Some thoughts about value in high-end audio

Richard Hardesty (former co-owner of high-end retail store Havens & Hardesty, and former equipment review editor for Widescreen Review magazine) recently published Issue #8 of his online audio journal, The Audio Perfectionist, which contained a section on the importance of value in high-end audio. Hardesty commented that he originally wrote the piece for publication in one of the high-end audio mags, but the mag refused to print the article.

I think Hardesty’s comments are worth sharing in somewhat summarized form. I am not going to quote the entire piece, since it is rather long, and if you are interested in reading the full piece I urge you to subscribe to Hardesty’s journal for $35 a year. The main points of the article appear below. I encourage Audiogon members to share their thoughts and/or criticisms.

“Can an $80,000 pair of loudspeakers or a $20,000 pair of speaker cables represent good value? Do hyper-expensive products really perform better? While astronomical price tags have become commonplace in high-end audio, few reviewers have questioned whether these ever-escalating prices can be justified on the basis of actual manufacturing costs or if the highest-priced products offer any real performance benefits when compared to well-engineered components which cost far less.

Instead, it has been generally assumed that those components, which cost more, are built to higher quality standards and sounds better than those components, which cost less. These assumptions are not necessarily true, and they have taken a toll on the high-end audio industry. Infact, retail prices for high-end audio components are often completely unrelated to manufacturing costs and may be used solely as market positioning tools. In the instances where hyper-expensive products actually do provide some audible advantage, the gain is likely to be small and may be achieved at the expense of some other aspect of performance.

When an industry is filled with a variety of products which are artificially priced to position them in the marketplace, that entire industry becomes suspect. Customers get less for their investment in a market where manufacturers are vying for prestige rather than competing to provide value for money.

As is true in most industries, high-end audio manufacturers used to vie for market share by trying to offer more for the money than their competitors. Originally, “more” meant audibly superior performance, but eventually “more” evolved to include better cosmetics or industrial design and/or enhanced prestige. Some manufacturers discovered that, while it was difficult to produce products, which actually sounded better, it was easy to generate lots of attention from magazine reviewers by simply claiming to offer higher performance and attaching a high price tag to new products. Many inexperienced listeners fell into the trap of assuming that a high price was a guarantee of high construction quality and high performance, just as they (often falsely) assume that an expensive car is made better and performs better than a less expensive model.

Because it is entertaining to read about the most esoteric products available, the high-end audio press has emphasized coverage of extremely expensive components and devoted less attention to the high-value, high-end products that most people are actually interested in purchasing. Super expensive audio components have often been subjected to far less scrutiny by the high-end press than these products deserve. Readers have been led to believe – falsely, in my opinion – that affordable audio components can’t really perform at the highest levels and that true state-of-the-art performance is reserved exclusively for the wealthy.

As specialty publications have focused more and more on products that most people simply can’t afford, the high-end audio industry has suffered. Many music lovers have been turned away from our hobby because they felt excluded from a club where components they own or can hope to obtain are subtly denigrated in print, and components with ridiculous price tags are accepted with little skepticism. Many readers of the high-end audio publications have become dissatisfied with components which offer outstanding performance simply because these components sell for only a fraction of the cost of those esoteric products lauded by the magazine equipment reviewers.

While designers will always experiment with components on the fringe of practicality in order to advance the state of the audio art, you don’t necessarily have to participate in their experiments to achieve true, high-end audio performance...I believe it is time to re-examine many of the products at the upper limits of the price spectrum to determine whether they are fairly priced...and whether they present a good value to the consumer in terms of actual performance.

There is an industry benchmark for establishing the fair market value of an audio component – the five-times ratio of parts cost to selling price...A five-times ratio of parts to selling price provides a lean but acceptable profit margin to the manufacturer and the retailer...

An audio component that performs at the highest level is not likely to be cheap. Less consumer demand means lower production numbers and higher costs. Products which are made in very small quantities will have to sell for much more so that the makers, and the dealers, can recoup their costs from a smaller group of buyers...Many high-end audio components are over-priced when judged solely by the cost of manufacturing. When the selling price to parts cost ratio gets to be 10:1 or more, you are surely buying something other than high quality merchandise. That “something” may have value to you...

(At this point, the article goes into an interesting comparison of several sub-woofers made by Paradigm, B&W, Aerial, and Wilson Audio. Hardesty notes that each sub-woofer in his comparison uses drivers ranging from 12” (Aerial and Wilson) to 15” (the Paradigm and B&W), and have built-in amps with nearly identical power. Cabinet construction is also very similar in each case. Prices, however, range from $1500 for the Paradigm to a whopping $10,000 for the Wilson unit.)

I believe that runaway pricing has damaged our industry. Many products are vastly over-priced based on manufacturing costs and few of the over-priced products offer better sound than what can be had for less. Often far less. In the best cases, where a hyper-expensive product actually does offer some audible performance benefit, that benefit is likely to be a small incremental improvement over products that are more reasonably priced.

Many reviewers subtly denigrate the performance of affordable high-end audio components when reviewing hyper-priced components. Reviews often suggest to the reader that extremely expensive components offer dramatically better performance than that available from components at the upper midrange of the price scale. Based on my experience, and I’ve had a lot of it, that is seldom the case...

Value is not a forgotten artifact of the past. There are many audio products available today that are fairly priced based on manufacturing cost, and some of these products provide performance that was unattainable at any price just a few years ago. The very best performance is often provided by components that are affordable by common folk like you and me. If you listen and compare before you ask for prices you may find that you can afford a lot more performance than you expected.”
That's an interesting point that I hadn't considered before, but would absolutely agree with on first blush - if the carrot is unattainable a logical reaction might just be to remain with the status quo rather than focus on an attainable carrot. "If I can't have what I really (think I) want, then I'll just wait" That's probably an accurate reaction often enough probabilistically to crimp the high-end manufacturers' revenue.

