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Why High-End Audio Gear and Luxury Goods Are Strange Bedfellows

Why High-End Audio Gear and Luxury Goods Are Strange Bedfellows

To the segment of the high-end audio industry trying to reposition components as luxury goods, I have a message: you’re barking up the wrong tree. To the new entrants trying to create “curated luxury goods experiences,” I submit that you’re wasting your time. No, I’m not trying to be a jerk. I’m actually trying to help.

As someone who’s spent an incredibly disproportionate amount of my income on audio gear since I turned 14 and who has been writing about said equipment for more than two decades, I have gotten to know many audio enthusiasts around the globe. My love of automobiles has also introduced me to another segment of affluent consumers. In addition, my first wife’s parents were incredibly wealthy and put me in touch with people in their network. While I may not be a total expert, I have relevant data points to share from four decades of experience. And, being the human equivalent of a fox terrier, I always ask questions. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Many of our industry’s best companies possess a level of passion for visual and electronic design that matches the intensity of any of the world’s finest automobile manufacturers. They also have the same density of thought. But a difference occurs downstream. Almost no one thinks you’re awesome because you bought a $100k DAC. (Guilty as charged.) In our influencer-driven, ADD world, hi-fi doesn’t have the same cache of a new Porsche GT3 or a Patek Phillipe watch. Sorry, but it’s true.

Don’t believe me? Tell 100 non-audio people you just bought a pair of Sonus faber speakers. (Again, guilty.) I’ll bet a healthy sum that nobody will even know what you’re talking about, other than you got a pair of speakers. Tell the same 100 people you just bought a new Rolex and they will all be impressed or possibly start a conversation with you about watches or jewelry. Tell 100 people you just bought a new Harley, Ducati, or Porsche 911, and you’ll probably have at least a dozen new friends that want to hang with you.

Why? One reason is because hi-fi isn’t transportable. You can’t take it to lunch and show it off or attend a cars-and-coffee event, casually trotting over to the pack after getting out of your new toy. Like it or not, part of the appeal of owning luxury goods is getting to brag about them and being included in a community. Hi-fi doesn’t work that way. For example, telling 100 Porsche owners you just bought a new GT3 might start a minor argument about whether you bought the right one with a manual gearbox or Porsche’s excellent PDK automatic. No matter which option you chose, you’re still a god in that universe. Tell 100 audiophiles you just bought a $50k turntable, or even better, upgraded your system with $50k of premium wire, and 97 of them will tell you why you’re an idiot and why their $4,000 system is far better than your mega system. The issues run deeper.

Because they are often experience-driven and time-challenged, high-income earners don’t spend major cash on high-end audio systems. On rare occasions, I’ve met a few people with means that love to hang out with friends, relax, and listen to music. Some are members of the Greater Toronto Area Audiophile Club. I know there are more, and I’ve seen a few groups on Facebook that I’d love to meet when travel eases again. But assuming that someone who owns a nice car or a collection of nice cars (or watches, cameras, wine, etc.) will automatically want to buy a mega audio system, even if it is branded a “luxury good,” is just wrong.

Maybe it’s because music is a deeply personal thing. It might also relate to high-end audio’s exclusionary nature. In order to derive the most pleasure from a system, you must sit in the sweet spot. Alone. In silence. That’s not something everyone wants to do. Most people would rather go to a concert. Or go on vacation. Granted, the recent COVID lockdowns and limits on mobility have contributed to a couple of terrific years in the industry. Still, I’m curious how many will upgrade their systems with equal enthusiasm when it’s relatively safe to travel again.

Where does that leave us?

The future of audio isn’t bleak. There are more and better choices than ever before. The point of entry for serious sound is far less expensive than any other time in history, and the proliferation of online retailers and used-gear vendors has made it easier to acquire last year’s toys. I’ve always said well-loved, pre-owned gear is a great way to start an audiophile journey.

A good friend who has been an audio retailer for as long as I’ve been buying gear once said: “My average customer is like you, a person that makes a decent living, that spends way too much of it on his hi-fi system. Where do I get a mailing list for that?”

While that doesn’t make for exciting social media, I suspect the world of high-end audio will still thrive the way it always has: by way of enthusiasts and enthusiast publications. Keep passing the word around.  -Jeff Dorgay

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