R.I.P High-End Audio?

Slowly, painfully, high-end audio seems to be dying. We all know it but we're apparently unable to resuscitate the patient. US dealers are closing at alarming rates—it must be the economy. Women continue to avoid the High End—it must be the technobabble combined with male equipment fetishism. Younger people aren't hopping aboard—it must be all those other things competing for their money. (Then again, it might be the High End's abhorrence of rock'n'roll.)

While it seems we're quick to point fingers and find scapegoats, we haven't addressed the primary causes of high-end audio's apparently inevitable decline. In the minds of most music-loving Americans, the High End simply doesn't exist. And for the minority who are aware of it, the High End is simply too expensive.

To illustrate this, Table 1 shows a top-quality system assembled from the most recent Stereophile "Recommended Components" listing in October 1993 (Vol.16 No.10):

Table 1: 1994 Class A System Cost

Cartridge: Symphonic Line RG-8 Gold $5000
Tonearm: SME V $2550
Turntable: Basis Debut Gold Standard (w/vacuum hold-down) $8900
CD Transport: Proceed CD Library $13,000
Digital Cable: TARA Labs Digital Master $59
5 DAC: Mark Levinson No.30 $14,950
Interconnects: MIT MI-330 CVT Terminator (3x1m) $5400
Preamplifier: Rowland Consummate $8750
Power Amplifiers: Mark Levinson No.20.6 $15,950
Loudspeakers: Wilson WATT3/Puppy2/WHOW $26,620
Speaker Cables: MIT MH-750 CVT Shotgun Terminator $4500
Total Retail Price: $106,215

The system listed uses the shortest possible cable lengths, omits accessories like power conditioners, and doesn't even include any of the megabuck gear—like the Genesis Model One loudspeakers, Rowland Nine and Jadis JA 500 amplifiers, FM Acoustic phono preamplifier, or Rockport turntable—none of which are listed in "Recommended Components." Many people could almost buy a home for this kind of money—but would have to take out a mortgage to do it! The system's intentionally short wires come to $10,495—a price most people would consider spending for a car. To 99% of Americans, the upper price range of high-end audio is otherworldly.

Does the average American recognize any of these brand names? Ask a few friends who aren't into audio. Chances are, they've heard of none of them. High-end audio has failed miserably at making the public aware of its existence. The irony is, some of these companies are the best in the world at what they do.

The automotive industry seems to be treated differently. Car magazines spend a lot of time covering the Ferrari Testarossa, Lamborghini Diablo, McLaren F1 (only $750,000!), and high-powered Corvettes. (How about those Guldstrand-modified ZR-1s starting at a mere $134,500?) Yes, we're all voyeurs and dreamers, secretly harboring hopes of winning the lottery or inheriting an estate from a long-lost relative. More pragmatically, we believe much of this incredibly sophisticated technology will filter down to the real-world cars we're likely to buy in the future. This has actually happened: Consider the Honda Civic's computer-controlled variable-valve timing; the Ford Probe's 24-valve, six-cylinder engine; and airbags, anti-lock brakes, four-wheel steering, and many other wonderful features that carefully balance the often conflicting demands of performance, safety, and the environment.

High-end audio might actually be better positioned than the automotive industry to provide immediate benefits to everyone. Unfortunately, we seem hell-bent on shooting ourselves in the foot. Far from cutting-edge audio technology benefiting the world of affordable audio, the High End has done its best to disassociate itself from mid-fi. ("Mid-fi" is even used as a term of abuse.) As a result, high-end audio has rendered itself essentially irrelevant to most Americans.

Any automobile can get you from A to B, but not necessarily in the same manner. Most people can appreciate the major differences between four- and eight-cylinder engines. But how many people realize the differences between solid-state and vacuum-tube electronics and the desirability for both to coexist?

Most non-audiophiles believe all audio equipment pretty much sounds alike, hence the mass-market's emphasis on selling components by features and price. But people actively involved with audio know that quality differences do exist. Nearly all audiophiles agree that amplifiers sound different from one another under real-world conditions of use.

The audible effects of as-yet-unmeasurable performance parameters and the importance of very small differences that may well be inaudible to some are continuing points of contention in the High End. Unfortunately, we continue to fight among ourselves over such matters rather than spreading the word to the mass-market consumer. The entire audio community would benefit if we emphasized those points on which we agree. Just as all automobiles are not built to the same levels of quality, handling, or efficiency, all audio equipment does not sound the same. The High End must be responsible for making people aware of this fact.

The best way to do this is to let people hear high-end audio for themselves. But the audio industry is structured in such a way that people can do this only through high-end dealers. It's unrealistic to ask high-end dealers to tie up their listening rooms educating the masses one at a time, knowing full well that many of these people will never buy. And the typical manufacturer's presentation at a local high-end shop preaches only to the converted. There must be a better way for the average Jane or Joe to hear what the High End is all about.

The High End should reach out to those unaware of our industry. Larger groups of people should hear demonstrations such as those sponsored by the EIA/AAHEA at the 1993 Summer CES (footnote 1). I envision open sessions run in conjunction with music-appreciation courses through adult education programs at high schools nationwide; a variety of full-length concerts played on quality high-end systems and offered through local radio stations and/or cosponsored by software manufacturers; discounts or other perks to customers who bring new patrons to high-end dealers; a sales force regularly demonstrating products outside the audio store; audio systems providing music at a variety of large meetings during cocktail hours—and I'm sure each of you can come up with other ideas.

While most other industrialized countries recognize the preeminence of American audio equipment, our own citizens fail to appreciate how much we've accomplished. We're headed in the right direction, but we haven't been able or willing to get the news out. High-end audio has made remarkable progress. You need to look or listen no further than the breakneck advances in sound improvement coming from the "perfect sound forever" digital medium. In less than a decade, improvements have bordered on the monumental. More importantly, a good deal of these innovations are now available at reasonable prices.

This is where the high-end industry continues to be misunderstood. High-end is not simply audio equipment that costs more. In fact, audio equipment deserves to be called "high-end" only if it sounds superb. Much of the audio gear which fits this definition is not outrageously expensive. In fact, many sonically splendid high-end audio products cost less than their mass-market competition. We continue to obscure this critical point.

