Skin Deep

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 better—expecting 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 party—but 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 survive—see JA's essay on this subject—I 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 astonishing—not 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.

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COMMENTS
Watthead's picture

 

I enjoyed this article very much. So much so that i went ahead and created a profile just to write this msg. Congrats on stating issues that many agree with, but don't have the guts to say, much less write about it on the Mecca of the category of issue in hand. Takes b_lls. Chrome Ones.

Congrats.

deckeda's picture

So interconnects can't be, either. Perspective's a funny thing.

But yes Art I get your meaning.

I get the sense that the high end's detractors view the availability of exorbitant products as things they must financially pass judgment on, but lack the willingness to draw any further boundaries. And so *anything* purporting better sound gets lumped into the same category as the "$30K-and-up" models. If one's a ripoff they all must be. The Internet then amplifies absolutism and ping-pong arguments.

The difference between greed and fraud can be one of perception, just as value is. Then there are times when the skin deep distinction is literal, such as with the Lexicon BD-30/Oppo BDP-83 fiasco.

scottyp's picture

Art, you da man!

hififofum's picture

The last ten years of my 45 year career in this business have been an embarrassment.  I am embarrassed to be associated with the outrageous products and prices that Art is calling out here.  

Each time I return from a show it takes a while to calm down and return to thoughts of products that seem sane to me.  There are too many bozos on this bus right now!

The charlatans will destroy high end audio.

remlab's picture

Years ago, I showed my high value system(Dunlavy & Conrad Johnson) to my father, who was not impressed. He asked, almost incredulously, "Do you really actually need this expensive stuff to connect with the music?" His system of choice? A boombox from the Goodwill. I guess we all have our limits..

volvic's picture

I so enjoyed reading this article, this is why I love reading this magazine and Art's articles.  However I believe these practises might be on their last legs.  I will explain as succintly as I can, inspired by a Canadian hifi magazine that is based in Montreal, I followed their lead after reviewing a computer audio setup that had them stunned and jaws dropped.  So, one macbook pro, one Bis usb cable, one Stello U3, BIS digital cable and a Moon 300D DAC and I too was stunned to find out that my Linn Ikemi and YBA CD1a were beaten and I mean beaten by this setup.  Cost of this setup? Approx 2900.00 with cables and this trounces any high end CD player front end on the market at least price/performance ratio.  So to the charlatans who charge outlandish fees with little price performance return computer audio is democratizing our hobby at a rapid pace.  Still going to keep and use my  CD players and just love my VPI - my favourite hifi company by the way.  cheers. Nick 

tom collins's picture

Volvic:  I am going to respectfully disagree with your comment about the charlatans being on their last legs.  There is a gigantic middle class emerging in the east.  I forget the figure, but not long from now, China will have more middle class citizens than the US has citizens.  Also, being newly monied, they are going to be in a hurry to spend it.  Many will spend it on high priced audio.  So, in my opinion, we will not longer be leading the world as a market, but we will be sucked along by other markets.  As such, my conclusion is that there may even be more such products in the future.

Regards,

Tom

volvic's picture

Tom: You may be right, I wasn't thinking of the emerging middle class in the far east where a lot of manufacturers are looking towards, when I wrote my words.  But, I still believe that consumers there are just as savvy as we are here and will hopefully spot a "snake oil salesman" when presented with one, especially given the sonic benefits of computer audio.  We can only hope. 

Cheers

Nick

hififofum's picture

Tom are you suggesting that the middle class in China will be purchasing $20K cables?

philipjohnwright's picture

Unfortunately I  suspect the 'middle classes' in China et al may well buy $20k cables. Because they can; same reason people by modified Lamborghinis and the like.

But back to the main point  of the article. And all I can say is thank you Art for pointing out the king isn't wearing any clothes. Something we've known for a while, including I suspect many journalists who themselves have been part of the problem. Not all of course, but unfortunately quite a few; no names because we could all probably think of one or two.

The other problem in my view is that there are just too many high end manufacturers chasing too few sales. Resulting in inflated margins just to survive. Small manufacturers are fine as long as they contribute something; unfortunately there seems to be very little genuine R&D done by many of them.. Most is of the 'let's stick that on there and and see what it does' variety. 