It seems like another theme in these thoughts is one that recurs in many things I read, which is how, exactly, does the high-end want to define themselves. Seemingly, the absolute high-end wants to define themselves through constantly bigger, better, more expensive statement products and "state-of-the-art" performance. That's off-putting in many ways - not only the unaffordability component mentioned above, but it stresses excess, eliteness, status, etc., none of which really have much to do with a love of music. I have basically zero audiophile friends, so any discussion of an audio purchase I have to begin by completely downplaying how much you have to spend to get something "nice". I see so many rants about crappy MP3 quality, digital sucks, home theater, etc. etc., all of which defines what the high-end seemingly does not want to be. What is left is $27K CD players (okay, you can scrimp and go with a $6K CD player) and $60K monoblocks played through $80K speakers. It's no wonder the high-end struggles. -Kirk

Then, there is an opportunity here for anyone who wants to start a new audio maganzine that promotes great gear at realistic prices. That gear is out there and many of it (not all) lately seems to me to be Canadian; whether Bryston, Blue Circle, Sim Audio and many others.

Some of these publications already exists online in fledgling form. Maybe we should start an AudiogoN magazine?

Taking the negative view is a losers game.

Can't argue his points about value, as I've found that while the pricier equipment I've acquired over time is ultimately better in most ways than the less expensive items it replaced, principally in the areas of refinement, they certainly aren't anywhere near as much better as the price would imply. While there are some publications which try to ferret out the products which give you the best bang for the buck (Sensible Sound, for one, and Listener, I believe), they are small voices in the wilderness. One problem manufacturers have that's not mentioned in the portions of the article you summarized, though, is that sometimes it takes a high price to get people to think your product is better than others, i.e., to gain credibility. Would a Kharma Exquisite Reference speaker system command the attention and press it gets if it were a $3000 speaker? For that maybe we've ourselves to blame as consumers, for often trusting reviewers and advertizing hype rather than our own ears.
As with most things there is ususally a point of diminshing returns. To some,(those that can afford it with little consequence, purists that are willing to sacrafice other needs/comforts, those with little self esteem who need to make an impression based upon the cost and/or exclusivety, those that let reviewers who may or may not be honest or correct in thier assesments decide for them and/or those that may or may not have more money than brains) the subtle differences are worth the cost despite the loss of inherent value. Sometimes the lessons learned in no holds barred approaches trickles down to more cost effective merchandise and/or raises the bar as to what we can aspire to. Many of us would never realize the joy of music as we have come to expect it if it weren't for the money "wasted" on cosmetics used on our equipoment. Fortunatley for me most speaker manufacturers build with furniture quailty in mind, saving me much effort in coniving (I meant to key "convincing") my wife that these monstrosities are not eye sores. I have heard equipment that sounded better,looked better and was built better than what I purchased, but couldn't justify the expense because (I couldn't afford it at the time and /or couldn't justify the cost to value ratio). Some merchandise is to "MY" senseabilites an out and out rip off. Perhaps to some I'm a Philistine. While he was regularly criticized for it Martin Colloms used to give a numerical score to components under review. These numerical score vis a vis the cost, gave the consumer some understanding of the reviewers value perception. Unfortunately product reliablility and manufacturers/dealers support and subsequent resale value wasn't in the equation. Despite an ocassional prejudice or attempt at greedy manipulation this Forum seems to be able to maintain integrity and become the most helpfull to the music loving consumer to date. To paraphrase "Let the sucker beware".
Before I play devils advocate here I want to say that I agree with what you had to say.

I think that you are right but you are also working off of a few asumptions. We might not want to admit it but we do buy some things because they look good or are prestigous. And again we might not want to admit it but those are important to us. Yes we are being manipulated by marketing and advertising but isnt that part of the enjoyment?

When we were kids wasnt it exciting to get a huge pile of gifts at Christmas. It might not matter if we actually played with them after the big day but the size of the pile was in direct relation to your excitment. Counting the days, going shopping, making out your wish list. Its part of the hype and advertising of the wrapped gifts that you enjoyed. The hype and looks makes owning the equipment more enjoyable.

To use another analogy a Porshe will never give you the bang for the buck as a Trans am but what would you rather drive down the road in? Even if the trans am was faster the prestige of driving a Porshe more then makes up for it.

I can also tell you I think more highly of the equipment I bought brand new over the equipment I bought used even though the quality is the same. Complety psycological? Of course but it is still there and still effects the way I think about what I own.

Another assumtion here is that if two products are of equal quality that the cost of manufacturing is the same when in fact they can be quite different based on the machinery and time and money spent in research and developemnt. Overhead varies quite a bit.

I reiterate that I agree with all that you said I am just trying to be honest about some of the reasons I buy things and some of the reasons I enjoy them.
Perfectimage - I agree with your points regarding the psychology of what drives us to make a purchase, but I think the original post was more emphasizing that the (deliberate) focus on the extremely expensive with the implicit attitude that if it costs more its better de-values everything below it to all of our detriment. Using your Porsche example, I absolutely agree that the Porsche is the higher-status car, so prestige of driving it is higher regardless of performance. However, if you didn't see $90K Porsches driving around all over the place and instead the "high-end" cars were $40K Lexus and the like, the TransAm you have every right to value wouldn't feel so de-valued in your (or anybody else's) eyes. It's the mere availability of the Porsche multiplied by the constant exaltation of the automobile press that makes the TransAm be in the "it's fine if that's all you can afford" category.

What makes Listener a fun magazine to read is that they throw out so many of the inherent ground rules that seem to be in the other magazines. Using this example, they assume that an exotically priced piece of gear is ridiculous and pay no attention to it. You read about a $3K pair of speakers in that magazine and you come away feeling like they'd be really awesome to own. You read about a $3K pair of speakers in Stereophile and you come away feeling like they would be "nice" to own, if that's all you can afford. -Kirk

Perfectimage: There's a name for your philosophy. It is called materialism. And, no, not all of us share your devotion to it.

I find the content on Audio Perfectionist to be hateful and resentful, rather than written in that grand old 'Expose' style.

By and large, you get what you pay for in a capitalistic society, and if a manufacturer puts out a 'clunker' (and all do it sometimes (some more often than others :-), in all industries), then a ensemble of reviewers should expose the over-valued item and let's get on with life and enjoying the music.