Stereophile's biannual "Recommended Components" listings appear to paint a different picture. In general, better things do cost more, and audio is no exception. However, the relationship between price and performance is complex. If one product costs twice as much as another, it is unlikely to be twice as good. Stereophile's loudspeaker recommendations clearly illustrate the price/performance relationships in high-end audio. Table 2 lists speakers I believe to be excellent values:

Table 2 Recommended Components Loudspeaker Price/pair

E PSB Alpha $200
D Epos ES11 $850
C Vandersteen 2ce $1300
B* Ensemble PA-1 $3200
B ProAc Response 3 $6500
A* Sonus Faber Extrema $12,500
A Wilson WATT3/Puppy2/WHOW $25,000

While I recognize that the "Recommended Components" classes are subjective (and categorical and non-linear and multidimensional and...), I feel they are meaningful enough to convert to numbers. For example, let a score of 6 represent the sound quality of live music. The highest-rated loudspeaker still won't fool listeners into confusing its sound with the real thing, so let us score it as a 5. The ratings for the letter classes are therefore assigned from 1 (E) to 5 (A). Since the restricted LF classes are a bit of a hedge, I've graded them in between the other classes (eg, Class A, with restricted LF, becomes 4.5 instead of 5).

Using these numerical ratings, the performance of the speakers listed in Table 2 is depicted by the graph below, which clearly illustrates the relationship between price and performance (footnote 2):


Fig.1 Loudspeaker Price/Performance Relationship

The PSB Alpha has the lowest performance rating (1 for Class E), coupled with an extremely modest price: $200. At the opposite extreme, the Wilson WATT/Puppy/WHOW has the highest performance rating (5 for Class A), as well as a very high price of ca $25,000. Ideally, the higher the price, the better the performance. But this is not the full story—the price/performance relationship is not a straight line. The curve is clearly asymptotic. It approaches perfection (a score of 6) but never gets there, regardless of how much the component costs.

Initially, as you upgrade from the PSB in Class E (with a numerical performance rating of 1) to the Vandersteen 2Ce in Class C (with a rating of 3), you get a significant increase in performance that is proportional to price. The curve mimics a straight line. As you spend more than the cost of the Vandersteen to move into still higher performance classes, however, the relative amount of increased performance decreases dramatically for each additional dollar spent. The shape of the curve changes to one representing diminishing, though nonetheless real, returns. You pay a tremendous premium to approach the state of the art.

A speaker's placement on this curve is influenced by many factors. For example, imported speakers will cost relatively more on the price axis, because their prices must include increased shipping costs and a profit margin for the importer. Smaller manufacturers usually cannot take advantage of volume discounts when buying parts. This must be accounted for in the retail price. Companies that sell direct are able to eliminate dealer margins, though the possible return-shipping costs have to be factored into their margins.

The performance axis is more complex. Whether aware of it or not, most people listen for a host of different sonic qualities: bass, midrange, treble, soundstaging, dynamics, transient response, resolution of detail, etc. The speaker designer has to balance each of these parameters to achieve the desired level of overall performance.

Many people believe that speakers that lie along the price/performance curve in fig.1 are high-end simply because they are listed in Stereophile's "Recommended Components." Yes, speakers at the top of the curve do outperform those at the bottom. But this curve is designed to identify speakers at all prices that outperform their competition. "Recommended Components" effectively tells you how to get the most performance for your money, at any price.

Using this curve, loudspeakers located below the horizontal line may cost less but clearly do not perform as well overall. Speakers located above the horizontal line cost more but perform only marginally better. You have to spend a great deal more money in order to realize significant increases in overall performance. The Vandersteen 2Ce or the similarly priced Thiel CS1.2 are located at the optimum price/performance position (indicated by the vertical line). Yet they are likely to sound very different from one another because they are designed differently. Stereophile's reviews of these two speakers (in Vol.16 Nos.4 & 9, and Vol.12 Nos.1, 6, & 11, respectively) make it abundantly clear that each has a distinct sonic character. The important thing is to understand what your priorities are so that you can select the best product in your price range.

To further complicate matters, price and performance alone are not enough to make a buying decision. If they were, you could rely exclusively on the opinions of reviewers you trust. Other factors that must be considered before purchase include visual appeal, size, compatibility with your existing equipment, availability, reliability, and resale value. For example, two very differently priced speakers may perform identically in all parameters. The more costly speaker, however, may look better to you, be more compatible with your existing power amplifier, work against the rear wall (which you may require), and so on. In addition to letting you hear the speaker, a dealer should help you sort out all your other concerns. No matter how good the review, there is no substitute for seeing, touching, and listening to the speaker yourself. The only way to do that is to visit a good high-end dealer.

The reviewer's task is to audition everything he or she can. A composite of this information—like "Recommended Components"—should help you narrow your search by identifying a small number of speakers that satisfy your basic price and overall performance concerns. The final buying decision must always be yours.

What does all this mean for high-end audio? Plenty.

• At any price, high-end equipment should be able to outperform similarly priced mass-market equipment. The customer should get more for his or her money, regardless of what they are able to spend. The PSB Alpha is a good example of high-end audio equipment's inherent value at even extremely modest price levels.

• The more you spend for high-end audio equipment, the substantially better the sound should be, as long as you are at or below the optimum price/performance–level (as seen from the vertical line in fig.1).

• The following generalizations have been verified by years of Stereophile reviews: all audio equipment does not sound the same; sonic compromises must be made at defined prices; the higher the price, the fewer design constraints; breakthrough technological advances do filter down to less expensive equipment over time. (These points are weakened somewhat by the realities of the high-end audio market. Manufacturers' costs must be met, despite lower unit sales. Higher-volume sales can be expected to lower per-unit prices.)

• Finally, the best of anything in absolute terms will always be very expensive. This is as true for high-end audio as it is for anything else. Since so few people pursue the state of the art, very few of the best units will be sold. In addition, research and development costs of innovation can be staggering. The best parts are costly, and building by hand takes time. Products that push the performance envelope need to be reviewed and discussed—we need to learn the limits of what is possible from the industry's ground-breakers and pacesetters. But we don't all need to buy their highest-end equipment. Ultra-expensive cutting-edge products are only a small portion of the high-end audio market.

