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


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.

lwhitefl's picture

"When it comes to "High End" , no amount of marketing will sell to a miniscule to non-existent 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%."

With all due respect less than 1% of the world population is still a lot of people with sufficient disposable income to expand the current high end market. It seems logical advertising by high end manufacturers has the potential of allowing many more in this group to become aware how well executed audio can enhance their music listening and video enjoyment.

It also seems logical to me there are considerably more people spending well beyond "necessities" on items such as cars, smartphones and notebooks, video, low resolution music, restaurants, etc. - in no small way due to advertising. I think many of those people would be drawn to much of the great sounding lower cost audio gear if they were aware of it and had the opportunity to hear it. I agree audio gear like Magnepan is one valid starting point. But I'm skeptical a complete good sounding audio systems can be assembled for less than $1,000 as you suggest.

Hopefully dialog like this by audiophiles, and marketing ideas expressed at venues such as RMAF seminars, can prevent high end audio from becoming extinct.

Rust's picture

The $1,000 price point was not sufficiently defined, sorry about that. It was not meant to exemplify the cost per system, but the cost per component.

On the other hand, $1,000 for an entire system? A decent system? Certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. Assuming one has a basic notebook/laptop/desk top, at an Audioquest Dragonfly or similar DAC, and a set of Audioengine or simlar speakers, and there it is, a "high value high performance" system.

Now that is a marketable concept. To a market segment, that over time, may be willing to move upscale. Provided that the perception of real value is there. Necessity vs luxury and the amount of disposable income  for those luxuries, and the law of diminishing returns.

As previously stated, until and unless there is some trickle down effect, the extreme high end doen't have much meaning to me. And regardless of cost, no high end system can reproduce the sound of my dreadnought 12 string which has been developing tone since I bought it in 1968.

Rust's picture

"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?"

Why yes I do.

Reading back through my initial post, among others, I specifically mentioned NAD as a high value manufacturer. And cited a few others like Magnapan, Odyssey who actually manufacture in the USA and STILL manage to produce high value high performance equipment.

After all, wasn't an Odyssey Khartago amplifier compared very favorably to the flavor of the month Soulution? Considering the Khartago can be biased for a particular set of speakers, can be configured mono or stereo, can have the power supply upgraded, can be ordered in a selection of colors, can be sent back to the factory for checkups and tuneup, costs under $1,000, is made in Indianapolis, Indiana AND has a better warranty, you tell me which one represents "High Value High Performance" and which one typifies "High End"

Measured purely in performance, the Soulution is a better amplifier, but it is not fifty times better than the Odyssey.

But keep in mind that I also said the "High End" is useful in that many developements initially available only in the high priced euipment may eventually trickle down the price ladder. Digital is a perfect example. Not that many years ago a decent DAC ran into the many thousands of dollars, now it has hit the 90/10 split, over 90% of the performance at less than 10% of the price.

tealosophy's picture

Young people involved in music, what do we do these days? why don't we put every single cent we earn on great hi-end equipment? 

one of the main reasons that comes to my mind is passive Vs. active music involvement: 30 or 40 years ago, the process of creating your own music, was limited to play with your band and perhaps get some money to record a crappy demo in a studio or  have the talent and luck to hit it and become part of the music industry as an artist. Nowadays you can get professional sound quality records from your home, although this is easy to achive it requires some cash, so imagine you have to make the decision of investing your cash on hi end audio, wich will get you a fantastic listening experience, or invest it in a very good home studio, wich will give you the possibility of creating your own music, and even recover your investment by recording other bands, earn you a very good job in the music industry, one of your passions, I never doubted a nanosecond where to put my bucks, such is the point of view of many of my friends with wich I share the passion for music. 

lwhitefl's picture

"Nowadays you can get professional sound quality records from your home"

I don't doubt there are some aspiring musicians capable of recording their own music with computer tools available today. But far too many of today's recordings are dynamically compressed and loud sounding due in no small part to musicians recording their own music. While studio recordings are no guarantee of a well recorded, mixed, and mastered album, I suspect like most human endeavors it takes talent and experience to achieve a really good recording that expresses the music and emotion the artist intended.