But to say "I've more experience than you and I say there does not and cannot exist a megabuck amp/CD player/speaker that that sounds better than one that costs 5 times the cost of parts"?

Sure, we'd all love to have a Porshe. But to say that the high price of Porshes will drive the auto-industry into backruptcy; or is taking unfair advantage of consumers (please, Porshe, take advantage of me... :-); is just entertaining copy that appeals to a certain audience but has no real basis in reality (analog or digital ;-).

Now, the price of CDs! ***THAT*** is a crime against nature and all that is right with the world! :-)
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My only thoughts were that we all get something more out of our products then quality of sound. I agree with the initial post and Im not saying that any of that isnt true. I also wasnt saying that Porshe isnt worth the money or will drive car manufacturers out of business. I love Porshes and even owned one once

And yes it is materialism but to say that doesnt matter just isnt so. If it were so companies like Bose wouldnt do so well or just about any other hi fi comapny. We are all a tool of the marketing machine but there is a reason for that and in the end if it makes you happy why does it even matter? If you think you are impervious from this then you arent being honest with yourself.

To each his own and I wasnt trying to defend any comapny. My only point is that if a purchase makes you happy, for what ever reason, then you got a good value.

It wasnt driven out of bitterness and I have been quite happy with all of my audio purchases even though some of them border obsesiveness.

I was just trying to state that prestige and the want that ads create are all part of the purchase price and bring us to the pieces that we do purchase and also have a profound effect on our happiness with the piece of equipment in general.

Cost of manufacture does not matter. Champagne is made and bottled the same way, whether it is a $8 bottle, or a $200 bottle.

I agree with the Porsche analogy in reverse. Four years at Harvard (or a similar college) will cost $100,000 more than a state university. At only 10% growth that $100K will become $2 Million in 30 years (age 52) and $5.5 Million in 40 years (age 62). If someone could afford a Harvard like college, but skips it, they won't need the higher pay Harvard "might" get them. They'll be wealthy with the money they saved. So is a Harvard type college the good investment they claim it is?? Or is it a waste of money??

Scott, thanks for the heads-up. The only thing i've ever seen or read from Hardesty was the subwoofer review issue from Widescreen. If you're wondering how i stumbled across that one issue, i snagged it from my Dad : )

Sounds like i'd like to join the "Hardesty Fan Club". What's the web address and does he take S & H Green stamps ? Sean
Scott; an interesting thread-- wish I could think of something erudite to add. On a personal level, I've always liked my McCormack amp-- felt even better about it when it became the more "elite" Rev. A. The same thing happened when I had my SF Line 2 pre-amp up-graded to SE "status". Both were bought new. I think it's nice having something a little special both in terms of sound quality and in pride of ownership. Those pieces are somewhat unique. I've given up Porsches and expensive wine etc. for the terrific stereo system I have.

I also like my Levinson front end gear even though I had to buy the pieces used. The "Pride" of my system though is my Vandersteen 5s-- bought new from my long term local dealer, and the most expensive pieces I own. I've worked hard all my life to do this kind of "stuff" while still being a responsible citizen, and if a little materialism has crept in it's OK. I have helped support a lot of people who are in some way associated with my gear, and that's worth something too. I have no need for the really exotic "stuff"-- unless I win the lottery;>). But being at the pinnacle of "eliteness" (effete?) is worth a lot to some. Cheers. Craig
At the heart of our materialist culture is the expectation that another purchase will satisfy our deep seated needs. Not surprisingly the personal satisfaction of a new possession quickly fades and the human need for community and purpose still remains. Thru vehicles such as Audiogon, audiophiles have forged their own community. Our community will die if we concentrate all our energies on statement products which by definition are elitist. If we wish for the audiophile world to grow and have relevance beyond the already converted, then we have to remain open to all comers and drop, not our standards, but our ever present snobbishness. We focus way too much on which $2,000/meter cable sounds better when instead we could help more people by focusing on which $500 speaker offers the best value.
Hi, Sean:

While one of the comments above indicates that not everyone agrees with Hardesty's comments in his journal, I find his bluntness and willingness to attack some of the shibboleths of high-end audio to be refreshing. Too many of the high-end mags and audio reviewers refuse to express a negative opinion, so I congratulate Hardesty for having the courage and honesty to speak his mind.

I am not trying to push Hardesty's online journal, nor act as a shill for his writings, but if you are interested in taking a look at his publication, you can get the first two issues free of charge. Here's the Web address to his journal:

Thanks Scott for pointing this URL out to us. History repeats itself, in the sense that some 40 years ago it was HP and TAS which took up the stand against those "commercialy corrupt" rags now long defunct. I see practically the same vocabulary and familiar reasoning here, compared to those old times and I am tempted to sign up. At the same time, after having subscribed to TAS right from its beginning, I've stopped renewing last month.
By the way Will, the philosophy you touch upon above, seems more Epicurean (hedonistic would be too strong a word) than purely materialistic. But then the one does not exclude the other necessarily.
Since I don't see much of a devil's advocate response, I think I'll give it a try. If the only determinant of price was the 5 to 1 cost to price ratio then I would probably agree with the assessment of the sorry state of hifi world today. However, I believe this is a simplistic view that holds true for some but not all(probably not most) of hifi maufacturers. One variable that is not discussed is R & D. When a new state of the art product is offered on the market, how did it get to market? In a big corporation a decision is made to produce a certain product, the engineers take over and create a product. A cheaper,commonplace product can be produced fairly easily with little R & D and the 5 to 1 cost to price ratio is a pretty accurate estimate of market price. But what about the small "mom and pop" company or the state of the art product. ALOT of TIME(equals money) and research may go into this project. I recently read in the archives of an e-mag(I don't remember which one) an interview with the owner of Sound Applications power conditioner. This guy listened to just about every electronic part in his product. It was obviously a labor of love which consumed hundreds of hours of his time. How do you quantify this R & D expenditure into the eventual price of the product? Speaker companies often listen to many different tweeters,crossover changes,parts changes,etc.,etc.,etc. How do you account for that time and cost? Ultimately I guess what I'm saying is that the hifi market is difficult to assess with a simplistic one size fits all theory. There are lots of dedicated,honest,hard working people out their trying to sell a product they believe in while not trying to rip off the public. Don't get me wrong. There is some obsenely priced gear out there that appears overpriced(IMO), but I don't think we can jump to the conclusion that just because it's priced in the stratosphere that it is a rip off.
I agree with what Hardesty has said to some extent. I think we need to keep in mind what "High-End Audio" is supposed to be all about - getting closer to the musical event. If that is your goal, and you spend what you can afford, and trust your own ears, the actual amount spent is irrelevant.

