc) but it's all ugly as hell compared to the custom woodworked Japanese-style box that sits over the whole system. Inside the furniture cabinet, the gear is on a Monaco Modular rack. Very nice looking -- for an audio rack. But it's still a hunk of steel, acrylic and carbon. It can't compare to the handcrafted piece of furniture it sits inside, the primary function of which is to aesthetically pleasing.

So it's all relative. Compared to an ugly metal box, a pretty metal box is artful. Compared to a piece of art, it's still just a pretty metal box.

As for the watch/stereo comparison, I think you have it wrong on a number of counts.

The watch often increases in value? Often? No. Rarely. Great watches retain their value better than others, but they don't go up in value unless a surprising confluence of events occurs.

Consumer electronics go down in value? Yep. We've long since figured out how to keep good time, but we're still figuring out how to make good sound.

Watches go up in price the more complications there are. A credible "minute repeater" does a lot more than tell time, and it can set you back well into six figures. The more an audio piece goes up in price, the less it does.

Fine automatic watches are using technology that will be fixable in 100 years. Similar watches (automatic/gear based) that are 100 years old are A fine piece of stereo componentry will be difficult to repair in 25 years.

If you like staring at your stereo, more power to you, but don't delude yourself into believing that it's a work of art.

My (cynical) two cents.

The watch example is perfect. A $24 Timex keeps time within a few seconds per year. If keeping time is what you want, spending more than $24 is foolish. Of course there are beautiful watches that cost a lot more, but they are not about telling time. People buy them for other reasons.
Eldartford, you're response assumes someone using a watch actually needs to know the time accurately to within a few seconds per year. If you drop this proconception, then other factors can have validity in the type of watch you use.
manufacturers have a nickname for the most expensive products....MARGINALIA....the most expensive digital front ends are all first cousins to that walkman in a blisterpack.
Onhwy61....True...I myself don't wear any watch at all except when I go out of town on a trip. (But when I do it's a Timex). Don't get me wrong: it's perfectly OK by me if people want to wear a beautiful braclet rather than a timepiece. So too in audio some people want to exhibit beautiful audio equipment on racks which suggest a museum display, while others hide their utilitarian butt kicking circuitry in the cellar.

All I am trying to do is to understand how some high end audio equipment can find buyers at the prices asked. The price structure for artwork is quite different from electronic gizmos, and I believe gives this explanation.

In the automobile business there was a time when high end buyers would purchase a bare chassis and then hire any of many body specialists to craft a body to his particular styling taste. Perhaps this will happen with audio. You buy the circuits, and hire an artist to create an enclosure for them.
You buy the circuits, and hire an artist to create an enclosure for them.
We'd get some beautiful components that way! Far beyond my means -- but I could always ogle at the pictures:)

Actually some people do get spkrs designed to order -- but the few I've seen have nothing spectacular about their cabinetry
Onhwy61, the list of ugly gear that produces some of the finest sound obtainable is long indeed. Looks and sound have nothing to do with each other.

I agree that a well engineered piece in a plain jane wrapper hits closer to home to me than the converse. Sadly, as has been pointed out, this hobby has become about status and spending more than the next guy in far too many cases. Faceplates as thick as a floor safe, blue LEDs, book matched veneers, and perfectly executed lacquer finishes provide as much pleasure and price of ownership as one that provides stellar sound. Sometimes, even more.

And, for the record, my wife wears a Rolex, and my daughter a Timex. The Timex seems to keep perfect time. The Rolex has been sent back twice in 5 years because it does so poorly at keeping time.
Trelja, I don't agree that this hobby has "become about status and spending....". I think there was always a % that bought based on what status it appeared to give them. In my youth I remember seeing/hearing systems comprised of JBL Hartsfield,Paragon, or Olympus speakers with a full rack of McIntosh or Marantz components. You could buy a house for what some people paid for their systems. Same today. The balance may shift a little from decade to decade but will always be with us.
Small volume boutique producers of luxury goods try to make their own market niche working heavily to achieve a distinct coloration of sonic soundprint - to rationalise investment within the domain of audio- and an individual visual statement to distinct the product from the ones of other producers and to rationalise the ivestment within the domain of 'proud of ownership'. This leads to art like visual statements - or such a funny things like the glowing feets of trivistas, and so on. There is product for each of us to help to feel that we spent our money well.
Why can't it be both audio and art? To behold something which one finds beautiful while listening to beautiful sound is very natural. If you can afford both, why not? "Either/or" questions in the contexts of discretionary spending and the appreciation of art are overly simplistic, methinks.
Triode...Perhaps the title suggests an either/or situation, but it should be clear from my comments that I am not suggesting this. Rather, I am suggesting that many high end purchases are predominantly art aquisitions. For example, with $75,000 power amplifiers, I would estimate that $10,000 is for audio, and $65,000 for art. (We could quibble about the numbers, but you get my point).
I am shocked at how many people here miss the point! I was hoping it would be otherwise but I guess not.
If you want to see beautiful equipment go to Luxman's (Japanese but you can look at the pictures) site. Only Accuphase comes close. I like good sounding and good looking equipment. I miss the prominent heatsinks popular until the mid 90's or so. I like the look of late 70's gear especially. The point was that you did not have to hide your stuff because it clashed with the decor.
I own a 2004 Luxman L-505f int amp that I use as a preamp and it is a very good looking int amp!! I'll try and set up a pic of it in the system pics area.

i think the art is "art" of reproduction.

i think the appearance of a component is partly a marketing effort and partly functional, especially with respect to speakers.

if a designer thinks that thick aluminum face plates with toggle switches and a plexiglass cover will increase the probability of a sale there is a good chance that the component will look like that.

is there a relationship between sound and appearance. for speakers, i would say so, for other compoents, especially amps with heat sinks, to a lesser extent.

i wonder if a manufacturer would admit to deliberately selecting materials, not to enhance the sound but to make it more attractive cosmetically and more likelty to sell

it is also possible that a manufacturer may deliberately attempt to have a component as a work of art in case people don't like the sound. people can always donate an expensive neat looking component to the museum of modern art instead of selling it.