High-end audio equipment can improve the quality of music heard in the home. It provides more enjoyment every time you play a record, listen to a CD, hear a cassette, or turn on the radio. Those of us involved with high-end audio need to relay the message that great-sounding audio equipment can be affordable, reliable, and easy to install and use.

Contrary to popular opinion, I do not believe that the marriage of audio and video threatens the future of high-end audio. The explosion of home entertainment is a wonderful opportunity to introduce more people to the wonders of high-end audio. The same can be said of interaction with computers, midi, video games, and anything else that involves the reproduction (or production) of sound. Wherever sound is being made, high-end audio gear can make it better.

Is high-end audio dying? Audio equipment is better than ever. There is great gear available at virtually every price. The equipment isn't the problem. The high prices aren't even the problem. We are the problem. We aren't getting the right message out. We aren't effectively communicating the value of high-end audio. We focus on the ultra-expensive without spending adequate time on truly affordable equipment. We are elitist snobs about our equipment and the music we enjoy. We put down video and interactive games and midi and computer interfaces because they aren't important to us. We are making a tragic mistake.

Footnote 1: See Stereophile, August 1993, Vol.16 No.8, pp.83–87.

Footnote 2: The price disparity between the extremes has widened enormously in 2013. The January 2013 issue of Stereophile includes reviews of the Dayton Audio B652 at <$40/pair and the Wilson Alexandria XLF at $200,000/pair.—John Atkinson


soulful.terrain's picture


I'm amazed but not suprised this article does not even begin to address the high cost of production. nowhere,,nada. No mention of this being the worst economic recovery in history,

You mention that we are the problem for not getting the message out.. Getting the message out? What message can you get out that will put more disposable income in peoples wallets?? You can hire the world's greatest marketing firms to get the message out but if people are going broke it won't matter.

You can largely thank the death of high end audio to the politicians and bureaucrats that always want to tax the 'evil' rich. In this case, companies that produce boutique audio components. This leads to job losses, lower consumer confidence, higher prices for componentry, etc; etc; which are ultimately passed on to the consumer. Thus, the consumer faces across the board tax increases on virtually everything (gas, groceries, utilities, services, etc; leaving them with less disposable income to purchase high-end audio componentry they love. Businesses then either have to close shop or go overseas to avoid high taxation. Then, those that go overseas just to survive, they are demonized for not 'paying their fair share' and to the point of being called unamerican. 

So as less and less people are unable to afford high-end gear under a progressive tax structure, so leaves less and less high-end gear being sold to the general public.

Its funny, the same liberals that love high end audio and even the ones that produce such boutique gear will immediatekly run to the voting booths and vote-in the very ones that are destroying their business,

The moral of the story: When government acts, the market reacts.

The upshot is, when it all said and done,we will all be equally unable to afford such high-end audio gear,

It can't get anymore more fair than that can it? After all, if we have learned anything in the last four years, we have learned that fairness is the new economic dynamic.

John Atkinson's picture

I'm amazed but not suprised this article does not even begin to address the high cost of production. nowhere,,nada. No mention of this being the worst economic recovery in history...

Note that this article was reprinted from the January 1994 issue of Stereophile. I chose it for republication because the arguments presented are still relevant today.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

soulful.terrain's picture

That is very true John, It is still relevant today.

1994.. Bill Clinton was two years into his presidency. and he raised taxes in 1993 ;-)

John Atkinson's picture

It is still relevant today.

See www.usatoday.com/story/life/music/2013/01/22/magico-audiophile-speakers-alon-wolf/1809691/

Money quote: "Opening your eyes to see not a band but a cold rack of hi-fi gear is a genuinely jarring experience, like drifting to sleep in a hot tub only to wake up in the factory that makes the hot tub."

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

soulful.terrain's picture


 good one smiley

prerich45's picture

I didn't vote for him, but Clinton was responsible for a surplus - something no modern president has ever done.

soulful.terrain's picture

Clinton took office in 1992 and the dems controlled the House and the Senate, spending bills were flying left and right until the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress after 40 years of Dem control.

 The 'Clinton' suprplus should be credited to the Republican controlled congress that took over in 1994 under Newt Gingrich and John Kasich. Clinton worked with Congress unlike Obama who refuses to work with Boehner.

Naveb's picture

People earning 250K cant afford high end?

Voting purely out of regard for ones financial interest is hardly laudible. There are more pressing concerns facing this planet than the ability to afford high-end audio components. 

ccfk's picture

Please name the high end audio manufacturers who have been driven out of business by government regulation and high taxes.  It would seem to me that our tax burdens at the present time are close to historic lows. If the tax rate were cut 25% across the board, do you actually believe high end audio would start to thrive? Given historic tax rates, it's a wonder that high end audio manufacturing ever got started in this country if your argument has any merit.  Face it:  the way most people now consume music is antithetical to high end audio and people have different spending priorities.  Consumer data clearly shows this.  The free market has spoken, and the free market by and large doesn't care about the high end.  That's American capitalism.  Why do you hate it so? 

soulful.terrain's picture

Operating costs to businesses whether small or large has increase astronomically. No matter how you slice it, That effects production in a negative way. Read Milton Freidman's "I pencil" to understand.

You forget about the state and local taxes, fees, regulations, licensing fees etc;; on top of the Federal governments encroachment.

I understand when people have more disposable income in their wallets, they tend to spend more on consumer goods and everybody wins. simple.

But we can't do that anymore, because we that make 250K/yr. have been redefined as millionaires and billionaires. We need to pay our 'fair share' you see..

You stated: "..people have different spending priorities.."

Thats true..Especially when people have LESS in their wallets, they tend to prioritize their spending..

ccfk's picture

Just as I thought. You don't have any specifics.  Economics and political analysis aren't your forte, but it's cute that you try.  

ridikas's picture

Thank God for that! High end audio has become absolutely PATHETIC. The entire industry is a fraud and is supported on pure lies. 99% of all companies should be reported to BBB. I hope some readers here do just that. Transparent is selling 30K cables, YG is selling 100K speakers, etc. 

Let's all make a pact. Every time Stereophile's tests are drastically different than the snake oil the manufacturer posted, let's report them to BBB. 