Exceptions? Of course. My own Harbeth developed a new cone material with help from government funding, Alan Shaw also says the real advances he is making these days are down to better analysis of speaker behaviour. And look at Classe's CP-800 preamp - filled to the brim with new and useful technology yet sounding as pure as the purest analogue preamp if reviews are to be believed. Whilst not cheap it certainly isn't outrageous; positively good value next to many.

So please reviewers, do what you a best placed to do. Cut through the hype and tell us what is good value for money (not the same as low cost) and who the charlatans are. Difficult I know, as magazines need advertising revenue to survive (which being a commercial person I'm not against at all). We just need a bit more realism in our hobby, otherwise it will continue it's lemming like trajectory with similar consequences. 

Mikeymort's picture

 

Well, a Stereophile reviewer who tells it like it is. There is a lot of great equipment out there and letting newbies know that there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to cost and sound quality and there are even budget choices for great sound will likely bring more people into the audiophile market. I've been an avid reader of audio magazines since the sixties, and it's important for readers to understand that once you put together a really good playback system, the next step is to start reading Stereophile for the MUSIC reviews and explore the infinite variety of music available. Sure, you want to keep up with new equipment...you may decide that what you really want is a system capable of reproducing a symphony orchestra at full volume in your living room and you'll need help finding the right equipment to do the job. If you have a system that lets you listen for hours on end without listening fatigue, you'll be less inclined to think you need to spend $10,000 dollars on a set of speaker cables to "fix" your issues with your equipment. 

Dan_Hudson's picture

Like "Watthead", I too created a profile just to comment on Mr Dudley's "Skin Deep" posting.  Thank you!  In a era of most young people knowing nothing other than forever-fatally-flawed 99 cent downloads from iTunes, the last thing the audio industry needs to do is scare curious future listeners away with products + prices that are best described as comical.

mauidj's picture

Brilliant piece Mr. Dudley!

I have wanted to express these feeling for a few years as I've watched with increasing amazement and amusement the proliferation of the $20k+ component. If only the other reviewers shared Art's ideals. Unfortunatley they seem to think that the higher the price the better it is. Even making excuses for idiosyncrasies or faults with these silly over built and bedecked components. Anything rather than calling it a spade! How can a reviewer even think to make an excuse for a $150k turntable or a $20k bookshelf speaker? Well read Stereophile or Absolute Sound and see how!

The show reviews are easily the worse offenders. List apon list of "mid priced" $30k+ items. And narry a $1k piece to be seen. Yes I know...reviewers are just reporting about what is out there and if it's not there then I guess no fault. BUT..if they stopped writing about this "over priced crap" in the main pages then I wonder how many of these charlatans and bling merchants would survive.

The US and European economies are in the crapper but sales of Ferraris and Lamborghinis are at an all time high. So why are we suprised by this move up market and away from the true middle class of equipment?

The 1% rule now and what we are seeing is a manifestation of this scandalous truth. Don't hold your breath thinking it's going to get better. But at least with Art's credo we can be sheltered from this onslaught of excess while still enjoying our beloved hobby. 

So reviewers..and manufacturers.....hear us mortals..we like to read and see a bit of the silly expensive stuff but please, let us eat some bread too!

dalethorn's picture

As long as there are reviews and reviewers who can hear many amazing differences of warmth, tonality, speed, clarity, impact, blah blah blah... from all of these different amps and interconnects, then there will be consumers who will buy the stuff. This article is a good reality check, but that's it. There's a relationship between the manufacturers, the media, and the consumer that dictate how things will go. Some constraints of the world economy or other issues may delay forward progress, but as long as technology continues to advance at the pace it has, those delays will be temporary and quickly forgotten. But I do empathize on one point - real-world examples of classic gear that can be compared and contrasted to the new stuff is the best reality check of all.

deckeda's picture

I'd like to see more low to mid-priced gear on display at shows. And yes, some demos can be used to show how good that often sounds. First-timers need to experience that. But I suspect that's not the main purpose of hifi shows.