For example, if an audiophile buys some Tenor amps, Kharma Exquisite speakers, etc. because he 1) had the money to do so, and 2) those pieces sounded best to his ears, then more power to him, and to the companies providing the products. But this guy probably won't buy products that are merely high-priced because of marketing strategy, because he's keeping his aim true to his goal - musical enjoyment.

Also, the "five times parts cost" formula doesn't take into account the price of knowledge, experience, and talent that the designers bring to the table. Should Nelson Pass, John Curl, Roger West, etc. command a higher price for their services than Joe Blow? I think so.

As for me, I'll enjoy the hell out of my modestly priced gear, and drink some $200 Champagne (which does cost more to produce than an $8 bottle, BTW).
That said,just as free speech protects persons who say outrageous things,so capitalism protects the rights of persons to pay 20k for speaker cables that will depriciate quickly.
Yes,a Strad is an excellent value. An hundred years from now,perhaps 4 more persons will have played it 6-8 hours a day for 25 years each and it be will worth more in nominal money that it is today. The cutting edge technologies in today's Porshes and Lexi will be incorporated in the next generations VWs and Toyotas.
It does not bother me that there is audio equipment that I can't afford. Let the coke dealers, trust fund babies, investment bankers, and serious hobbyists buy it to subsidize the r and d that will trickle down to my mid fi stuff in subsequent generations.
I don't feel the least bit deprived with my 3k(used) midfi system that well suits my wants and needs.

For music,
Jayarr and Mvwine make a great points about R&D costs (in different forms). Even if the 5:1 ratio is something consumers would like manufacturers to pursue, let's keep all costs in mind -- including the return to the owners and advertising. But, do costs drive pricing? Should they? No (IMO).

Generally, prices are set to match demand and supply. Demand is based on the aggregate of each person's individual calculus which is absolutely right to that individual. So let's focus on supply. A Stratavarius or '97 Merlot cannot increase in supply -- costs don't matter here. Porche can increase supply -- but the company chooses to maximize profit by limiting supply and reducing demand by asking a higher price -- hmmm, costs don't matter here either. Costs only matter to the manufacturer as a baseline for a setting a minimum price -- I would suggest that no industry prices off of cost exclusively. (Well, some price off of expected costs if a company believes it can be the low cost producer and gain incredible share by pricing low to begin with ... that's not really relevant here though).

My hypothesis is that the audio industry costs of R&D, owner returns and advertising are very high on a "per unit sold" basis. There are so many high end manufacturers that it becomes very tough to get enough business to support a lower price, so even the minimum price (based on unit costs) is high. If prices are absolutely out of line with "quality" (i.e., the buyers perception which encompasses looks, brand, pride, WAF, sound ...), the stuff won't sell for long. There is too much competition for that to happen (since life ain't perfect, there are always exceptions, but...).

Bottom line: Forget the 5:1 ratio as relevant in today's world (IMO). Does the audio industry hype the high end too much -- You bet!!! Are there some great lower cost products -- Yup. The article makes some great points -- I believe I'll subscribe, but it also misleads a bit. We here at the forum are testaments to the value we place on matching the price/performance tradeoffs to meet each person's desires and means (e.g., look at some of the cable threads). Let's keep up the good work and perhaps increase a focus on lower priced equipment so more people find this hobby/obsession more accessible. Thanks sd. Great food for thought.
Interesting reactions to this post so far (and thanks to SDC for posting it). I think a few posters are getting hung up on the 5:1 issue--that's a rule of thumb, not an iron law. It gives you a benchmark. If you pay more than that, you need to ask yourself, What am I paying extra for? The skill of a great designer? Yeah, maybe. But there are lots of great designers who can design much closer to that 5:1 constraint...

But I don't think Hardesty's real target is the manufacturers so much as the high-end audio press which encourages such excess by ranking gear according to price rather than quality/value. Of course, price is easier.
The price basis of high-end audio is not necessarily related to the cost basis. Not do I think it is a supply/demand equation. I think it is a maximizing profit equation. For some lucky few at the pinnacle of high-end audio the aquisition of stuff becomes a money no object proposition (and a very wierd value equation). In this case the supplier needs to price his goods such that he can preempt the market until a newer, better, product becomes available. This, generally, is a very short-term process once competitors realize what the market will bear. Then the resale of what was one the pinnacle of high-end drops precipitously. I think this interesting article was pointing to the crazy price equations of the highest of high-end. Dropping down to the next tier of products becomes much easier to analyze, but then these prices may generate an adder based on the marketing, and availability, of the highest tier. I have failed to find an analogy for this pricing behaviour (preemptive pricing) in any other consumer field, showing how crazy we must be to get involved.

As an aside how can we even get close to reproducing original sound that was recorded. Just look at the recording chain. Anyone seen what a real-world microphone cable look like, compared to our audiophile XLR interconnects ?
Lucy (or Barney): There are lots of reasons why we can't get close to reproducing the original sound (starting with the four walls of your listening room), but microphone cables ain't one of them.