Sigma_6's picture

I grew up in an audiophile household, and was exposed at a young age to mid-fi/hi-fi gear that I would never have known about (or been able to buy) if it wasn't for older members of the family.  And it didn't hurt either being an aspiring young pianist; actually being able to listen to Horowitz play a Beethoven Sonata I was trying to learn was a revelation.  So I valued recordings and their sound quality; whether it was vinyl, tape, or later CD's - I borrowed from my older siblings or bought what I could afford and was happy with it at the time.

If you love music you'll listen to it in any format (rather than not listen at all), hence an economic trade off.  Do I want to pay more to listen to (or own) higher fidelity music - or do I simply want to subscribe to some digital cloud and stream/download more music (of lesser fidelity) then I could ever probably afford to own.   Actually I do some of both.  We all have different priorities and budgets, and while certainly most all musicians appreciate superior sound quality, neither can we all afford to (or need to)  "break the bank" with investing in the kind of high end gear routinely featured in Stereophile.

Many years later, I have EE degrees, I've made the transition from consumer to pro-audio, I've worked in the pro audio industry, I'm a member of the AES, I go to the technical/design sessions at the conventions, and I'm more of a software engineer nowadays than an "audio engineer" per se.  I've made some live recordings, I've been in studios, I know mastering engineers, I've taught audio courses, and I can make/remaster recordings in a home built studio.    

While it is easy/cheap to make recordings with a computer running ProTools (or similar - even free - software) with any number of $$-$$$$ audio interfaces and semi-pro/pro monitors, the results are often not commercial grade recordings (as one poster pointed out).  This is not so much because semi-pro users don't have the most expensive gear, or they don't know how to record properly or structure gain stages to preserve dynamics.  It's often just because they are working in untreated, acoustically terrible rooms (which not even room EQ can entirely fix).  

To put it succinctly, the boom in home "pro" recording just continues to make more work (and profit) for mastering engineers for anyone who thinks that having the "right"  gear is going to bring them professional results.  And the same is true for audiophiles (in their living rooms) thinking that a 20K piece of gear is going to get them closer to some "absolute sound" compared to a 10K piece of gear.   

The endorsement theme in both pro and high end audio advertising is sadly very effective advertising/propaganda.  So and so [insert famous engineer, producer, musician] uses this piece of gear, so you should too (with the implication that you will of course get the same results they get in their room - in yours).  Or all that is standing between you and "success" is that you are not using the right gear.  But you don't need to have the exact same gear that a famous professional engineer, producer, or musician uses to get professional and/or musically accurate results (and neither do you have to spend 5-10X more on your monitors compared to the ones the recording was mixed/mastered on).  You just have to be smart about finding and buying gear (and the room you use it in) at any price point (realizing there is a diminishing point of return).

So I read Stereophile for John Atkinson's test reports, technical analysis and commentary.  But I have a hard time with the die-hard analog recording fans, and the reviewers.  There are seldom A/B blind comparison tests; reviews are performed in untreated rooms with not even pro or full spectrum versions of frequency and time domain room correction (which you may not need in an acoustically treated room).

More importantly, the price range of the gear being reviewed can be 2X, 5X, .... greater in cost compared to what the engineers producing recordings (even in the review at hand) are using for references.  Spending 20K to 100K on a speaker to use in a home living room is not going to mitigate the poor acoustics of the room, or any other of the weak links in a home system.  And neither is its performance likely to achieve parity with a professional system at half the cost in a professional mixing/(re)mastering facility.  Yes, it is true that the premier mixing/mastering facilities with major label clients have huge "cost is no object" investments in their rooms and (multiple sets) of monitors/amps - but there are increasingly many commercial recordings made in well calibrated semi-pro project/pro studios whose total gear investment may be 50-100K (even with a cheap console).

The old "Eighty Twenty Rule" can be transposed to engineering, i.e., it can take less than 50% of the effort/cost to get to 80% of the design/project completed.  But getting the last 20% done, or optimizing a design to be 100% efficient or up to theoretical specs - can take sometimes unpredictable amounts of effort/cost.  While no one expects the price/performance ratio to be a linear graph, much of the high-end gear in Stereophile seems beyond even this profile/analysis.  It's boutique gear for collectors, where price-performance is not the issue (and optimizing this is not the goal).   