Show dealers are chasing dollars from audiophiles who probably already have low to mid-priced gear and who come to see "teh new shiny;" the chi-chi. After all, if you GO to a show, you're not really that casual about it, are you? We're talking a few sub-layers of audiophiledom here.

mrplankton2u's picture

Manufacturers can only get away with the shrewd marketing of their products and manipulation of gullible well heeled customers if equipment reviewers like Stereophile fall down on the job. We can blame manufacturers all we want. If no one like Art Dudley is calling them on the farce that they derive a living from, the farce or charade will continue  with the enthusiasm and support of others in the marketplace chain that profit from the enterprise. The industry will cater to an ignorant, albeit "upscale" marketplace if it is allowed to by those who have the abiity to influence it. Ultimately though,, as Art suggests, the industry will dwindle and collapse on itself since incentives for charlatanism and manipulation run counter to the kind of innovation and quality that lead to a sustainable and prosperous marketplace over the long term.

tom collins's picture

look at the great discussion you have started with your article.  what is truely amazing is that we have had this many responses, so many views, and not an insult or flame (beyond "snakeoil") among them.  kudos to all.

 

tom

deckeda's picture

... and thinking, each person isn't quite as freaking stupid as a few of you here would portray. So let go of the "put upon" victimiztion, a bit, please. Ain't nobody forcing you to do anything, so don't assume anyone else is being forced to, either.

Point being (I hope?) that while overpriced (by whatever definition you prefer, OK?) equipment exists, to someone out there it has value. So even if we don't "have" to promote it or pass judgment on it per se (OK, mabybe we should ...) live and let freaking live, what do you say?

Not only is it not anything remotely mainstream, it's not actually representsative of the high end, if you think about it. The bespoke rarely ever is.

niterunner99's picture

Just like everything else, there will always be overpriced equipments. It all boils down to each individual on how important is music to them & their buying power.

Many years ago, I fell for music & was very happy to own a simple set costing less than SG$4k. Both my wife & myself spend many hours with good music during those time.

Than it was time to upgrade since music had become a important part of our lives, & that we find it viable to spend a little more for better quality & longevity of the equipments, & also the overall music. (I'm not a frequent equipment changer!)

But a walk through the shops nearly put me off this enjoyment. Equipments that sounded relatively good were costing way out of my reach. So a simple set up consisting of a CD player, integrated amp & speakers are around S$28k! By the way that’s not including the cables & racking.

Not giving up, I spend the next few mths of spare time to look for equipment that has the sound I like & within my budget. So now, both wife & myself are very happy with the music from my new purchase of totaling S$20k (some are pre-owned).

I forgot to say that, that total cost is 6mths of my pay. So am I consider as in the 'middle class' or just plain crazy?

Plans to upgrade to better sounding (of course will be expensive) equipment? Surely, but not at the moment!

PS. Now even my 6yrs old daughter loves the music I'm playing…

Gene T's picture

 

Art Dudley's suggestion that there may well be more than a few naked emperors cavorting about the hi-fi world is a valid point to consider.

Judging by the thoughtful observations, various opinions and civilized debate found in the comments here, it would seem that determining, each to their own, a realistic ratio of monetary investment to enjoyment of music is something that we should all keep well in mind whenever investigating, auditioning and purchasing hi-fi components -- at any price point. 

Thank you, Art Dudley.

Jerome Lang's picture

It's all knife brandishing and that's all. Until Art actually name brands and specific products/models, it's just hot air.

deckeda's picture

AD already mentioned price point examples and product types in the text above. You can figure it out from there to adequate satisfaction, right?

fy415's picture

Unless the offenders are called out in public, this column is self-righteous hot air--it sounds good and noble, but simply states the obvious, and ultimately ineffective.

Plenty of people have been locked out of the club for too long. Put your money where your mouth is, Art Dudley, and let's see if the pricing trend can be reversed.

shinri's picture

I remember when Harry Pearson raved about the Monster Cable Interlink Reference 1A interconnects back in the early 1980s, everyone said they probably sounded great, but baulked at the insane pricing. They were $80 for a 1M pair.

Jack_Mlynek's picture

I guess these companies are trying to get as much out of the 1% as they can before the revolution comes.

HiFiVinny's picture

Art - why haven't you mentioned the 100% markup at the dealer? Sure, a $20k interconnect is an abonation against humanity, but $10,000.00 of that abomination is dealer profit.

Neil's picture

HiFiVinny, you are on crazy pills if you think dealers make anything like that!!

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