This all reminds me of a story I once heard of a cable company that one day decided to double the price of each of its products--and it's sales went UP. Probably apocryphal--but not implausible!
I'm a consultant. The more I charge the more work I get. The reason I charge more is that I need (want actually) to work less. Is it supply/demand, cost basis, or something else that causes this pricing anamoly ? I'll give you a clue - it's not reviews in the specialty magazines in my case. And, again similar to high-end gear, the flasher the specialty title I use the more work I get. Someone, somewhere, must have done a study of marketing in the 'hi-fi' industry, perhaps as part of an MBA program.
This is a ten thousand years old story. If we don't buy them the price will drop till we are will to pay. The problem is that we are in all different places.
I think one of the central issues here is the fact that the high-end is catering to, and in some cases conning, a very obsessive group of people. (Not that its easy to feel sorry for someone who is willing to spend many thousands of dollars on cables!) Sound quality and 'musicality' are very elusive and subjective things. There are so many variables involved: state of mind, background noise, rooms, combinations of components that are all 'voiced' differently, quality of cables, power, etc. Add to this that the value of 'specs' has (correctly) been dismissed as a meaningful determinant of quality, - and the wolves are loose in the henhouse… er, maybe that's a little strong, but at least it is extremely easy for marketers to seduce people with false or exaggerated claims that are almost impossible to disprove.

I once contacted an esoteric cable manufacturer to see if they could convince me that their cables were worth buying (for their weight in gold). They could not, in fact their reasoning and justification for their prices did not even make sense. Even if their cables do sound good, (do cables make sound?!) what could they possibly do to a cable to make it cost as much as a car, honestly!

And consider active amplification (there are several Audiogon threads about this at the moment). It is a more efficient and logical approach to loudspeaker-amp design, but few manufacturers do it – and why would they? Why start extolling the virtues of active playback to a crowd of people who love-to-love their gear – to have all that tasty stuff up there on the rack or glowing on its throne-like plinth on the floor. Oh, and to play with cables! Moreover it’s all the variables that help to maintain the confusion that leads to compulsive gear swapping and upgrades. Buy a pair of active speakers with perfectly matched amplification and the quest for perfection is over - you can't even try out different speaker cables - because you don't need any. Hmmm...

Back to the old debate: Is gear a means to and end or is it the end itself?

For me? I will accept that it’s a bit of both. Having a system that can bring me musical bliss is a kind of freedom - almost like having the peace of mind in knowing that I can go off on an adventure whenever and wherever I want. Except with music I don’t have to take time off of work or quit my job. It’s like having a window to another world – and the better the system the better the view. So in addition to playing music wonderfully, it’s the POTENTIAL of the system to open up musical worlds to me that is important.

I would really hate to think that the manufacturer of my system was taking me for a fool – that they were determining their prices based on what the market will bear rather than on materials and on time invested in paying good people to research, design, develop, and build, high quality products, plus perhaps a little for advertising - as long as it is discreet, informative, and in good taste.

The kind of people who obsess over the quality of music reproduction (sound reproduction?) to the extent that many audiophiles do, comprise a finite market in a competitive industry. I believe that it will debase the industry if companies are out there peddling products that are priced according to anything other than the factors mentioned above. I have no doubt that some of the more expensive gear out there is not worth a fraction of what it sells for and that the only reason it sells at all is because of questionable ethical standards in the audiophile press. Some companies have to sell their gear for thousands in order to survive – but that doesn’t mean that it represents good value, is solidly engineered, or that it has the priceless touch of a gifted designer. It may just mean that the company has figured out how to exploit the myth that high quality means huge dollars. Let’s face it, how much has tube amplification evolved in the last 20, let alone 50 years? Can manufacturers justify charging enourmous sums just because of how their products are voiced (read: equalized)?

But I guess that’s what Audiogon classifieds are for? - Determining the 'real' value of goods? I must admit that I get a certain satisfaction when I see a pair of $2000/metre cables sell for 300 bucks in an auction (swweeet poetic justice). This doesn't always work however. Sometimes you see excellent products, often made by European companies with no established reputation and little exposure to the US market, but who are trying to make inroads, sell for what must be a huge loss. I’m sure there are many excellent projects that have been started and abandoned because solid new companies can’t compete in an industry where myths and false claims are the norm. This is where it hurts the industry as a whole. Not to mention that just about every time I am forced to listen to music outside my own house it makes my ears bleed.
Boy, oh boy, have you guys started up a tall tree with this one. This is, over all, a pretty difficult issue to debate. Can you realistically expect any industry like ours to exist on the basis of cost plus alone? And I would put forth that the entire argument is moot and based on jealousy or envy anyway. If you know that you can find superior equipment for less, why would you care that more expensive, lower performing items exist? Because you didn't get the trophy value, that's why. As I see it, this whole argument is about the trophy value. I suspect I was reading over and over in each of the posts in this thread that "the stuff I bought sounds better than stuff that's twice the price, but my stuff doesn't get the respect the higher price stuff gets." You shouldn't care, but you do. Matter of fact, most of us do. Ever watch two audiophiles get acquainted with one another. "Yea, yea, so...whatcha'got?" "Well, I have a Levinson front end,..." "Yea, what else...?" I have a Krell amp..." Hmmm,what else...?" "I've got a CAT pre-amp..." "Wow! Yea..." "...and a pair of B&W Nautilus speakers." "Well, pretty nice system you got there." It's like two guys taking a ruler to their trousers. That's a BIG part of the reality of our beloved hobby. Who's got the confidence and self esteem to go to the Stereophile show at the end of the month and say, "Well, I've got an XYZ CD player that I modified myself. Sounds better than the $20K Linn. And a pre-amp I designed and built myself, sounds better than a Jadis... and a pair of ABC monoblocks, better than a pair of Krells... and a pair of Acoustic Mountains, best speaker I ever heard." You see my point. Number one, most of you walk away thinking, "What a loser." Number two, he compared everything he had to trophy stuff you recognized! Every industry like ours; cars, wine, scotch, cigars, stamps, coins, art, you name it, has to have a pecking order, or it doesn't exist. What I think you're really complaining about is not the exorbitant cost of some equipment or some level of performance, but the exorbitant cost of the mystique to be seen as a high level player in the hobby. I've owned some stuff that many people don't recognize and I'll acknowledge that it doesn't feel as good when people say, "What's that?!" instead of, "Oh, you have one of those!!!" To be quite honest, I think our hobby is one of the most reasonable hi-end industries in the world. We demand, and get, a very high level of performance for our dollar. When you consider that paintings are worth millions, watches sell for hundreds of thousands, bottles of wine for tens of thousands, we're doing pretty well in the value category. Let me ask you a question... does one painting from a modern artist sell for $30,000 and another sell for $5000 because the first guy used better, more expensive paint or canvas?! Of course not. Does a Bentley get you there any better or safer than a Lexus? Maybe I should make that one a little tighter. What does a $350,000 Bentley do for you that a $100,000 Mercedes won't? I hope you can see my point. People exist who can and need to spend more to set themselves apart from those of us who cannot. Manufacturers then come around to oblige them. Nobody would make a $15,000 speaker cable if no one would buy it. Since somebody will buy it, people rush out to make it. You can't blame them, nor should you be pissed that you think it isn't worth it. It's worth it to the guy who bought it and that's really all that matters. The one real shame of all of this is that good ideas can't get off the ground because no one will buy something they've never heard of. We are a group that overwhelmingly will not trust ourselves! Many of my customers won't make purchases based on their own auditions. I can sell a name brand without opening the box. A great product that no one has heard of you can audition till the electricity gets cut off and nobody wants it. This is not the fault of the manufacturers, it is a combination of ourselves first and the media in the industry that we beg to abuse us. Let any reviewer in Stereophile say a product is killer and we go out in droves to buy it. I will say they do some irresponsible things in this vein, but who's fault is it really? They didn't take your credit card out of your pocket and make you buy it. WE give them that power by making these purchasing decisions based on their word. I can't tell you how many times I've auditioned a product that clearly outperformed a newly reviewed item only to have the customer take the item in the review. You simply can't blame any manufacturer or any 'lack of value theory' for that. It's clearly our own stupidity. Finally, I'd like to say that listening to music is a very singular and personal experience, and we're all looking for that 'clearer view'. Trust your own ears and you'll be further down the path before you know it.