This garbage needs to be run out of town. 

soulful.terrain's picture

yeah...yeah... lets turn them into the government, lets run all of the high end audio companies out of business those crooks.... those evil rich..

Then Stereophile and the Absolute Sound and other magazines will go out of business for not having but a few cheap components to review.

Fool...you miss the whole point because you're blinded by wealth envy.

You don't like high priced gear...Don't buy it! and don't ruin it for everyone else.

ridikas's picture

It has nothing to do with what you're foaming about. One of my favorite speaker manufacturers is Harman. Makes your point rather useless, doesn't it?

jonahsdad's picture

You can largely thank the death of high end audio to the politicians and bureaucrats that always want to tax the 'evil' rich. In this case, companies that produce boutique audio components. This leads to job losses, lower consumer confidence, higher prices for componentry, etc; etc; which are ultimately passed on to the consumer. Thus, the consumer faces across the board tax increases on virtually everything (gas, groceries, utilities, services, etc; leaving them with less disposable income to purchase high-end audio componentry they love. Businesses then either have to close shop or go overseas to avoid high taxation. Then, those that go overseas just to survive, they are demonized for not 'paying their fair share' and to the point of being called unamerican.

What are you talking about?  Taxes have nothing to do with the fact that Hi End audio is actually alive and well, and this article from 1994 is worth reading for its comedic value.  Hi End audio is also doing well in Europe and every wealthy country on Earth, regardless of tax structure. Is it the mainstream of consumer electronics? No.  Does that matter? Not at all.

soulful.terrain's picture


Oh sure, Raising taxes and issuing mountains of regulations have never had a negative effect on businesses and the cost of production,

I also have some ocean front property in Arizona to sell if you are interested.

remlab's picture

"I remember reading an article exactly like this in the early 90's". I was saying to myself. Then I saw the speakers in question. Aha! From a mass market perspective, the high end can't die. In order for that to happen, it has to be alive in the first place. Long live high end audio!

OneMic's picture

If High End died back in 1994 then it definately got resurrected into the unholy lifeless abomination that we see today.  I have never seen more medicore equipment sporting five figure price tags than we have right now.  I think its time for Stereophile to say to the manufactures that if you can't produce an excellent CD player, amplifier, ect. for less than the price of a brand new VW Passat you should probably kill yourself.  

I actually think that Stereophile should leave out pricing of equipment all together from their magazine.  They should let every piece of equipment compete against each other with out pretense. They should especially keep reviewers in the dark on what equipment costs.  But this might be unfair to them because how can they know what piece of equipment sounds better if they can't look at the price tag.   



remlab's picture

Don't take the bait! Just ignore them!

marcusavalon's picture

I am an audiophile I don’t own and can never hope to own a $250,000 Hi end system.

However I think the reality is that the younger generation do not care about music as much. I have three children all in their late teens early twenties at college and whilst they all play music on i phones pods and computers and docking stations none of them have any desire to own a hi-fi which when I was there age was my ambition when I started out with a Rega 3 Nad amp and pair of speakers. Music especially pop or rock is delivered over youtube with a video experience as well and there are many other distractions like video games, the internet, the latest app for the smart phone etc. They are happy to stream music over the net and download MP-3's and do not understand their father’s quaint obsession with his $15,000 entry level audiophile system “ yes Dad it sounds good but my I-phone does all this neat stuff as well.”

The way the music industry is going it will all be delivered digitally whether that is in MP3 or some Higher definition format you will download or stream it. Ultimately I believe ownership of music vinyl / CD/ or downloads will disappear and you will have a subscription stream service in the cloud over a high speed broadband connection.

I only have one close friend that shares my interest in Audiophile sound and frankly we feel like the last of the Mohicans as I know nobody else that has this interest and the serious money Hi-end is only for Russian Oligarchs and Billionaires and the occasional lottery winner.

remlab's picture

I have the same problem. My sons will brag to their friends about my system and they will ooh and aah and take pictures, but when I ask them to sit down and have a listen? Woosh! Out the door they go..With headphones and smartphones of course..

John Atkinson's picture

I have three children all in their late teens early twenties at college and whilst they all play music on i phones pods and computers and docking stations none of them have any desire to own a hi-fi...

Don't you think that of all the young people listening to music, some will end up wanting more quality, just as you and I did when we were 20? What's important is that music is playing an important role in their lives.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile


remlab's picture

Talking about a seed, my youngest son loves the sound of the Sonic impact t-amp/ high efficiency full range driver combo I made for him. He has hope..

lwhitefl's picture

The article is certainly relevant to today's audio market. I agree there's lots of reasonably priced audio equipment that can be used for serious music listening, or to improve the home theater experience. Audio manufacturers with few exceptions don't appear to making any attempt to educate college age music lovers in ways described in the article. Even more astounding is the complete lack of advertising via commercial media. The automotive business model where $25K - $50K pricing exists doesn't appear to be a hindrance to demand for that product. I believe that's due in no small way to the advertising dollars spent to educate and promote the product. The high end audio industry needs to spend some of their large profits supporting audiophile education and advertising dollars.

criswood1's picture

When my son went off to college a couple of years ago, I gave him my spare turntable, amp, tuner and a CD player, I even went with him to his first apartment and set it up for him. I bought him a couple of his favorite LP's and told him to have fun and to try and listen to sources other than his iPhone and internet streaming. I told him that he was missing something important. He has since told me that he has turned it on just a few times and was more interested in hooking up his iPhone to the amp.

What I have learned since is that what was important to me at that age and younger (good quality sounding music) isn't all that important to the younger adults. They want alot of choices quickly and at thier fingertips.

At my home last weekend I had him listen to a recent purchase of the Doors LA Woman at 45RPM, we finished and I asked him, do you hear the difference? wasn't that awesome sounding? Isn't that better than your iPhone? He stated very bluntly, I expect it to sound better, look how big your system is.

I remember being 16 (late-70's) and going to my best friends older brothers apartment, he had this silver receiver with knobs and switches and dials and a wooden looking turntable. He told me "this is made by Marantz one of the finest Hi-Fi's you can buy". He sat me down and told me all about what hi-fi was and then he had me take a listen. Wow! I was hooked, and I was hooked at a much earlier age than the college years.

