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


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. 

Ariel Bitran's picture

you got it.

Audio_newb's picture

The simple fact that this column seems as relevant now as it did in 1994 suggests to me that there are some structural issues inherent to the world of high end audio that limit its appeal, but also that these issues should not necessarily be read as signs of the apocalypse.  In fact I think the high end audio market today is as healthy if not healthier than ever before.  From Magico, Devialet, and Constellation to GoldenEar, HRT, Schiit, and everything in between, those who love audio have never had more options available to them.

Having said that, here are some observations from a young audiophile (I'm in my 20's) on the state of "high end."  Firstly, let's start with what exactly "high end audio" means, and what that definition itself means for the world of high end audio.  Certainly it means many things to many people, but I'm going to generalize a bit based on my observations of the Stereophile set (this being a Stereophile article after all).

I think we can start by stating that high end audio isn't solely about price.  Granted, even on the "low" end this hobby is not for the faint of wallet, but companies like PSB, HRT, and Schiit make it possible to get in on the game without having to take out a second mortgage (some of us don't even have a first).  Conversely, there are expensive audio products that often for one reason or another fall beyond the walled garden of high end audio:  in-wall speakers (and simply much of what is considered home theater), high end speaker docks, and lifestyle speakers such as those from Bang and Olufsen come to mind.  In their defense, Stereophile's mission statement is perhaps more defined, there existing the sister publication Home Theater, but too often I think there is a certain component elitism that excludes a wide range of products that produce excellent sound, sometimes within the constraints of space or aesthetics.

Luckily, I think the once moribund high end audio industry is starting to come to these same realizations--that great, "high end" audio doesn't have to mean large stacks of expensive, industrial looking gear.  From the computer as source to the explosion of head-fi, and most recently the growing segment of all in one digital integrateds or "power-dacs," high end audio is finally moving to accommodate the ways that most of us listen to music: on the go, at our desks, and in our living rooms.

Considered in this way, the high end is looking healthy.  Young people love music just as they always have.  Granted, disposable income is a limiting factor (young people just don't have as much money), but here too I think recent trends are positive, if yet to be embraced by the gamut of high end manufacturers.  I mention companies like HRT and Schiit because they embody much of what is possible in a new world of high end audio.  Taking advantage of advances in small batch manufacturing (enabling them to keep production here in the States) and direct online sales, they have managed to release well designed products at outstanding price points.

There will always be a place (and desire) for bleeding edge megabuck systems, just as there are for million dollar supercars, but I think that great sound is really available for less.  Certainly the continued success of computer audio and class d amplification topologies will continue to push the cost curve down even further, but the next step is up to the manufacturers themselves, designing products that look as good as they sound, are easy to use, and fit into people's everyday lives.

Bowers and Wilkins I think has done a great job in this regard.  By making speaker docks and soundbars, they broaden their audience:  and who knows, once people get a taste of great sound they might just migrate up the chain to a full Classe/B&W system, losing nothing of modern functionality and aesthetics.  Car companies have been managing the upsell for ages.  But even old dogs can learn new tricks, case in point the beautiful new Wadia Intuition 01.  Perhaps a long way from affordable, and mass market appeal likely won't be helped by I2S hdmi inputs instead of mass market standard hdmi, but change comes one step at a time.

Hopefully by the time my friends are ready to graduate to high end audio, contemporary music will be mastered (almost) as well as the latest recording of the Copenhagen lute symphony.  In either case, high end audio is here to stay.

tmsorosk's picture

  Could never understand why high priced audio equipment  bothers some folks so much . If you don't want it , don't buy it , but don't mock the ones that do .

soulful.terrain's picture


Well said.

protosp's picture

hi-end audio industry seems to be dying. becauese old audio equipments with good sound are immortal. they can't be disappered, they resurrect forever at the repair shop.

if someone take the old audio stuff, and destroy them all, audio industry will be revived again. I think hiend audio and fashion industry have something in common. design art!. but people will not repair their grandparents's clothes again and again but most people repair and enjoy for their audio equipments. that's the different point. that makes hi-end audio industry's hopeless future.



Reed's picture

No one has mentioned that we now have many other tech items competing for the extra dollars.

A direct competitor is home theater.  I know of very few folks that would spend extra money for a high quality stereo, but just about everyone I know has spent a good amount on home theater.  Not only does this compete directly from a spending standpoint, but also competes for physical space.  I watch a lot of movies in the home theater with my family, so it also competes from the standpoint of how I spend spare time.  Movies take 2 hours to watch and we usually watch 2 or 3 movies on the weekend.

Others that come to mind are gaming consoles, computers, iPods, smart phones, etc.  In the 80's, most of these didn't exists.  Some existed, but now days you need many of the items to function these days.

edeugan's picture

I agree to a point with the comparison between high end audio and high end automobiles. To continue with that analogy, I think that one part of the problem is that many people can't afford a Magico/Krell type system, just like many people can't afford a Lamborghini or a Ferrari. With cars, people tend to buy about as nice a car as they can afford, whether that be a Mustang or a Porsche. But their attitude with audio is, "I can't afford a Ferrari (Magico), so I'll just ride a bike (iPod with factory earbuds)". I think more of us need to show people that it is possible to get good sound at a reasonable price. If we can get someone started on the journey for a $300-$1000, they may discover that they would like to continue the journey.

Rust's picture

"The automotive business model where $25K - $50K pricing exists doesn't appear to be a hindrance to demand for that product."

Seriously? Not exactly a logical comparison. I'll go so far as to say a stupid comparison. I can't use a $25K-$50K high end system to drive to my job site(s), go to the grocery store, or haul a load of lumber. My 12 year old truck will do so just fine and it does come with a sound system to boot. A two-fer. For most people a vehicle is not a luxury but an absolute requirement. Auto companies, among the largest corporations in the world. Audio specialty companies, microscopic, making their marketing budget microscopic.

lwhitefl's picture

"Seriously? Not exactly a logical comparison. I'll go so far as to say a stupid comparison. I can't use a $25K-$50K high end system to drive to my job site(s), go to the grocery store, or haul a load of lumber."

Obviously you missed the point of my argument and rather rudely at that. My point is though automobiles certainly are considered an essential "tool" by most people that perform the tasks you described, many people buy or lease autos far more costly and often than required. Automobiles serve far more than a utilitarian purpose to many people - they satisfy an emotional need. Music is no different! And therefore I maintain properly targeted demographic advertising could have a similar impact on audio as autos.

Rust's picture

Rude? A bit. But I maintain it's still an apples to oranges comparison.

When it comes to "High End" , no amount of marketing will sell to a minescule to non-existant demographic. That being the portion of the population that has $25,000 to $50,000 in disposable income to buy luxury items. Well under 1%.

Regarding what constitutes a neccesity or a luxury. Do not confuse adding a little luxury to necessity, with somehow redefining a luxury as a necessity. Even a vehicle at some point becomes a luxury. Other than as a status symbol therre is no actual reason for Bentley, Ferrari, Aston Martin and all to even exist.

Necessity, what is required to sustain existance. Luxury, what makes that existance more bearable or even enjoyable. Music is a luxury, albeit a very very desirable luxury.

The only expanding market will be a market with very high perceived value for the price. Think sub $1,000 for entry level. Seriously sub $1,000. Audioquest seems to get it, Schiit seems to get it, Magnapan seems to get it and even stiil build in the USA. As do a few other manufacturers.


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