Much of this comes down to franchises, money, and advertising (at the expense of musical value for the dollar).  Consumer/high end audio and pro audio seldom overlap in terms of franchises and advertising dollars; but it's consumer/high end audio customers who often pay through the nose (compared to pro audio customers).  The mutual exclusion of pro and consumer franchises/lines of gear is on purpose and by design.

You are never going to see a review of Focal SM-9's,  Adam S3X/S4X's, Apogee Converters, or a host of other pro equipment in Stereophile (or other non-pro) magazines that would put consumer audio/high-end gear at the same price point to shame w.r.t price/performance ratio.   There are sometimes units by Bryston, Grace Audio, and Lipinski reviewed in Stereophile - but these are not the "pro" version or line (if a pro version exists).  

Certain design specs and characteristics can always be optimized and/or re-imagined differently via all kinds of component choices, layouts, discrete designs, filter implementations, etc.  But don't mistake the plethora of high end product choices/designs as "innovation" - because it seems to me that far more innovation goes on in the pro audio world (and sometimes trickles down from pro to consumer lines for the companies that maintain both).  Unfortunately, more (mature audio) design choices can lower the barrier to entry in the consumer audio market and make it easier for someone to claim yet another "esoteric" design and market it to high-end audiophiles who will believe the advertising.  That kind of marketing does not usually work in pro-audio circles.

planzity's picture

Following the lead of the unlamentable snarling Mike Kay, many hi-end dealers visibly sneer at potential customers or ingnore them entirely. $70K for components, and have been unable to complete my system except by mail-order because every one of the locals seem INSANE. Not responding to simple e-mail: how much is EXPENSIVE BRAND MODEL #GIVEN? Call them, talk nicely,  and they don't ring back. Try to audition with your own material and get a rant suggestive of psychosis. Suggest "trade-in" and get shunted off, even when they say they take tradeins.  Gave up on a wiring/cable order for $10K when the salesman would not fill after a year and am still using hookup wire. In what other industry are the customers treated so poorly--even used car salesmen hide their disdain enough to induce sales among their victims. G*D bless: Music Direct; Legacy; Audio Advisor;Acoustic Sciences, without territorial or other self-inflicted wounds. Audiogon for not joining the cartel. (Note: Am nowhere near NYC, supposedly in a location of nice folks.)

Mrckrescho's picture

I blame the Jawbone Jambox.

WELquest's picture

In all our navel gazing, rarely is it acknowledged that we are a symptom, not a cause. The "industry," manufacturers and the audiophile choir, seem too often to be trapped in the shadow of a 70's and 80's cultural phenomenon. Bringing back that time is impossible, though if it were possible, the hardware ingredients of today's audio world would not be a limitation. As JA and others point out, equipment exists at all prices, and is covered within Stereophile. Too much of our self-criticism is like blaming an on-stage chair for being a different color than in the past, while ignoring that it's the play, the human dynamic, this is or is not the one we wish were being acted out. Most people never have and never will read "buff books" like Stereophile or TAS, or in the past Sensible Sound, Listener, Audiogram, Audio Critic, Fi, Play, Sounds Like, etc. The demise of most of those publications isn't because they did anything wrong. The continued existence of Stereophile and TAS isn't because they "won." When the climate changes faster than evolution and a crop fails, it's not the fault of the seeds. Yesterday's audio ecology wasn't created by us, neither is today's, and tomorrow's won't be either. We're blind men feeling the elephant's, tail, leg, tusks and trying to extrapolate outwards ... better we should look back at where we came from ... being teenagers who wanted to get high on music, who reveled in immersion, speakers on either side of a waterbed. In the rational and rationalized climb towards audiophilia, we fogot that we're all humans who "just want to have fun!" There is zero possibility that the component audio business, or high-end, or merit-based hi-fi, will grow because audiophiles do a better job of preaching. In a world in which an intense relationship to music is successfully enabled by headphones and buds on an almost universal basis, there's no shortage of appreciative subjects ... some of whom would take off the phones and use speakers if they could be similarly immersed in a non-intellectual visceral manner. We need the retailers who sell headphones and buds to set up computers with nearfield speakers (off-the-head headphones) on either side. If the fertile soil of the old audio world was having the bedroom or dormroom be more attractive socially because it had better sound, the core of a new audio relationship is making YouTube and the rest of today's audio sources sound so good at the computer that one doesn't want to stop. All the rationalizing of mostly men becoming addicted to an upgrade-path first requires non-rationailzed immersion. The soil has never been so fertile. Never before has such a huge percentage of the population been addicted to an immersive aural experience. We have totally won, but the play's not over yet. There will be a renewed expansion of off-the-head sound ... more so if headphone retailers set up appropriately seductive systems which cater to peoples' existing life style. Any attempt to tell people that they have to worship a pair of speakers on the other side of the room is doomed to a fall on deaf ears. That's like telling people that to enjoy art they have to go live in a museum.