Thanks for listening.


Here is Lynn Olson's description of the 1980s. Has a familiar ring.

"The Gatekeepers (

From the perspective of an outsider, the Eighties were not the best decade for audio. As CD's wiped out LP's, many high-end consumers gradually forgot what good sound was like, and looked for guidance from the Big Two audio magazines. As these publications grew in circulation and ad revenue, they tightened their grip on the industry, becoming a gatekeeper that told everyone who was "in" and who was "out." In a few years, things reached the point where high-end audio was no longer about sound, but perceived status, with high-profile reviewers passing out awards to the "inner circle" of manufacturers. Dealers had little choice but to go along and get along; customers came in to the store clutching a dog-eared copy of the magazine, and by golly, they wanted that "Component of the Year" right now. At a discount. Especially if the review said it was much better than last month's favorite.

One reason American magazines of the Eighties never compared Western Electric and Golden Age tube equipment to modern high-end was brutally simple: nobody ever paid advertising money for something that was 40 years old ... so it was off the radar screen entirely. Didn't exist. Hey, it's old, how could it be any good? Since Americans were taught by the magazines that old stuff was junk anyway, guess where it ended up? Tokyo.

Big-name equipment reviewers came up with their own bizarre vocabulary for aspects of sound ... words having nothing to do with sound or music, "bleached," "chocolate," "white," and others became part of audiophile jargon. This trained the audiophile to zero in on abstract sound elements, instead of the simple pleasure of listening to music. The magazines eventually came out with their own CD's complete with listening instructions for each track ... truly "Hi-Fi for Dummies," marking the degeneration of High Fidelity into a lifestyle statement.

The reader might think this is a pretty harsh assessment of an entire decade, but seriously, what has endured? Are there any classics from this time? Would you want a 1986 "state of the art" cable? A "statement" 1988 CD player? A 200-lb transistor amplifier chock-full of silicon goodness? I didn't think so. Nothing goes stale faster than yesterday's hype. Nothing exemplifies that better than the magazines themselves; it's a thrill to read Fifties enthusiast magazines, J. Gordon Holt's Stereophile of the early Seventies, or practically any issue of Audio Amateur. But seriously, who wants to read a 1985 issue of Stereophile or Absolute Sound? Anyone?"
Actually, Lucy, I did a marketing study of the high end and general audio industry for a manufacturer's rep firm, as part of an MBA program, 25 years ago. A little out of date now. I made some specific recommendations that were used by some well known manufacturers with some success. But I must confess, I did not anticipate the phenomenon of increasing demand and volume by raising prices to irrationally stratospheric levels.

Consumers buy what they buy because of the good feelings they want to have about themselves. Some, because it makes them feel good that they can afford to spend $3,000 on a cable. Some, because it makes them feel good that they are smart enough to find a $300 integated amp that's as good sonically as a $3,000 amp. Objective performance is irrelevant.
Paul, objective performance is indeed irrelevant. You've brought it down to the basic principle underlying our behaviour, often even here on A. This is so, because it is so difficult to objectivise performance. Measurements fall short, HP's idea of the "absolute sound" falls short. We cannot find benchmarks of performance, which not even all, but at least most of us would agree upon. We fall into different camps, which feud with each other about what is "better ", "truer" " more factual or reasonable", whatever that my be. These kind of feuds, which of course also happen in other fields, are generally a safe indicator for underlying irrationalities. So be it. We are on a playground and so lets enjoy ourself .
Paul, Detlof -- well said. Objective performance measures don't exist and we consumers are highly subjective and passionate. Add to that the fragmented industry, easy entry to production, generally cozy co-existence of producer and reviewer (in part leading to the price/quality quandry discussed), virtually unlimited supply and on and on. Ho Boy! Is there another business like this? No wonder this is so much fun!
With regard to the comments from Jayarr regarding R&D costs, it is borne in upon me that the manufacturers who support the really big, well equipped R&D facilities are among those who offer the most reasonable prices. Paradigm speakers are an excellent example.
While your point is well taken, remember that Canada subsidizes speaker r and d-if only indirectly.
Well, I just burned an hour or so on Hardesty's site. His writing had just the same effect on me as listening to a speaker system with a bright upper midrange and a boost in the midbass: Wow, this is impressive. Followed by: Wait, this isn't accurate.

