On Value

Not long after I moved to New York City, in anticipation of some summer-holiday meal, I went out into the city searching for lambchops. The closest butcher shop I found, Harlem Shambles (thank you, Google Maps), was at roughly my latitude but across Morningside Park in a gentrified section of Harlem. I walked over and entered a large area occupied by a refrigerated glass case of the sort common in butcher shops. The case, though, was nearly empty—just a few cuts of meat, filling perhaps 5% of the available space. Adding to the vibe of neglect was that none of the half-dozen or so skinny young men with spiffy hats and immaculate facial hair (no hairnets on the beards) were greeting customers—or customer, since I was the only one. The natty men behind the counter were busy doing butcherly things. One, for example, was demonstrating to another the appropriate technique for scraping a side of beef fresh from the dry cooler.

Eventually, one natty man approached and asked me if he could be of service. I told him what I was looking for and learned that they did indeed have lambchops—they just hadn't made it out to the display case yet. (It was early afternoon.) I told him how many I wanted. I learned the price only when it was time to pay: $16.95/lb, not bad if they were boneless, but these were caveman-style chops with bone sticking out 8" or so past the small morsel of meat—more bone than meat by far.

It was, I concluded, less a butcher shop than a butcher-shop playground, a place for these young men to amuse themselves, playing at being butchers, financed, perhaps, by parents or someone's trust fund. (Q: How do you end up with a small fortune selling meat? A: Start with a large fortune.) The natty men had not yet caught on to the fact that a crucial skill in any trade—part of what it means to be a tradesman—is the ability to offer a modicum of value, by negotiating, buying well, working quickly and efficiently. Even if you're selling premium goods—this store had pretentions, though the lambchops weren't that good—you still must offer prices rendered as reasonable as possible by efficient professional practice, not inflated by unconcern or ineptitude. Such economy is an essential element of good craftsmanship. These men were not troubling themselves about that part of the business.

I have written before, more than once, about the issue of value in hi-fi—specifically my opinion that value is a value, which is to say, it's personal and different for each one of us. I do, however, have economic values of my own, even if I'm not inclined to impose them on others.

A boutique producer of hand-built, expensive equipment made one or a few at a time cannot be expected to realize the same economies of scale as a company that makes thousands of a thing on an assembly line (footnote 1). To make the effort worthwhile, the company that makes only a few of something must realize proportionately more profit—a higher markup—than a company that makes far more. The dealer-distribution model results in additional markup; it's up to those dealers to prove their worth. It's legitimate for companies to pursue wealthy customers with products priced at levels only the wealthy can afford—here's hoping, though, that the company's investment in making high-dollar products yields technologies that trickle down to products at prices more of us can afford.

But every professional in any field should practice good craftsmanship. Playing at the higher end of the market—of the price scale—does not excuse sloppiness, wastefulness, or disregard for value. Even at companies that offer luxury-priced equipment—I'm tempted to write especially at such companies—price discipline must prevail. If a manufacturer sells an amplifier for $50,000, it's imperative—a matter of principle—to ensure that it's worth $50,000, not just because it sounds good in someone's opinion but because the company has exercised economic discipline in making it and knows its real worth. Disregard for value is bad craftsmanship, simple as that.

One reason some audiophiles resent stratospheric pricing (beyond the fact that it prices products out of their reach) is a sense that the market those companies are selling to—the luxury-goods market—is less discerning about what matters most to us: the best possible sound. If that's true, companies selling to that market might well be motivated to prioritize other values, a waste of talent and resources.

Many audiophiles appreciate fine mechanical watches, but a digital Timex keeps better time than a Rolex or Patek Philippe. "Best possible sound" is the hi-fi equivalent of "keeps the best possible time." Any company that prioritizes luxury over hi-fi objectives is no longer playing our game.

Fortunately, of the high-end brands I've sampled, I've encountered few that have sold out hi-fi goals for luxury and none that are dressing up mediocre hi-fi in fancy jewelry. Rather, the companies I know are taking advantage of freedom from cost constraints to more fully achieve hi-fi goals.

If there's a brand more closely associated with luxury than Bugatti, maker of $4 million cars, I don't know what it is. At High-End Munich, I was one of only a few reviewers to audition Tidal's new Bugatti system, which includes a compact (but luxurious looking) streaming integrated amplifier and two large, heavy loudspeakers that resemble nothing so much as the rear fenders of a Chiron. And cables, probably; I assume cables are included in the price.

