In the old days, when audio-show reports routinely appeared in the print edition of Stereophile, life was easier. I spent my show days visiting exhibitors and listening to new gear, but I decorated those days with record shopping, dining out, and staying up late to visit with friends in the industry. And because hard-copy deadlines always seemed to be at least a few days away, I would wait until I'd returned home before doing any actual writing.
The new way is betterexpecting excitement from a show report in a print magazine is like expecting carbonation from an open beer you've found behind the couch the day after a partybut it's considerably more work. Most of the writing and photo editing must be done before leaving for home, which means that all pertinent facts must be gathered on-site. No more follow-up e-mails. No more frantic calls. No more screwing around.
I'm getting good at it. My handwritten notes from the Chester Group's New York Audio and AV Show, which took place in April at the Waldorf=Astoria, contain up to a dozen dollar signs per page: clearly, a sign of efficiency. But my New York experience touched a new nerve. It seemed that all I heard at the show, every hour, in the majority of rooms, was "$20,000." How much is that amp? "$20,000." How much is that preamp? "$20,000." How much is that cable? "$20,000." I have a vague recollection of going to one room, inquiring about a rack full of upmarket gear, and hearing a shopkeeper repeat, over and again, as he pointed to each product in turn, "$20,000, $20,000, $20,000 . . ."
So I returned to those handwritten notes with an idea in mind: to find the average price of the products on display in each major category, as well as the average price overall.
The results aren't pretty. From my reporting, the average price of a new digital source component at the New York Audio and AV Show was $12,670. It would have been higher, save for AMR's forthcoming USB converter ($350). For turntables, the average was $18,196. That number, too, was nudged in the direction of sanity, in this instance by VPI's Traveler turntable ($1299). Tonearm prices averaged-out at $6184, phono cartridges at a cool $7544. The average loudspeaker price was $39,559/pair. Preamplifiers at the show sold for an average of $25,393. And I've saved the worst for last: Power amplifiers at the New York show were, on average, priced to sell for $37,331.
The overall average price at the Waldorf=Astoria? $20,982. My casually retrieved memory wasn't far off.
An amusing aside: As I write this, some twit on Web forum Audio Asylum has decreed that my system, which he has never heard, is not "high end." (Horrors!) The culprit appears to be my Shindo amplifier, which, he claims (without evidence), is "vastly overpriced," "horribly expensive," and "a rip-off." Interestingly, a pair of handmade Shindo Corton-Charlemagne monoblocks, such as I own, sells for less than one-third the price of the average amplifier at the New York Audio and AV show.
Back to the Waldorf: In fairness to both the consumers who have the means to buy such things and to the manufacturers who have cause to make them, I can see paying $20,000 for a domestic audio product, but only if it contains a minimum of $4000 worth of parts that stand a gnat's chance of improving the sound. And I'm happy to state, clearly and unapologetically, that I can see paying high prices for vintage products where and when supplies are low, demand is great, and those products' levels of quality and workmanship are extinct.
But it's time to call bullshit on some of this stuff. It's time to call bullshit on five-figure interconnects and four-figure isolation cones. It's time to call bullshit on $30,000 amplifiers that would be priced to sell for $10,000, tops, if not for their massive, jewelry-like casework. The compulsion to make the best of anything is noble, but the inclination to rely overmuch on the brute force of excess and opulence in doing so is sloppy. And while I understand that the imperilment of the middle-class consumer base forces some start-up companies to aim up-market in order to survivesee JA's essay on this subjectI feel that the inability of so many present-day high-end audio manufacturers to offer outstanding performance for less than astronomical prices does not speak terribly well of their engineering talents.
I went to an audio show at which the average product price was astonishingnot just high, in the sense that a BMW is priced higher than a Subaru, but freakishly high. Yet the majority of the sound I heard there was unexceptional.
I'm grateful for the existence of companies such as AMR and VPI, who appear to have the ability and the will to make products that people of average means can aspire to own. So, too, do companies such as Conrad-Johnson, whose Classic 60 amplifier ($3750) combines quality, performance, and value in a manner that ought to be an example for all. So, too, do DeVore and Harbeth and Kimber and Peachtree and Quicksilver and Rega and Rogue and Spendor and Wavelength and others: companies whose sole focus is not always budget gear, per se, but who refuse to dress their BMW-quality products in Lamborghini cosmetics just so they can push them further upmarket. That practice has become far too common during perfectionist audio's last decade, and if it continues, we are doomed, with a capital F.
People who lack our enthusiasm for recorded music and exceptional playback gear delight in criticizing high-end audio as fraudulent. I don't share that point of view. We are crippled not so much by fraud as by a bit of greed, a bit of sloppy, cost-ineffective engineering, and a lack of willingness on the part of us all to speak up and say, I'm sorry, but an interconnect is not, under any conditions, worth as much as a new car. For me, that lack of willingness ends today.