"Excuse me, can you lend me $10?" The man in front of us seemed genuinely distressed. "My mother's been rushed to the hospital and my car's stalled and I need the cab fare to see her."
We must have looked skeptical. "I only need $10. If you give me your address I'll send you a check."
The story was intriguing, if farfetched. I gave the guy Stereophile's address and a $10 bill. The night was warm; we stood there for 10 minutes as he told us more about his broken car, his mother's accident, the hospital's awkward location.
It must have been a scam; the man was well-dressed, well-spoken, and we were only two blocks from a subway stop. Or was his story for real? Were we being hustled? After all, he was going to refund my $10.
Whatever. I didn't mind giving him the money---he was a good storyteller, and the price was about right for the entertainment he'd given us. It was a pleasant cap to what had been a very pleasant evening. I'm still waiting for the $10.
So what does all this have to do with audio?
At the recent WCES, I was on a panel that was asked to discuss the future of the High End. Some commentators were emphatic that that future will involve a marriage between audio and video. It's true that most high-end audio dealers are delving heavily into Home Theater. And in this issue of Stereophile, J. Gordon Holt writes---as powerfully as only he can---that the future of domestic music reproduction will include surround-sound. JGH has no doubts: "As long as we remain stubbornly committed to two-channel stereo, further advancement in reproduced realism just won't happen."
I disagree. I suspect stereo reproduction will continue to dominate the listening experience for some years to come. Yes, I have found that the experience of watching a movie on a direct-view TV monitor is dramatically improved if the stereo sound is fed through a high-end audio system. But listening to music is a different experience. As long as there are music lovers, there will always be a High End.
Jack English doesn't necessarily agree, and he explained his reasons in his January '94 "R.I.P." article. Others say that the gap between mid-fi and the High End has narrowed so much, you no longer need to spend much money to get satisfactory sound. Others would add that, since the introduction of digital technology, the High End has lost its mystique and its reason for being.
But the most widely disseminated criticism is that, compared with the '60s, it costs too much these days to even think about owning a high-end system. The ticket price is too high for the perceived value.
Is this true? In 1969, my system was based on a Thorens TD150AB turntable ($100) with a Shure M75E phono cartridge ($39). Add to this an AR amplifier ($250) and a pair of Dynaco A25 loudspeakers ($160), and you would have had a $549 system (not including cables and stands, which didn't exist commercially back then) that sounded excellent.
Conventional wisdom seems to be correct: $549 was indeed a small price to pay for audiophile sound. In fact, I bought a system very similar to this when I earned my very first paycheck after leaving college. But the 1993 Consumer Price Index indicates that a 1994 dollar is worth just 24 cents of a 1969 dollar---you'd need around $2300 to buy that 1969 system today.
I could put together a pretty good 1994 system for $2300---a pair of Snell Type E/III speakers ($990/pair) driven by an AMT 3030 integrated amplifier ($900), plus a Rotel RB955BX CD player ($449)---for a total of $2339, again not including cables or stands. So why does everyone feel that high-end audio systems are so expensive compared with 25 years ago?
Partly because of the explosion in the last five years of very expensive components, I suspect. I suffer increasing ennui every time I explore a CES, listening to yet another speaker or amplifier that costs more than a car. Back in the '60s, a really esoteric pair of speakers, like KLH 9 electrostatics, cost about $1500/pair---half the (then) average price of a GM car. These days, I can think of seven speaker systems costing more than $50,000, and there's a myriad that cost more than the $6250 those KLHes would cost today (now less than 50% of the average car price).
Another reason is that, as inflation nibbled away the value of the dollar in your pocket, mass-market audio-equipment manufacturers obligingly kept their dollar prices relatively constant. Of course, they had to throw away pretty much all the quality. So while 1969's $549 system might still be working today, it'd be a wonder if this year's $800 rack system is working five years from now. But who would care? It sounds dreadful right out of the box.
The damage: The public's perception of how much high-quality sound should cost these days is based on 1969 prices, not 1994 ones. And it's perception that counts, not the reality of what quality costs.
While talented designers may benefit from designing cost-no-object components, the real challenge for an audio engineer is to produce a musically satisfying, technically competent product that will sell at a quarter-century-old price. That's why I'm excited by products like Audio Alchemy's DAC-in-the-Box reviewed in this issue---they bring the price of admission to the High End closer to the ordinary person's perception of what he or she should be paying for that ticket.