This is undeniably a luxury product. Even the screws are custom, with a Bugatti emblem carved into the head of each one, matching screwdriver supplied. It was impossible not to admire the attention to detail, the fit and finish.

The sound? Fast. Beyond full range. Timbrally consistent across frequency bands. Detailed but not bright. Above all, dynamic. Not lush or forgiving, as you might expect in a luxury system; indeed, I heard no ingratiating qualities. Perhaps I've grown inured to crazy high-end prices, but considering what was on offer, the €405,000 asking price for the system seemed more than reasonable. But if you want one, get in line.

All hi-fi manufacturers should practice good craftsmanship, which includes economic discipline. That plus our shared objective—pursuit of the best possible sound—are key prerequisites for belonging in this world, that of perfectionist audio.

Footnote 1: See John Atkinson's As We See It on a similar topic here.

Anton's picture

I agree with that thought, not that there's anything wrong with that.

I think there are 250 dollar bottles of wine that are more than reasonable.

Then again, there are wine nuts that think 35,000 dollars for a bottle is good value. So, I guess it depends on the price points that we become inured to.

In that realm of meaningless dollar amounts...which would one choose? These kooky speakers with bespoke screws, or a case of 35,000 dollar wine bottles? Not a question I am allowed to answer, end stage capitalism precludes the possibility of owning either.

Maybe they'd let me toss away a few grand for the special screwdriver and a small selection of screws. I'm sure they sound great all on their own. (J-10 could probably hear the difference.)

Better yet, I am sure Bugatti could make a special edition corkscrew, price it like an SAT tonearm, and offer it as a glove box kit for the car! I bet it would open the f-word out of a bottle of fine wine.

It does make me wonder, how many Saudi journalists would I need to chop up to be able to afford these speakers?

P.S. We need to get a review of these special screws, perhaps Jonathan Scull could pop by and compare these screws to the ones from that amplifier review where he listened for the optimal screw pattern on the top plate of an amplifier. Was it the Symphonic Line? Forsell? The name escapes me! I miss Jonathan.

ok's picture

..supermodels; most of them are nothing exceptional under normal conditions, but the rich will always choose them over some really georgeous next door girl - and will sell them as soon as the next big thing appears.

Poor Audiophile's picture

..comparison. For me, "supermodels" are too skinny and fake looking.

Anton's picture


Audiophile joking. No other intention.

ok's picture

..you know what: they get all the press; and press brings more press.

Ortofan's picture

... about $450K burning a hole in your pocket.
Which to choose: Tidal Bugatti audio system, Rolls-Royce Phantom motorcar or Cessna Skyhawk aircraft?

music or sound's picture

I never saw a Bugatti on the street except in that high end show. One thing is very obvious that a significant portion of high end stuff has bad, pretentious design. Good design both technically and aesthetically is not cheap but it avoids extra costs of bling. Why has kitsch so much status value?

remlab's picture

A pair of Tidal Bugatti's can buy you 13 pair of Kef Blades :-)

Anton's picture

Watch it.


Ortofan's picture

... quite the surround-sound system.
Plus, it would resemble a Stonehenge of audio.

jimtavegia's picture

Since my wife is not doing well I have been doing much of the grocery shopping and I too am shocked at the prices, most of beef these days. It is seemingly so high that it is close to being cheaper to go to LongHorn for a steak anymore. The only thing I find of value in the meat section is pork loin. We are even now making our own dog food as it is cheaper than quality? dog food these days.

There are other commodities such as electricity in which we pay $0.14/kwh here and in CA they are paying $0.35/kwh. Our property taxes here are so low that I can hardly believe it and wonder how long it can last. These can directly affect one's quality of life, retired or not.

As for the price of high-end audio gear I do not begrudge anyone owning the best of the best as they can afford to do it. The value of Stereophile is in knowing by JA1's testing whether it is of high enough performance to warrant an "A" rating and the sample tested did not have some defect discovered. The fact that someone could pay good money for a piece of gear and not know if it is defective or not, as some are not sonically noticeable by trained listeners. There was a $5K Cd player years ago that fell into this category.

It is clear to me that at certain high price points that every piece manufactured should go through stringent testing as much as JA1 does so customers know it is working right. It should not be statically sampled with every 5th, 10th or 100th piece checked at the end of the manufacturing process. There is much "B" stock being sold for various reasons at great prices.

What is good in 2023 is that even reasonably priced gear can make it into Stereophile's Class A and B and owners enjoy great sound because of it and folks can afford it. A great thing.