My conclusion now is that, when I listened to that Hi-Fi when I was 16, that was technology to me, there were no cell phones, no computers, no digital anything (except maybe pong, burning a hole in the families TV screen). There was not the distractions and limitless choices of technology that kids today now have. There aren't too many of them that own a full album by any artist, just tracks upon tracks of digital "greatest hits".

labjr's picture

"Women continue to avoid the High End"I

I think there's fewer men avoiding Victoria's Secret stores these days.

earwaxxer's picture

There is really nothing different now, than there has been in the fairly short history of mega bux audio. There has ALWAYS been the ridiculously expensive gear, and there has always been those who will buy it. Its like yachts. You don't have to sell many of them to stay in business. Same thing today...

As long as we humans enjoy listening to music, there will be a high end market. Same thing with every consumable, be boating, exotic autos, you name it.

For a high end audio shop to make a buck is another question. Its all in the name. Those without the name will go away. So what, those in the know dont know about them anyway.

kevon27's picture

Problem solved..






These are just a few.. There's no real reason to complain.. The market will correct itself.

prerich45's picture

 Yes, yes yes!!!!! Especially Tekton!!!

tmsorosk's picture

I won't comment on the economy , government , women audiophiles or even the state of hi end audio . But I will say in our house quality audio is alive and well not only with myself and many of my friends but also the wife and even the daughter ( 12 ) has setup a turntable and is buying records . 

With three system in the house , one in the garage and one at the lake , high end audio is a big and beautiful part of are little world .

Rust's picture

I won't be buying any equipment that costs more than my (paid for) 12 year old vehicle at it's current blue book value let alone my (paid for) house. Like exotic cars it's all nice eye candy in the magazines. Like the exotic cars it is also a preview of what may be available a few years down the pike at a price I'm willing to pay. For instance my old Sony Trinitron ran $700, my new LED screen $700. Something around $1,000 is my limit for a single piece new or used.

More important is my music collection which I have been working on since I was 15. Somewhat eclectic, ranging from Renata Tibaldi to Beth Hart (the Live at Paradiso is phenominal), from the old Minneapolis Symphony (my grandfather took me to the bandshell on Lake Harriet when I was very young) to Jimi, Eric Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Alvin Lee etc. Amazingly, the value of a forty plus year collection far outweights the value of the equipment. Duh.

I'll lay some of the blame for no affordable gear directly on the music industry for the crap quality of their consumer products, and that quality has only degraded with the conglomerization of the industry. Decent, meaning that even mid level afforable equipment isn't all that desirable if it's garbage in, garbage out. A perfect example is someone recently mentioned that they had had the loan of a first gen copy of Sergeant Peppers. I would happily wring a music company executives neck for that tape, at least in part as payback for the miserable dreck available to the consumer of the same recording for the last forty plus years.

I've heard direct dubs of master tapes to CD. It is absolutely insane how much better they sounded than commercially available CDs of the exact same music. Imagine if you will the same quality available to the consumer, would they upgrade equipment? Imagine 192/24 or DSD available to the consumer. Of music they want to listen to.

And not just of the same old lame audiophile crap. If it won't rock with Hendrix, Zep, Smokin' Joe Kubeck, Sonny Landreth, Chris Duarte etc., I'm not interested. Maybe Maggie Sansone or John McCutcheon on hammer dulcimer (played guitar occasionally with John when I was a kid). But whatever it is has to have broad consumer appeal. Quit whining about the lack of music appreciation in schools or the intellectual decline of the public, the public ain't buying what the "High End" oracles are pushing.

HD tracks is a good start as are a couple of other sites that have other than the equivalent of Mongolian nose flute or gamelon symphonies available. My next purchase? How about an Oppo 105 which at $1,200 or so seems to do more well than virtually any other piece of equipment at any price. High performance instead of high price high end. Like a VPI Traveler turntable, Odyssey electronics, Tyler Acoustic speakers, NAD electronics, Teac electronics (new DAC in particular), Magnapan and every other company that put out a QUALITY affordable product .

Basically, the "High End" is all uber expensive luxury goods. Marketed to the wealthy. And yes if you can pop $50,000 plus for a set of speakers I'll just have to color you wealthier than me. My speakers are thirty years old and rebuilt several times.

Back to the auto comparison. In auto rags there is a lot more coverage of what an average person can afford. If you're tagging a $5,000 amplifer as "mid-range price" to an avarage person, you are smoking your toe jam. And yes, there are companies currently building quality product in the US of A (not China) who certainly pric e better than that.

In the meantime I guess I'll crank up the old Fender, needed some new 12AU7s and 12AX7s recently, and grab the old cherry sunburstT-Bird Deluxe. Gee, sounds just like the real thing....

Vade Forrester's picture

"Basically, the "High End" is all uber expensive luxury goods."

By whose definition? Have you ever read Stephen Mejias' column in Stereophile, or any of Sam Tellig's columns, or any of the other reviews of reasonably priced equipment? There is more low- and moderately-priced gear available today than ever before, and it sounds better than ever. The fact that some companies make super-expensive equipment doesn't mean nothing else is available. If you ignore less expensive gear from, say, NAD and PSB, you'll miss a lot of musical enjoyment.


Vade Forrester

KDub's picture

I read Stereophile quite often, I consider myself to be a music nut, I own over 3,000 vinyl records and about 5,000 cds and have a terrabyte full of mp3/wav/flac files on my computer. For me, it's about the music first, I love all kinds of rock and roll, but also simply love all kinds of music: Jazz, reggae, pop, classical, electronic, soul, etc. Not super diverse but diverse just the same.

Just so it's stated: Rock and Roll lovers can be high end audiophiles too! Have you heard of the fuss about the Beatles and Beach Boys re-issues?

I am so glad for this article, as I've been revisiting my stereo listening and have upgraded my hardware so I can enjoy a higher level of listening to the music that I love. It's very timely for me and my current thoughts on the subject.

I cannot afford $395.00/meter interconnects or $10,000.00 amplification. Even if I had the freedom to spend the money I have (which I don't, I'm married), I wouldn't.

