Judge, Jury, and Executioner

It’s interesting lately that there are a number of people in the hifi industry complaining about what things cost. My experience has always been that those that can’t afford to play usually make a bigger noise by trying to discredit things out of their reach. For some odd reason, this seems to take place more in the hifi industry than any other place.

No one loses their shit over a $500,000 watch, a luxury yacht, or a condo in Monaco. It is what it is, and it costs what it costs. Some people have always wondered why I compare audio equipment to automobiles. There are a number of reasons, but a parallel that I hope makes sense is the price of obsession with details. To a lesser extent, an obsession by some with measured specs.

Just as measurements will tell me how quickly a car will stop from 100 mph to zero, they won’t tell me how the brakes will feel. Do they bite hard initially and then let up? Will pedal pressure applied to braking effort exerted be linear? Will they fade after three hard stops or not at all? At that point, I either need to read comments from a few reviewers I know that have drawn the same conclusions I have, and then take a test drive to verify.

I’m not saying measurements don’t matter, they just don’t tell the whole story, and for the most part, they don’t tell me what I need to know to make a purchase decision. Not with hifi, cars, or a number of other things I enjoy. Measurements for me, are just additional data points. Nothing wrong with that.

I think high performance audio by nature, is an obsessive pursuit, and getting past a certain point of diminishing returns costs exponentially more, because it has an exponentially higher cost to get there. Honda can make reliable 250 hp engines all day long for minimal cost because there is a scale of engineering and manufacturing that makes sense. Getting 8 more horsepower out of Max Verstappen’s 950 hp F1 engine for the next GP might cost millions of dollars – for basically two engines. (His and his teammate’s) Is that worth it?

To the person who an automobile is nothing more than “something to get between point a and point b,” probably not. To the people trying to win a Formula 1 Constructor’s Championship, every one of those 8 horsepower is priceless.

We can even take something as benign as a chair. You can buy a reasonably good knockoff of a $9,000 Knoll Barcelona chair, for about a grand. Can you tell the difference? Can your friends? Will you tell them you bought the less expensive chair if everyone’s together at a party complimenting your good taste? 20 feet apart, it’s tough to tell, but when you get up close, the differences are fairly easy to spot. But again, is it worth the difference to you? Are you a bad Smurf for buying the knockoff if you appreciate the style but just don’t have the dough? No shame in that, nearly all of us have to make compromises in our life, no matter what our income.

And so it goes for high end audio. Do we need beautiful speakers like the top Estelons, Wilsons, Magicos, Sonus fabers, etc, etc, etc.? (And I’m not singling these speakers out for any other reason than they are some of the finest speakers on today’s market that offer an extremely high level of execution)

A number of people have sniped about the $850,000 Wilsons and “why they cost so much money.” Years ago, I had a pair of $179,000 Gamut S9s. They were lovely. Then Gamut principal Lars Goller told me that for the 20 pairs of S9s they would probably sell, they would never recover the amount of time and resources committed to the S9 project. I also used to own a pair of MartinLogan CLX speakers, and again the folks at ML told me that they made over 30 prototypes (that all ended up in the dumpster) before they finalized the CLX, and probably spent as much engineering time on the shipping cartons as they did the speakers. (Anyone who had a pair of ML’s past flagship knows why this is so.)

So the major questions remain? Is this stuff worth it? Is a reviewer – any reviewer really qualified to make that call? It always takes a minute to criticize what’s cost millions of dollars and thousands of hours to build. Just because I can’t afford something, doesn’t make it invalid.

In nearly 20 years of reviewing gear, and over twice that buying the stuff, we’ve found a groove here that pretty much coincides with what we own in our own systems, with the occasional deviation when something mega makes itself available. And we’ve found that most of our readers have systems in the $5,000 to about $200,000 range, so we try to keep it within the reach of our readership, and our level of experience and comfort.

Do I think 500-thousand-dollar turntables are crazy? Sure, in the context of my system, my record collection and my income, without a doubt. However, the people buying 500-thousand-dollar turntables (and they are out there) aren’t worrying about people like me that can’t afford the stuff they can afford to purchase. That customer is obsessed, and maybe that 500-thousand-dollar turntable doesn’t sound all that much better than your favorite $40k turntable. (but I don’t know I haven’t heard one), That’s not the point.

The point is it’s awesome, and someone not only wants that awesomeness (and exclusiveness) and is willing and able to pay for it. That’s why the people that produce those things do what they do. Having met more than my share of people that make incredible hifi over the years, I can say with 100% conviction that they don’t get out of bed thinking “how can I make a valueless thing for crazy money and fleece the public today?”

Can I afford to play at that level? Nope. But I think it’s incredible that people go to work every day figuring out how to make amazing things better. Defining things (and someone else’s hard work) in terms of your limited reality is insulting to everyone. It’s disrespectful to the people that have put their soul into building these things, it’s discouraging to the people that aspire to have these things, and it’s insulting to the people that have purchased them.

And even to answer the question on whether that more expensive thing is worth it, some people enjoy things for the art and execution of it. A geeked out Subaru STi can be tuned to 500 hp fairly easily and inexpensively. If all you want to do is win a stoplight Grand Prix, victory can be yours. Would I rather have a Porsche GT3RSR? You bet. Sometimes, it is about execution and if you can afford it, who am I to tell you it sucks?

Yet, this is a trend I’m seeing in the hifi industry more often than not, and I think it’s disturbing. I just can’t get behind discouraging the pinnacle of anything. There is more great gear at incredibly affordable prices today than ever, so why discourage what’s happening out on the fringe? Some people want more than just getting back and forth from point a to b. Even though I can’t afford a lot of this gear, I will continue to celebrate it.