Pork Needle's picture

>>the €405,000 asking price for the system seemed more than reasonable.<<

Probably the most stupid comment you'll read today. Zero qualification; just said.

Glotz's picture

What the hell else are you gonna spend your money on? Is there something else one would rather spend money on? (And yes, after they buy a jet and the requisite vehicles that every millionaire would..)

Great article Jim- the detail on the butcher shop hits home to real value of expert, bespoke craftsman ship- or the lack of it in this case.

Anton's picture

These products smack more of spending inherited money vs. earned money.

They might be worth 400,000 of daddy's dollars, but they don't strike me as the kind of thing someone would buy who knows the actual value of money he earned. (I say "he" because I think women are too smart to fall for this stuff at any level.)

If I had to break it down further, I would guess over 85% of the people who'd buy those speakers have names that start with "Prince...."

Side note: don't mistake disdain for envy. ;-D

Glotz's picture

And make my Dad pay for it, boyyyyy!

Anton's picture

I should have said "Sovereign Wealth Fund."

noamgeller's picture

The real question is-are we the 0.01% so blind to other fellow humans beings who are sleeping tonight in the streets and digging food out of trash bins When we declare "priced more then reasonable" on a 405,000$ loudspeaker.
Dropping this kind of cash on luxury is not only ridiculousy shameful but also means we lost our senses and dignity.
Cash is not a game for those who really needs it.

David Harper's picture

Spending this amount of money on a stereo component is obscene. The idiots who do will have some explaining to do when they go to meet their maker.

Glotz's picture

on why you act such the aggressive fool to his children on a daily basis.


Doctor Fine's picture

Value, sound quality, looks... These things are aspirational.
Being a fool and getting ripped off by audio-fool manufacturers is not my style.
Which is why I laugh at most of the junk on sale at the high end.
A lot of which is "expensive solutions looking for a problem" and doing little to advance the art.
My opinion only.

bhkat's picture

Has anyone looked at supermodels lately? Some of them are fat and disgusting.

cgh's picture

This article scratches the surface of the most-debated aspect of this whole game.

I suppose there is a price attribution along the lines of the following expansion:

retail price = price of parts + price of production + price of distribution + measured performance + subjective performance + R&D premium (new technology) + liquidity premium +...+ name/image/likeness + luxury craftsmanship + artisanal craftsmanship +...

It would seem that if we exclude the meaningful $'s in the latter terms on small N basis (e.g., luxury = bugatti, artisanal = shindo, horns) that, on average, the liquidity premium is fairly wide and explains the the volaility of the unexplained. I also assume that there's not much new real technology being deployed. I also assume that building the box and distributing the product is a very expensive part of the process. I know this first hand from visiting manufacturers of amps and speakers. Hand waiving here, but the liquidity premium would seem to be rather large, even normalizing for small N production / high retail cost.

And I suppose that this is where the argument comes from. Unlike watches, and I love the Timex / Patek Phillipe analogy, haute audio is *supposed* to be all about performance. Yet it gets conflated, both real and imaginary, with luxury. And I think it's just that simple.

Hi-fi has it's roots in scrappy, educated, and almost middle class people. The people I knew that were in the early TAS days didn't have FU money. They were practical and good with soldering irons and had chemistry and physics degrees. Their work ethic and values were culturally inherited. This bequeathal creates a dissonance with the current state of the art's price points (inflation adjusted or not).

I go to the US Open every year. The finals. I don't look at the prices but courtside I think I've had tickets that cost $7k. Tennis, like other sports and cultural events in NYC, used to be a place that a working class person could take their family. Tennis finals used to be general admission and seats were first come first serve. All of this has been coopted by corporate interests, squeezing out the plankowners just like NY real estate. Hi fi has been no different. I can't knock the manufacturers for selling at these price points if they have customers that are willing to pay. But, to be clear: hi fi has changed. Maybe the only place to find what it used to be is places like High Water Sound.

james3895's picture

Jim, you sound like a bit of a grouch. Who knows with these kids? Maybe they aren't trust fund butcher-dilettantes but rather struggling to stock their new enterprise, bootstrapped with credit card cash advances? Your reuse of "natty" makes me think you're using it pejoratively, when it's denotatively positive? Also, naming the business is bad form. Would you ever call out a snobby, incompetent audio retailer by name after one unsatisfying, brief visit? I mean, did you ask for the price anyway?