I read Stereophile to find out about the latest and greatest, a new idea here, a wonderful feature there, but $30,000 for a pair of speakers? Are you kidding me? I can honesly say if I won the lottery I would not own a pair of $30K speakers. I skip over the details of those articles and get to the new ideas or latest technology. I have no interest in such ostentatious gear, they just don't serve my purpose. How "high end" does someone need to be? I have a feeling most often the people who purchase such things do so because they can, not because they actually care or can hear the difference.

The last part of this article, "We focus on the ultra-expensive without spending adequate time on truly affordable equipment. We are elitist snobs about our equipment and the music we enjoy." is exactly what I've been thinking over the past few months as I read the artilces in Stereophile and other mags. You hi-fi journalists should heed this as your mantra! The high end market is suffering? Well that's too bad, but really, how many $10,000 cd players, $6,000.00 dacs or $20,000 amps can a company sell? It's limited, very limited. The manufacturers know that. Gee, maybe if a major High End manufacturer wanted to move their brilliance into more affordable gear then that 's the market reacting to the consumer, that's how it works.

 If you can afford high end, then go for it, you lucky bastards! At the end of the day, purchase as much and as high quality gear as you can afford, you'll be glad you did. Just don't be swept into thinking that you have "golden ears" and you have to have super high end expensive gear to enjoy your music.

Just so you know, I "upgraded" to a 1978 Kenwood KR-6600 and am damned glad I did. I have all good gear throughout my home (Pioneer Elite, Aperion, Denon) but not a single item over $1500. It sounds very nice to me. I'm not trying to impress anyone, I'm attempting to get the best sound quality from the budget I have. I'm happy with the sounds I'm getting, and surely wish I could afford more but have no thoughts of spending $10,000+ on any stereo equipment, ever!

KDub out.

pabafigo's picture

#1 the pricing of some of these products and the audio shops that sell them. I make my own gear now or modify existing gear. I have more fun making it then listening to an audio shop sales person, and it is less expensive so with the money I save I can buy more music or go to more live music.

#2 the recording industry and the lower and lower quality recordings they are making.. included in this is the FM broadcast quality dropping for years. Now we have compressed recordings being broadcast compressed a second time by the radio stations.. just lovely. They have trained our ears to accept this crap diet so why spend on gear. It won't fix the recording. Unless you accept to change your musical taste and buy audiophile recordings only because they sound nice and not because you actually know the artist.

I'm 45, I spent my first pay check on my first audio system when I was 19. Still have it too. Do you think that kids (even boys for that matter) at 19 rush to spend their first pay check on audio today? I would bet that because of the dominace of MP3s, today's 19 year olds won't even care enough about audio when they are 45 to spend a paycheck on gear.

50k, 100k, 200k sound system, why? I would rather spend that money going to live concerts not fooling myself into trying to reproduce them in my living room.

There will always be a few old guys that will spend on audio, but they are not reproducing and making new young ones. For the quality of recordings, I think there is no going back, we are too far down the path...

The best we can do is give our kids a nice starter system for their bedrooms and hope they keep the flame make sure it has good headphones. Always play music in the house using a nice system so it becomes a childhood memory that hopefully will grown into an interest later in their lives.

It is up to us, to save this religion, because the gear makers and recording industry have done their best to kill it.




alexandrov's picture

"We are the problem. We aren't getting the right message out."

When I'm talking about my hobby and my system usually the questions are something like "Does it have a good bass?" or "Is it playing loud?". Bass and loundess are the criteria of the average people for audio. It's hard to convince someone that realism and naturalness are real values. When talking about 3D, presence and soundstage I see blinking and puzzled silence... People see insanity in a person who spends $50000 for audio but not for a BMW. 

The audio will always be an elitist hobby.

Naveb's picture

The article suggests there is some public good to spreading the high-end. I'd like it first shown that someone is happier listening to music on $20 speakers than 'mid-end' $2k speakers. I mean empirical evidence - hook up blindfolded listens to brain scanners and measure there neurotransmitter levels. If there were a correlation between musical enjoyment and price beyone a certain point I'd have expected my musician and conductor friends to own better stereos than they do.

StCugat's picture

Just a couple of comments...

I'm glad we still have some high end industry heavyweights (e.g. Revel, AR, Krell?) that have some solid engineering. Engineers have created the optimal knee point in the graph above (e.g. Curl, Pass, Thiel...). The flaky stuff does get weeded out ....CD pen anyone? Experienced and by definition larger companies (with wider product ranges) can straddle the knee (NAD, Revel) and they help keep things sane.

I do think the explosion of reviewers, via the internet, have helped facilitate the luxury/prestige pricing that grabs the headlines. And the review industry is all too happy to go for the ride, after all they get to drive the sportscars we then lust for. I read them ... for fun.

To get others interested in buying or joining in, the article suggests they need to be educated. Creating value in their minds from climbing up the shin. But it is about the music for most people, stupid. What is musically relevant can be got in spades over the crappy PA at the last school party my tween attended last year. I get most of my best new music from funky cafes/shops with crappy speakers. Much of what the high end gets you is not that musically relevant for modern music.. rad soundstage man, dig those microdynamics! (Actually my system does allow me to hear why the musician chose a particular sample or synth setting)

My biggest fear is how the music industry and HR music will work. There is so much music out there (Thanks Stephen and co). But the mainstream download source is worse than CD. Still musically relevant, but they will never know any benefit if the source is crap. I hope cheaper bandwidth and a more sustainable market model brings new music that they want to hear at prices they can afford otherwise why upgrade? The British mantra of source first is more relevant than ever before.

The headphones explosion is gonna help. Good heaphones and an HR source kept intact to those tiny drivers blows the price graph out of the water. Maybe they will want to share those good times with others or cook at the same time. I gotta go drain the pasta....

pwf2739's picture

Thanks to Stereophile for (re)publishing a wonderfully written and insightful article. Despite that the original publish date was in 1994, the sentiments expressed are still valid today. I think all of us that pursue high end audio view with some absurdity the notion of a $200,000 pair of speakers. That of course does not prevent some of us from buying them. I have been a audio enthusiast for forty years. It was not until about a year ago that I really had the available funds to build the system I had dreamed about for most of my life. 

My friends thought I had lost my mind when I recently purchased the last piece of my audio puzzle, a quite expensive speaker cable. One of my friends commented that he wanted to call the people with the white coats and padded rooms to come get me. A couple of weeks later I invited my friend and his young son over to watch a ball game and listen to music. 