hifijohn's picture

What killed high-end audio is high-end audio.What was once a great hobby full of fun-to-be-with people and good affordable audio has degenerated into the lunatic fringe.

Super expensive  equipment that 99.9% of audio people cant afford,magazine that do nothing but promote this expensive nonsense.Since reveiwers never pay for the stuff, cost never enters into the review.

Super snobbish audio store owners, whos buy-something-and-get-out or just-get-out attitude doesnt help.When was the last time you walked into an audio store and felt welcome?

Audio nuts who look down at or you or verbally abuse you because you dont like that 5 watt $10k amplifier that he thinks its the best.Hobbies are empty if you cant share it with people,but who wants to deal with audio people?

Music that doesnt need good equipment to repoduce.yes in the old days people listened to classical,jazz and a good stereo was need but today music is so artificial it no similarity to real music anyway.

full or con artists,cd demagnitizers??!!

I started in audio the late 60's and by the early 2000's even I gave up on it.

Lets face it high-end deserves to die.

Robert J Reina's picture

I had two interesting conversations about audio today:

1) Audio Research told me that the sound of their $8995 Reference 75 power amplifier can be improved by adding the $12,000 Nordost Odin power cord.

2) I recommended an excellent receiver to a friend for $113.

Yes you can buy a decent stereo today for $1000 total. But you can buy an excellent one for $2000 total.

Both of my children (aged 17 and 12) are musically inclined and love to listen, but not to the same music as me. ("Dad, I don't like your music. First of all, there's no words. And second, it sounds as if the musicians are just making the stuff up as they go along." )   But they don't care about quality. MP3 files listened through the throwaway earbuds they distribute for free on planes or in hotel gyms are fine for them.

Ariel Bitran's picture

"And second, it sounds as if the musicians are just making the stuff up as they go along."

knowing your tastes, this is probably true...

kcychien's picture

Problem is obvious and easy to solve.

End all "subjective" thinkings in audio and end its status as a superstition among non-audiophiles (also for some audiophiles). Status of the audio world is as bad as the wine tasting industry, where there is no objectiveness and everything is "trust your ear" and "personal preference".

In the computer industry, objectiveness exists in the form of scientific hard numbers, such as CPU clock speed, GPU clock speed, benchmarks and so on. In the auto industry, objectiveness exists in the form of top achievable road speed, torque, horsepower and so on.

If one says a 20MHz computer is better than a 2GHz computer, and hire top singer to advertise for him, nobody would pay him attention. But similar condition in audio industry would yield totally different results, which is undesirable.

Ariel Bitran's picture

but do those specs determine how it feels to drive that car?

I'm not a real car buff by any means, but even if a car has XXX horsepower, that doesn't tell you how if its a smooth ride.

specs and measurements for an audio product Can but Are Not necessarily a linear indication of how it sounds. 

kcychien's picture

Hello, Ariel:

What the computer and auto industry has achieved is to pull their industry out of the superstition ditch by using scientific hard numbers.

Surely horsepower will not tell a consumer how smooth is the ride, but smoothness of a ride is subjective if there is no scientific way to quantify that (a salesman can claim his car gives the smoothest ride, and if you disagree then he can just say it is "personal preference"). Some auto manufacturers did find a way to scientifically quantify "smoothness of ride" though. 

jordon.gerber's picture

"I would say, in my perfectly objective opinion, that this speaker has the exact quality rating of 5."

That graph.....it makes me cringe.

nleksan's picture

As a sound engineer, audio editor, etc, etc... I have certainly developed my own belief system in regards to what constitutes "high end" audio, "mid-range" audio, and "low-end" audio.  The thing is, the difference between the three categories is just as non-linear as the price difference between your "Class E" and "Class A" speakers...