We all age ourselves with nostalgia for a time of "craftmanship" that likely never existed. Have a cold cut sandwich and count your many blessings.

cgh's picture

Interesting point. I myself use archaisms too often and need to watch my company. On one hand we have the clear semantic shift (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_change) of the term which, sometimes, takes great words and renders them less great. On the other, the establishment in question, now closed, is in Harlem - so it's either a dangerously clever or simply innocent in its intent.

Anyway, nostalgia for a time of craftsmanship is real. Unless one can find beauty in lines of hidden code or derivative uses of existing technology today there was a time when we built things and they were interesting and beautiful and thoughtful...

Scintilla's picture

Fremer's old ridiculous review of the CH phono pre that cost more than my estwhile Porsche Cayman. I got roasted by a cabal of bootlicking sophists, including some Stereophile writers for that rejection of conspicuous consumption. This magazine just isn't any fun anymore with the direction of reviews. When I was in high school, I took a Stereophile to class and hid it behind my french textbook and read it during class. Those were the small-format days in the early 80's. I read every issue with such glee... JA2 and I are 2 years apart in age. The editorial content has gone to shit but it isn't his fault. There's just nothing left that is compelling about this magazine and it kills me. It's like, wow you're all a bunch of twats now; Tom Gillet was never like that, nor was AHC, Dick Olsher and especially Corey Greenberg. I can't relate to you or your multi-hundred-thousand dollar systems which you defend with smug dismissals. Don't lecture me about value, Jim. You don't understand value. I don't think you understand your readership either and the magazine is going pay for that. Lewis Lipnick's review of the B&W 800 was the moment everything broke and nobody seems to undestand that or is willing to fix it. I just don't want reviews of $80,000 turntables. That's Rob Report stuff. Stop. One or two a year is aspirational. You aren't getting it dude. Your entitled writers that want to have that equipment in-house are driving this and its their egos that are driving content and not your readership. Jason really, truly doesn't need to review another $100,000 product. If he wants that, he can buy it. I'm not interested in reading about it.

Poor Audiophile's picture

"The Entry Level". But hey, I still come here every so often.

barfle's picture

I agree that a lot of the equipment being reviewed here and in other forums is not intended for folks like us who have had to earn their money. And some of it is downright disgusting in its opulence. A half a million bucks for a pair of speakers fits that description.

Having said that, I enjoy going to museums where they exhibit artwork I cannot afford. I enjoy going to custom car shows where they exhibit machinery I cannot afford. I don’t always like what I see, but I can appreciate the effort that went into the product.

bhkat's picture

I am glad that there are people in the market for these expensive products because that technology and innovation are incorporated into less expensive products.

ok's picture

..that rich people spend their money on luxury products for their money are ultimately being trickled down to us.

MBMax's picture

I find these insane audio products rather distasteful and even if I could afford them, there's just no way I could in good conscience drop this kind of coin. I spend a lot of time in some very poor countries and it's rather sickening when I think of how this kind of money could help humanity.

That said, a lot of people have jobs making the parts for and manufacturing such monstrosities and as a result can pay the rent, put food on the table, and clothe their families...

celef's picture

The most bizzare is that we love to read about these stuffs, just like we love to read about superrich and famous people, we just can not get enough

Anton's picture

What speaker would Patrick Bateman buy?

rschryer's picture

...Sony WM-D3 cassette player kind of guy.


english pete's picture

The few wealthy people I've known over the years are usually quite astute with their money, and almost always looking for a good value in any deal. That is generally how they came to amass a fortune in the first place. Maybe the new found wealth will be taken advantage of.......business is business.
Which brings me to my subscription delivery issues, Jim! :-)

Trevor_Bartram's picture

Jewelery for lazy audiophiles, that don't realize the fun in life comes from doing the necessary research to find value. It reminds me of the Audi fools that pay 2-3x the price of the equivalent VW for leather seats and wood trim. Audi, VW, Porsche, Skoda, Seat etc are all made in the same group of factories. It's the power of advertizing at work but these lazy consumers don't realize the're being manipulated. Rant over!

Ortofan's picture

... magazines/websites each set up an "affordable" complete system with a maximum total price of 5,000 €.

Perhaps Stereophile could run an article (or series of columns) in which each of the reviewers chooses a complete system with a price ceiling of, say, $5,000.

Here's an example:

Wharfedale Linton Heritage speakers (with stands) $1,500

NAD C 3050 w/BluOS-D module integrated amplifier $1,800

Pro-Ject Debut Pro turntable w/Sumiko cartridge $1,000

Marantz CD6007 CD player $600

Blue Jeans - Belden speaker cables up to $100

Audio cables for turntable and CD player as included