Upon their arrival I could tell this teenager wanted to be anywhere but in my front room. We were talking about audio when I made the comment to this kid that his iPod, ear buds and iTunes music only let him hear about half of what was musically available. To prove my point, I asked him if he had any of his favorite CD's in his Dad's car. 

He was, I suppose, just competitive enough to accept my challenge that I would totally shock him with what he would hear if he would let me. I loaded the CD, looked at him and said "hold on." After about fifteen seconds in the sweet spot he began looking left right and center- obviously trying to figure out the sound stage. Shortly thereafter a smile appeared on his face, his head began bobbing to his music and his toe was tapping to the beat. He commented that he heard so much "new stuff." We sat and listened to music for the rest of the afternoon. Football became a secondary event. I turned him on to everything from Deep Purple to Jerry Jeff Walker, to Miles Davis to Beethoven. He and his Dad took turns in the sweet spot. All in all we had a terrific time. 

Prior to that afternoon my friend and his son had never really been exposed to a reference high end system and a dedicated listening session. Their playback systems were mid-fi or an iPod. Mind you, I'm not being discriminatory in any way to those type of systems. In fact, I have an iPod in my car and listen to it all the time. But I think that having the opportunity to be exposed to something they had not heard before changed their perception of my hobby. 

That said, I'm sure my friends still think I'm crazy for buying a $23,000 speaker cable. But I also hold out hope that I have created one convert in a sixteen year old kid who discovered what is musically possible if one follows their passion. Regardless of the cost or how long it takes. As with so many other areas of our lives, the key to the future is in our youth. 

In the end, that afternoon validated for me all the time and monetary investment I have made in my audio system. And I had a lot of fun in the process. I have to believe that is what it is all about. 

How well our hobby, or perhaps better stated, our passion fares in the future is quite uncertain. Educating our youth that an iPod is only one piece of the puzzle seems to me to be a good path to pursue. All audiophiles put up with the lack of dealers, the poor availability of demo equipment and the high cost of components because we are passionate about our hobby. As long as the passion holds out, so will our industry. 

MLAS's picture

Didn't your (reviewers at Stereophile) credibility died when Bob Carver in a very carefull monitored experiment first proved that he could make his Craver 1.5T sound exactly as the Levinson ML-2's? The latter was chosen by the Peter Aczel's team of reviewers from Audio Critic in 1981 and they all consented that the 1.5T sounded sonically the same as the ML-2 but costed yet a fraction of the Levisons, did not use 800 Watts in total continously and could deliver much more power the 25 Watts @ 8 Ohms.
Same experiment was conducted when Stereophile challenged Carver to make the 1.5t sound like a very expensive Conrad Johnson Premier amp. Outcome was, although you did not go for AB testing with no real argument I must say and yes I've read the Carver Challenge article from 1985, but had to give in that Carver succeeded again by making his $700,- amp sounding like your ten times more expensive reference amp even the muddy sound in the low register typical for tube designs could be transfered in his design. You should have embraced him as the new kid on the block but no you kept drooling at even bigger amps gobbeling up resources with their huge kilovolts of Xformers, beercan size of parallel configured electrolytics, arrays of TO3's powertransistors, huge aluminum fascia's and coolingbody's all adding to the pricetag.
I asked Jeff Rowland once why his Class D cool operating 302 had the same huge expensive aluminum heatsinks as the model 8 that really needed those heatsinks. He answered, that's what my customers want..... Just like the meters on the Pass Labs XA series. Fun but unneccesary just like your magazine.


John Atkinson's picture

Outcome was, although you did not go for AB testing with no real argument I must say and yes I've read the Carver Challenge article from 1985, but had to give in that Carver succeeded again by making his $700,- amp sounding like your ten times more expensive reference amp...

I wasn't at Stereophile for the 1985 Carver Challenge, but it should be noted that the prototype Carver amplifier was not used fullrange - see http://www.stereophile.com/content/carver-challenge.

In the 1987 retest of the production amplifier, we did do single-blind testing full-range and J. Gordon Holt was acknowledged by Bob Carver as being able to distinguish the amplifiers under blind conditions.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

MLAS's picture

J.A: I wasn't at Stereophile for the 1985 Carver Challenge, but it should be noted that the prototype Carver amplifier was not used fullrange - see http://www.stereophile.com/content/carver-challenge.

You should have added: driving the midrange/treble panels were the bulk of all the musical information resides.

Let me quote from the Stereophile article about the so-called Carver Challenge:

"This time, the listening went on through the whole afternoon and much of the evening, until all of us were listened out. More leisurely listening, refreshed by a good night's sleep, failed to turn up anything. As far as we could determine, through careful comparisons and nit-picking criticisms, the two amplifiers were, in fact, sonically identical. It is a gross understatement to say that we were flabbergasted!"


"After the second day of listening to his final design, we threw in the towel and conceded Bob the bout. He packed up his equipment and limped triumphantly back to his Lynnwood, WA home base. (He had single-handedly hoisted the hefty reference amp onto a table at one point during the proceedings and injured his back.) The question remains whether or not we might have eventually picked up some miniscule but repeatedly audible difference between the amplifiers, had we been able to listen longer?

Somehow I doubt it. We had thrown some of the most revealing tests that we know of at both amps, and they came through identically. Even on the subliminal level—the level at which you gradually get the feeling that one amplifier is more "comfortable" than another—we failed to sense a difference between the two amps."

Well there's not much room for interpretation here it seems to me.

As I said big hefty well constructed and goodlooking amps have their own seductionary merits and I really enjoy my ML-2's and wouldn't trade them in for a mimicking Carver amp or a 5 lbs Class D amp but don't fool yourself about the credibility of high-end audio nowadays or your magazine for that matter. They're fun but irrelevant.

John Atkinson's picture

Don't fool yourself about the credibility of high-end audio nowadays or your magazine for that matter. They're fun but irrelevant.

You are ignoring the second part of my comment, involving more rigorous testing in 1987 of the production Carver amplifier against the same reference amplifier as in 1985 but now tested full-range: "In the 1987 retest of the production amplifier, we did do single-blind testing full-range and J. Gordon Holt was acknowledged by Bob Carver as being able to distinguish the amplifiers under blind conditions."