Any John, Dick, or Harry can go to Guitar World or (shudder) Best Buy and walk away with a $500 "surround sound system" consisting of 7 speakers, a "subwoofer", and a "receiver".  This system will play back their Blu-Ray soundtracks with all 8 channels present, and is enough of a difference over stereo sound that to them it is going to be a huge difference.  Watching any film in stereo versus a properly setup surround sound system (regardless of the cost) is a very different experience.

The same Johns, Dicks, and Harry's can go to the same stores, or for the more technologically inclined, online retailers, and order themselves a setup consisting of an Onkyo TX-NR5010 or Denon AVR-4520CI 9.2ch Receiver, a pair of Polk RTI A9's with their 3/2/1 Woofer/Mid/Tweeter arrangement, a pair of Polk RTI A5's (2 Woofer/Mids and a Tweeter), two pair of Polk's RTi A1 Bookshelf Speakers (Tweeter/Mid), a New Monitor CSi A6 Center Channel, a pair of PSW505 subwoofers, and hook it all up with 14AWG Copper Wire.  
Set it up with the RTI A9's playing FR/FL, the A5's running SR/SL, the CSi A6 as Center, and the 45B's as Rear SR/SL and Front Highs or Wides, keeping the speaker wire runs under 20'.  The subwoofers go wherever the room acoustics dictate.
A nice LG 55" local-dimming LED-LCD Television, an HD Cable Box/DVR, a Samsung/LG/Sony Blu-Ray Blayer, and a Game Console (XBox360/PS3), and you have a typical upper-middle-class "Entertainment Room" setup, at least "typical" among the "somewhat better audibly-endowed" bunch.
Let's see...
$2,500-3000 for the Receiver = ~$2750
$675 ea for the RTi A9's = $1350
$400 ea for the RTi A5's = $800
$450 ea for the CSi A6 = $450
$350/pair for the RTi A1's = $700
$400 ea for the PSW505's = $800
$1800 for the Television = $1800
$200 for the BD Player = $200
$300 for the Game Console = $300

That's $9,150 just to get an "above average" home theater setup!!  NO WONDER PEOPLE ARE AFRAID OF HIGH END AUDIO!!!

Start talking about $5,000 DAC's, $125,000 Hand-Crafted speakers, or the RIDICULOUS $1000-25,000 CABLES, and no wonder people blow this off as a bunch of smoke!

I produce music, and I have my favorites when it comes to speakers (both monitors and "listening" speakers), headphones, etc... Some of which are a bit much in price for a "sane" person to fork out, but others which are perfectly reasonable.

We (my employees and I) did a few blind tests of our own.  We were doing some recording, and decided to see if there was ANY audible difference between recording the actual MASTER DISC with AudioQuest cables/interconnects totalling $88,539, or using (the always fantastic) MonoPrice's 12AWG wires and their Banana Plugs.

We re-wired the entire studio a number of times, and did both listening (double-blind: blank CD's other than a number that was put on them by a third party) and instrument-measuring tests.


NO DIFFERENCE!  NONE!  These are acoustic measuring instruments that cost upwards of $50,000 a piece, measure down to 1/10,000th of a dB, and not a single "high end" cable made more than a 1/500th of a dB difference in Sound Floor, SNR, etc.  The music didn't sound any more "lively", "forward", or anything.

MY ADVICE: Buy nice speakers, get good wire (from Monoprice), and then spend the rest of your money on your family/your loved ones... Music should be something that enhances your life, not takes away from it.
The more you obsess over your equipment, the less you will learn to love the life it is trying so desperately to play into...

Ruth's picture

great article - and I agree with many of your points - but to combat some of the issues at Audio Lounge we run weekly 'Listens" events which we advertise on social media. Every week we have a packed listening room of non-audiophiles - who enjoy listening to a seminal album on vinyl on one of our flagship systems - and we teach them about high-end audio at the same time. Proving so popular we now have to limit numbers!


vlashing's picture

Its really simple and just like every other industry. The high end audio business is full of snake oil. No, I didnt say its all snake oil. Fact is far to many of the products are nothing but and the people selling it are using a sales technique that just doesn't work with either women or the younger generations. Snobbery. Plink plink goes the boring jazz piano. Tum Tum goes the string bass ... out walks the young man with no interest in that. Older fellow with bad sweaters and a big gut pretending to be refined ... out go the ladies.