Hardesty loves to gore others' oxen but clearly has his own golden calves, as well. And woe betide the reviewer who takes on HIS taurines. One minute he's blasting people for relying on measurements and the next he's blasting other people for NOT relying on measurements. On one page he jeers at people who claim they can hear subtle differences from tweeks and on the next page he ridicules people who CANNOT hear them.

Just an opinionated old man, I think. Your prelate, being himself an opinionated old man, recognizes the species.

Mario, what you say has much truth to it, but a truth which holds good mainly in an extravert society. Where I live, rather the contrary is true. People will hide their wealth, rather drive a Lexus or Merc, when they easily could afford a Rolls or two and will tend to downplay the costs of their stereos, because they are afraid to rouse jealousy or the taxman. People bitten by the audiophile bug here will not buy the most expensive out of principle. It is thought "German", i.e. brash and in bad taste. They will rather painstakingly hunt for the best performance for the least of Swiss francs, those thrifty gnomes of Zurich. Just goes to show how different we all are. (Me, I'm only a naturalised gnome, so different again (-: )
And Clueless, nice to see you back! I must confess I read TAS of the eighties, but only on the loo, (WC for polite Brits), that's where I store them.(TAS not the Brits) Cheers,
Stunning post, Clueless!!!

Wow, that is probably the most cogent thing I can say. Yes, the 80's were just as described. The hobby eventually turned its tastes to reflect that of the critic; someone who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.

I guess this is the compartment I put the likes of Jonathan Scull.

Music took a back seat to gear, when it is music we are(or should be) after. I never feel anything but turned off by those who always need to tell me about their 500 watt amplifiers, 10 driver speakers, or $2500 interconnects.

I much more admire the people such as you describe in Tokyo. Or, my uncle, who has his Williamson circuit amplifier he built so long ago. He sees no need to "upgrade", as he feels the sound is wonderful. That's a lot of years to feel that way, and speaks to me volumes.

I need to throw in that the while the 80's are the focus of what you present, things started down the road to ruin before that. I think that the thing I always come back to, is that so many people(my father included), came to the conclusion that solid state gear sounds better. Because it measured better, it was "proven". The three most important factors in the way a piece "sounded" were cosmetics, the spec sheet, and marketing. People began to listen with their eyes and minds, rather than their ears.

Good sound is good sound. I finally realized this when I read Laura Dearborn's "Good Sound", around 1990. That a 30 year old Marantz amp could sound better than a Carver megawatt amp. I began to listen, rather than approach the hobby with preconceived notions. To feel, to experience, not to be a prisoner of so - called truths.

Value is to me, a component that offers the possibility of a long term relationship. It may be a component that one has to stretch or save for. And, it is proven over time. If I cannot love a component, I cannot buy it.
Indeed, as Clue(full) descrbed & Trelja further illustrates. EXCEPT for techological advances in components that make life easier for designers. Speakers, for example, some amps... but also, the means that some manufacturers have that others do not: imagine Siemens backing the manufacture of the "ultimate" amp... cheap R&D for them. Worse, what Mercedes offers in palpable terms for $100k *could* be more than what Bentley offers for 350k -- minus the exclusiveness, of course!
Will: I suspect that if you spent an hour reading any audio writer's work you'd get whiplash from all the internal contradictions (with the exception of a few objectivist types who know exactly what they think at all times). What's available for free on Hardesty's site is dominated by his criticism of other audio journalism, and he tends to come off as a misanthrope, disagreeing with everyone about everything (not that audio journalism doesn't deserve it). But his Journal, most issues of which you have to pay for, is generally a thoughtful look at important audio topics, including great primers on room tuning and interpreting speaker measurements. He can sound like a shill for his favorite manufacturers (Dunlavy, Theil, Vandersteen), and needless to say I don't share all of his subjectivist tendencies, But I'd argue that a newbie could learn a lot more from the Audio Perfectionist than he could from TAS or S-pile.
Agreed, Bomarc. I read his first two editions (the freebies) and they were better than his polemics. I'd love to hear him debate John Meyer (the Newform guy) on speaker placement. Two such colossal egos with such different viewpoints would make an interesting match.

Wonder what kind of Xmas presents he gets from Richard Vandersteen, John Dunlavy, and James Thiel? Methinks I hear the same old suckup story....
I thought I might add something. I emailed Roger Russell
(MCintosh), about some of the things he has written. I myself can't tell the difference between the hype, that is out there. He has been with MCintosh for 40+ years. I asked him about what he wrote, to do with these the differences in
amplifiers, etc. I am not going to say either, that there are differences, or aren't, because I really don't know, however, How could I, when there are Two completely different opinions about, just about everything to do with sound, and yes, sound quality.
When someone one says that it either does, or doesn't, then already I question that. I do not know where the line exists
but I do feel that it does. blind listening tests, I know
might bother some, and I myself love Aragon amps, and I feel strongly about them.
He said, in his last email, that people buy for pride of ownership, and personal prestige. Surely, as you have already guessed, I don't have a lot of money, But I do like what I have, only because I do not have a choice to keep moving up, so it isn't really a virtue, just like what I have.
Of course, He wasn't talking about any component, but ones that meet a certain criteria. I read, and read alot of different articles about el transformers, as opposed to the torroidal, and everything you could imagine. I still don't know about cables, and I know to some this sounds dumb, but I have read a lot of contrary, and conflicting views.
It makes me think to myself, "WOW", this is reeeally very interesting. So, I am not saying either, just why? If you say it is, then I will try it, and why not, because I am open to that. I just wonder why do engineers, and certain qualified people make such claims, that are so strong.
Please, don't answer this, because I have already heard it all. OK? Please?
High end audio can be considered a luxury item. For some, it would be a $30,000 yacht - because that is their passion. For us, it's stereo equipment. So we get into a luxury item which we are passionate about.
Because the mag's base their hearing on how the sound comes across to them (of course advertising $$ would not affect their perceptions) these perceptions can be easily adjusted. Small differences can be described as big differences. Feelings can be interpreted as sonic differences. Where is the control to keep reviews and perceptions from getting too out of control?? Aren't any. Result is where we are at now.
People buy on emotion. Get people emotional and maybe they'll buy it. And it's too easy to manipulate something as undefinable as sound. Features? Well that's easier to understand.
I agree with the above post. CD's are the worst rip-off. They hurt everyone not just the off-the-deep-end audiophile. That's just plain wrong.
Greggie is right: Because *nobody* really knows the *whole* truth, one should be wary of strongly expressed viewpoints (in any discipline). Shouting is usually just an attempt to coverup lack of perspective on the part of the shouter and distract the listener from thinking about what is being said.