Note also that I performed a null test between the production Carver and the amp that it was supposed to sound identical to. The maximum null was in the midrange but was ony 36dB (1.5%), which was reported on in Vol.10 No.3 of Stereophile. This is not sufficiently deep a null for anyone to claim that the amplifiers sounded identical.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

prerich45's picture

The problem now (almost 20 years later) is that the high end is becoming too high end!!! The prices are ridiculous! Their clientel is basically the 1%'s and a lot of them are not buying their products ...not because they don't have the money...they aren't just that interested in music - it's not a wise investment to them. 

Now for the people making 40k and above - Tekton, Emotiva, and get this...professional audio gear are becoming gold mines for price vs. performance!!!! Also the used market is biting into possible high-end profits.  Out of my last 4 sets of speakers, only one set was spank brand new. I just recently gave those to a friend - to introduce him to this hobby - and he's liking it, alot (I gave him the new speakers - I kept the used ones for myself).

I also see the high-end slowly catching on to computer based audio.  The things that they are doing - I've been doing at home for years.  As a mater of fact - at CES they showed a HTPC that cost 6K, looking at the features and everything that it could do, mine is comparable and it took me less than 1k to build - I control it from my android and used it to get rid of my cable boxes! If they come out with a nice high-end sound card, I'll get rid of my receiver - the only thing in the system will be my speakers, amps and my PC.

I see the high-end changing, metamophing, becoming something else.  It's just like a seed or a catipillar, it virtually "dies" before it becomes something else totally!!!!

Paul Luscusk's picture

At The first Stereophile Show in LA I was one of the DJ's at the Hafler room and I was trying to freak out Cory (remember him ?) by cranking up Spinal Tap"s Break Like The Wind CD. NHT always had Rock Music in fact at one LA Stereophile Show (think it was the second) we had a No Jenefier Warnes sign on the  rooms door.I was playing The Hellcasters Peter Gunn in the small room with Super Zeros and a  Sub Zero 

Dom Perignon's picture

Stores are going out of business alright, baby boomers are passing away too bad but this is the time to buy used equipment for a song, if you know what you are doing of course. It is a buyer market as the pool of buyers has shrunk considerably on the used market. In this regard those are exciting times.

labjr's picture

I imagine amplifier emulation could be done even better with DSP.

thecanman's picture

Ridiculously expensive audio equipment exists because:

1. The rich are getting richer worldwide, and there are more and more very rich people who can afford it (whether or not they actually appreciate it, and I would suggest that many do not and simply look at it as another category of expensive toy);

2. Audio equipment manufacturers are not stupid and will take their money.

Ditto for high-end sports cars, jewlery, houses, etc. etc. etc. Way too much overanalysis going on here, people.

bernardperu's picture


Nowadays people in the USA have lifestyles that resemble Elvis on his last days with 6 TVs and an input of so many stimuli that it drove him nuts. There is absolutely no way that not so old aging Elvis could have been an Audiophile, as he had lost his ability to relax and listen. 


The above statement applies to a very large portion of the world, especially societies where people grow up with high levels of tech consumption. Japan is a great exception and it would deserve some serious analysis by Western Audio publications. Unfortunately, Americans are so afraid to do cross cultural analysis that might result in data that doesn't put them on top of the world and, consequently, Japan has been the focus of major criticism and no imitation (except for big corporations that secretly imitate some of Japan's ways in order to boost their profits – smart capitalists know better!)


Don't get me wrong. I think the USA, UK (and, ironically, Cuba) have the best music scenes in the world by far! But playing music and listening to it are different matters: one is active and the other one passive.


This lack of ability to become passive in-house members of the music community may have started with cable and channel surfing. If you don't give your mind the chance to settle down, relax, and enjoy, then, you are destroying the very foundation that could allow you to become a music lover that can turn off the lights and enjoy the trip of just listening. I am in my mid 30s and my parents did not have cable at home and limited my TV time severely. I was not allowed to own a video game console. I did not like this when I was a kid and did not understand what they were doing. Now I am eternally thankful and I am hoping I will be able to do the same with my baby son. I want him to grow up and share with is dad the joy and spiritual adventure of closing one's eyes and listening. 

Shaffer's picture

I've been posting on audio boards since '96, mostly about analog reply. The High-End variety. Today, some 17 years later, I'm still talking to exactly the same individuals about exactly the same thing. Sure, some new blood entered and some folks dropped out, but in essence not much has changed. Same old anoraks chewing over the same drivel.

Now witness the group on SHF. Young folks buying 'tables, older music lovers wanting to experience the ease and natural presentation of analog again. Are they looking at the new $35,000 arm or a Onedorf? Let's not be silly. There's an immediate opportunity to bring a large number of interested, very interested, music loves into our fold. Some firms are, indeed, trying to favor that market. It's just that we, the opinion leaders, are still stuck on the old High-End model. We want more people to enter the hobby? We are the ones who need to alter our outlook first.

Pjay's picture

Excellent reprint John.  I believe I first read a similar article in the 1970s from (I thought was) Stereophile.  It was a Xeroxed copy some high end store near my high school had on the counter.  Something like 12 pages.  I was hanging out there lusting after a Scott amp. 

The core problem is we are selling sound, not image.  When someone buys a Rolex they care little for the specs.  Rolex, Porsche, Cartier and Bose sell image.  Rolex is about as accurate as a Casio, Porsche about as fast as a Mustang, Bose - well.  We are killing ourselves seeking the best sound we can.  The costs are almost always outside a sane ratio for what we earn (like most Porsche owners).  Unlike Porsche our products are well hidden. 

We need to generate public lust.  Consider the 12 year old with a Ferrari poster on the wall.  Where did he get that image?  Someone created it and fed it to him.  We need to look a lot closer at image to draw more people to the hobby.  Better sound is learned from hearing better sound and that first sale needs to be image based or people will never cross that line.  So stop advertising in Stereophile (sorry JA) and put ads in WineSpectator, Cigar Afficianato, Road and Track, The New Yorker, Conde-Nast, etc.  Buy some movie placements.  When James Bond comes home and there are a couple of Wilson MAXX he fires up for a quick unvailing of Halle Berry, there will be sales. 


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