R.I.P High-End Audio?
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 gearlike the Genesis Model One loudspeakers, Rowland Nine and Jadis JA 500 amplifiers, FM Acoustic phono preamplifier, or Rockport turntablenone of which are listed in "Recommended Components." Many people could almost buy a home for this kind of moneybut would have to take out a mortgage to do it! The system's intentionally short wires come to $10,495a 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 hoursand 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:
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):
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 storythe 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 informationlike "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/performancelevel (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 discussedwe 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.8387.
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