If a mega-buck component sounds GREAT! or OVER-PRICED! ...fine. Compared to what? What else has the reviewer heard that is similar. What are the tradeoffs (pluses and minuses) of using the component (there are always tradeoffs, even with the mega-buck stuff). HP is good at this. Valin is improving. There are just so many magazines/reviewers/people that just say 'it is GREAT!' or 'it is OVER-PRICED'. What a waste of ink and bits.
You can buy a pretty nice appliance for $400. A really nice Neptune washer for $1,000 (?). A huge 3 ft x 6 ft TV at Tweeters Etc. for $2,000. A leather couch for $1,500.
What does $400 get in audio? A VERY entry level floorstanding speaker. Just one component in a Stereophile "D" stereo system.

I love Nautilus signature 801's (I don't own them) but tell me how 4 drivers and a cabinet equal the engineering technology put into a $15,000 Toyota Corolla.

Look inside a power amp. A couple of circuit boards and a torroidial whatever. That's worth $4,000? How can it be worth $3,650 more than a Cambridge Audio integrated? You don't think Mike Creek put in long hours designing the Cambridge Audio gear?

And the bigger problem, does spending more money buy satisfaction? Or peace of mind? It didn't for my buddy, an ex-audiophile. Got so fed up he ripped his whole stereo out of his living room. He was showing me the marks on the walls that are still there (I didn't ask how they got there).

Instead this hobby can just eat away at you. Sound is so hard to define, prices so outrageous. You can keep buying and buying trying to find satisfaction, a good stopping point, or value: what you paid = what it's "worth".
I like how my system sounds but I can't justify the price. It just doesn't seem like it should have cost as much as it did.
I needed to rant, Thanks for reading.
I just read all of these again, and it is good to read these again. It isn't what I learn, so much, as it is what I end up unlearning, that teaches me the most.
I am always undoing something I have done. I bought a Classe integrated amp, and it *was* reviewd by S'phile. I, at first did notice a difference, yet as I look back, I feel I like it better, but what I had was also very good sounding. Emotions just may play a part in my thinking more than I might care to admit. I had an Accuphase tuner, that sounded quite good, but preferentially, I know that I prefer digital over analog, after owning this particular tuner for a while. I thought I would like it because of it's reputation, but just couldn't, no matter how hard I tried. The result of all this has caused me to become bored with all the stuff I now have. I was supposed to just enjoy the music more.
There are some very good threads here. I really got a lot out of what I have read here. Thanks for all the input.
My other hobby is flying airplanes, but I don't read Flying magazine any more. Their flight test reviews are usually about Biz jets selling for about ten million dollars. I can't get interested in that.
Fun doesn't have to cost a lot of money
I just picked up the Panasonic PM03 which is pictured at the top of the page. Gonna take it apart, maybe a new DAC and a Noble motorized volume pot.
Office Max GPX S7095SIL has a really cool 2 piece CDP / power amp mini that sits on acrylic shelves. If the page does not display enter "GPX S7095SIL" into search field.
What some people find interesting huh?
Nice link link even in an old thread.
I believe the high-end gear is overpriced. However, I say that as a personal opinion and in terms of what I need. My set-up would cost $1,800 - $2,000 new. I am aware that if I wanted to spend more I would get more enjoyment. I have listened to hundreds of amps and speakers. I believe my system gets me 90-95% of what a system that costs thousands, maybe tens of thousands, would provide. I am happy with this and I don't feel compelled to spend more. That being said, I can appreciate those who want to do so. I acknowledge that many of the leading edge technologies that cost high dollars now will eventually find their way into more modest systems. That will eventually be of benefit to this "budget buyer."
Ya know, reading this thread, i am really taken back to the movie "FIGHT CLUB"

Anyone see that?

It expresses some interesting views on luxury items.

Of course some of this stuff is over priced. Why the hell wouldnt it be?
Go to EXPO, take a look at the 600.00 Blender, and tell me that High End audio is anything but normal?

There are plenty of good products out there, and for every reasonably priced product there is an outrageously priced product that does the same thing just costs 10 times more.

I have a $400.00 Starbucks Expresso machine. Does it work better than 100.00 machine? Does it have better quality parts? Probably not. My parents got a new one and gave me that one, it was a hand-me-down
Do i LIKE the idea of having a coffee machine that costs more than my current rig cost me?
Well.. Kind of.. yes.... So what?

Sometimes it is nice to have real nice things, things that people look at and say WOW! That is Awesome!
Maybe that makes us feel better about slaving away 40+hours a week. Makes us feel like we are really accomplishing something.

The point is, you can spend 39 bucks for a kitchen faucet, or 400. You can spend a buck for a cup of joe at 7-11, or 6 bucks for a Vente Double Carmal Mochachino at Starbucks.

Everybody is a little bit materialistic, everyone would like the best and greatest, if any of you disagree with me, look at the brand of your clothing, the cost and size of your house, the type of coffee you preffer, the type of car you drive, and then once again tell me yer not materialistic.

It is ok! It is OK to be materialistic. It is human nature, if humans were never concerned with status and "the latest and greatest" there would never be any advancement. That desire to have the best is one of the things that strives humans to create, develop, and dream. Sure, it can be taken to an extreme level, but most people do not.

It is ok to want the latest and greatest. Just dont let that blindside your from the point of the hobby. The music.

Anyone suprised that there are speakers that cost 100K and up, really needs to look at every other market out there. This is nothing specific to High End Audio, it is what WE notice because it is OUR hobby.