Its not all that bad but unfortunately most shops are exactly that. Car lots, art dealers etc have all had to adjust. There is money out there. Its being spent. But trying to sell $3000 interconnect cables to an intelligent woman is insulting her. Get it? No one is fooled. They can read. They know the science. When dealers start into that crap, out they go. No time for it.They are not afraid nor timid .. they simply have no time for the insult nor to explain that to you.

I love high end audio. But I see alot of names being put on products that are made alongside others in china. The prices are not alongside though. The interconnect and speaker cable snake oil etc. Its not doing anyone any favors and the longer its ignored the more people will go under. Why tarnish your rep by taking part in what you will be eventually exposed for? Boom trust gone.

Tons of people would spend good money for good product. That includes women and young men who understand their IPOD sucks. They get it. A ton of them would spend 5 - 10k pretty easily too. But they dont want to hear some old guy talk over boring Jazz music ... or should I say talk AT them like they are tools who do not understand that 30k preamp is "sublime". There are people buying that stuff too. I know several. They have the same complaints. The Snobbery and pretend games are not working any better than the old fashioned zig Ziglar car lot sales. Everyone learned those techniques, worked them and came to loathe them.

Talk to people, its amazing what you'll find out when you actually listen instead of trying to lead their opinion. Treat them right and they come back again and again.

People will spend good $ for good product. But the stories and snake oil are fooling no one and visible floaters in your swimming pool.

stehno's picture

... is that the high-end audio industry has for 40+ years fallen so far short of the mark i.e. the absolute sound, and to make matters worse it seems very few (maybe a handful) even realizes it.

I'm unaware of such dismal performance in any other industry yet only in this industry are enthusiastics so quick to swallow camels whole while choking on gnats.

For example, the so-called experts are often times so enamored with hi-rez recordings, yet if they were intellectually honest they would realize that hi-rez recordings are most often marginally superior to standard redbook.

What the industry has yet to realize is that while it looks smuggly down on compressed formats like MP3, they have no idea that even their SOTA level $500k+ playback systems' precision and accuracy have been so severly crippled by distortions that only a small percentage of all the music embedded in the recording and processed remains above the noise floor and is audible.

Not too unlike a very blurry picture of a beautiful red Ferrari where the noise floor is so high, one can barely tell it's a Ferrari.

There are a few who acknowledge this serious shortcoming. There's Robert Harley of TAS who in the Mar/Apr 2009 issue speculated, "I believe that something catastrphic occurs at the recording mic's diaphragm so that much of the music never makes it to the recording." Paraphrased. John Atkinson in the Sept 2009 issue declared something not too dissimilar about much of the music never making it to the recording. Then there's my favorite quote by Jonathan Valin of TAS who in circa 2007 said, "We are lucky if even our very best playback systems can capture just 15% of the magic of the live performance."

So in the grander scheme of things, those who think they are in hog heaven with their SOTA-level playback systems having convinced themselves their listening perspective is somewhere in the recording hall, they don't even realize that when compared against the absolute sound, what they hear is actually far closer to that of MP3, even when they swear the sun rises and sets with higher rez recordings.

In other words, the industry is filled with hype, soap bubbles, and bling-bling, but with very little substance.

In the end, for most, high-end audio is really not much different than driving that beautiful red Ferrari back and forth in the driveway, without ever realizing its true performance is out on the open highway.

To make matters worse still, it seems very few are aware and even fewer care. Indeed the emperor has no clothes.

Anyway, that's my first and 2nd guesses for the death of high-end audio.

ssamick's picture

I honestly believe that they are just Overpriced. Having been friends with a professional installer who sold and installed several brands I can tell you that they are extremely expensive. He would share his cost on the products he sold and the Higher end equipment he sold the more Markup there was. Sometimes 500 or 600%. If that's the price it takes to do business these days then it will die. The average Joe just can't afford these products. I think that's why online retailers are winning the battle. They just don't have the overhead. Just my opinion


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