What Price Audio?

Few topics ignite more heated arguments among audiophiles than the price of audio equipment. How much do you have to spend to get really good sound? Are people who buy expensive gear wasting their money, or is it simply a matter of getting what you pay for? There are many such issues, most of which have been discussed at length in Stereophile and various online forums; here are a few I haven't seen addressed except in passing.

Real vs Perceived Value
The real value of an audio component is defined by its sound quality and the convenience it offers, characteristics that may not become fully apparent until after you've owned the component for some time. Perceived value has to do with the sound quality and convenience you think the component will give you—a judgment that you make before you buy it. In an ideal world, the real and perceived values would be identical, but we don't live in an ideal world. I think all of us have bought products—not just audio—that had some feature we thought would be very useful, but that we ended up hardly using at all. (Apple Face Time, anyone?)

For mass-market products, perceived value rules. Bigger is better. A washer with nine cycles must be better than one with six cycles, even if most people use only three. A shirt with a designer's logo over the pocket costs twice as much as a shirt of the same quality lacking that logo.

We audiophiles pride ourselves in basing our purchasing decisions on sound quality, not appearance or the number of bells and whistles. Still, we're not immune to influence by factors involving perceived rather than real value. The fact is, it's often hard to tell the real value from the perceived. What I think helps is to look at each feature or characteristic offered by a component, and then ask yourself, and the salesperson, how it will enhance your enjoyment of music. Is a major part of the product's appeal based on its cosmetics? Is there a less expensive amplifier that sounds just as good (or even better), for which more of the manufacturer's design budget was spent on the circuit components than on a fancy faceplate? Having said that, at higher levels of price and sound quality, it's reasonable to expect a visual appearance at a correspondingly high level—appearance that can actually increase one's enjoyment of the product. Perceived value is also real value. I bought the McIntosh Laboratory MC275LE that I reviewed last October, and while my main reason for buying it was its sound quality, it also looks great; just gazing at it, I get a feeling of satisfaction.

Weber's Law
A concept familiar to those with a background in psychology is Weber's Law, which states that the least amount of change in a stimulus that is detectable is a constant proportion of the original intensity of the stimulus. Thus, if the original stimulus is weak (eg, a dim light), then a fairly small increase in the intensity of the stimulus will be perceived as different; whereas if the original stimulus has a much higher intensity, then it will require a correspondingly greater increase in stimulus intensity for it to be perceived as different. (The same proportion of a larger amount is itself a larger amount than the same proportion of a smaller amount?)

Although Weber's Law was derived from studies with simple stimuli, it can be applied in a more general way to consumer behavior. Suppose you were thinking of buying a certain loudspeaker, and then found out that the price has increased by $200/pair. Would this price increase be likely to turn you off the purchase? Weber's Law states that this would depend on the original price, the ratio between the price increase and the original price being a constant. If we assume that this ratio (Weber's constant) is 1?10, then if the original price was $2000, a hike of $200 would be just at the point where the increase seems significant. If the original price was $5000, then an increase of $200 is well below Weber's constant; the increase would not deter you. If, however, the original price was $1000, then the $200 represents a far more significant proportion, and will likely create major sales resistance. If a manufacturer wants to increase the price of a product more than Weber's Law would dictate, one way to do it is to claim that the increase is due to significant improvements in the product, and perhaps give it a new model number or name. These improvements may in fact be genuine, but you should try to find out precisely what they are, and see if they justify the increase in price.

The "Might As Well" Factor
One of the most tempting influences that can result in your spending more money on audio equipment than you originally intended is the "Might As Well" factor. Let's say you've decided to buy a $5000 pair of speakers that you think will take you a step closer to audio nirvana. But is it enough to buy the speakers while keeping the rest of your system the same? Might as well buy a new amplifier, too. The one you first think of puts out 50Wpc and costs $3000—but will 50Wpc be enough? Might as well buy an amp that puts out 150Wpc (and costs $5000). Of course, you then need a matching preamp—another $4000. And what about the digital source? The amplifier and speakers can reproduce only the signal they receive, so you might as well improve the front end, too. And we haven't even discussed cables . . . Well, you get the idea. If you're not careful, your initial $5000 purchase can become $20,000 or more.

There is an argument that it's better to spend more money now and not have to upgrade later. John Marks has cogently argued for this "buy it once and buy it right" approach, and it can certainly work, but only if you have the required discipline and self-restraint. In my experience, it can also be an excuse to spend more money now—and even more money later. And if that describes you . . . welcome to the club!—Robert Deutsch

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