The Fifth Element #6

"Della, it's considerably past five o'clock. Please pour me a glass of wine. Pour one for yourself, while you're at it. Don't we have some 1954 Inglenook Cabernet in one of those credenzas out there?"

Answer honestly: During your impressionable youth, didn't you wonder how Perry Mason and Della Street disported themselves after office hours? (Hint: Microsoft Word's thesaurus suggests, as synonyms for disport, "play, fool, dally, caress, toy, fondle, tease, sport, and trifle." (footnote 1)

Wilson Benesch's Discovery loudspeakers strike me as a product Perry would have enjoyed owning. Hugely. I assume that he and Della would have listened to music such as Clifford Brown and Strings on them. The Discoverys so reek of timeless quality that you feel compelled to uncork something really good to keep them company. And their slightly edgy Nuevo Art Deco styling is just Perry's cup of tea.

The Discoverys landed in my listening room despite a trio of despites. Despite being named "Component of the Year" by a Japanese audio magazine, they have not yet been sold or even shown in the US. Despite selling a respectable number of turntables in the US, WB's extraordinary loudspeaker offerings have never quite gotten marketplace traction here, with the result that WB's US distribution arrangements are (again) in transition. [WB is now being distributed in the US by The Sound Organisation, of Dallas, TX.—Ed.] But most of all, I allowed them into the house despite the fairly obvious fact that "discovery" is an easy anagram of "very disco," a synchronicity Jungian enough to make anyone jumpy.

(Longtime readers will recall that my entire disco-on-vinyl collection was lost when I was induced to put it up as surety on Pee Wee Herman's bail, in reliance on the faulty premises that Pee Wee was Jascha Heifetz's natural child, and that I kinda owed it to the old guy's memory. I know I digress. But the resemblance is startling.)

Back to reality. The Discoverys landed in my listening room because my previous extensive and very favorable experiences with Wilson Benesch loudspeakers indicated that a cost-really-no-object, stand-mounted monitor speaker from WB would be equal to the task at hand: making the most rigorous and revealing comparison possible of the SACD remastering of Glenn Gould's 1981 recording of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations with its original CD issue.

To get the how-much-is-that-doggie question out of the way first: $8,200/pair.

As far as I'm concerned, there are at least two ways to determine whether the retail price of a particular piece of audio equipment can be justified. One is to examine the development costs, labor, and materials that the manufacturer has to pay for, add to that the overhead, profit, and distribution costs, and gauge whether the result is seriously at odds with reasonable norms.

The key term is "reasonable norms." In this regard, I believe many clamorous audiophiles routinely apply to audio manufacturers standards they would never want applied to their own lives. No ethical person expects a housepainter to paint his house for the cost of the paint alone. The laborer is worth his hire (Matthew 10:10).

Housepainting is a fruitful analogy: When I was a young lawyer, I was advised that one could always tell the houses of criminal-defense lawyers—they were freshly painted and had well-trimmed lawns, from the labor of unincarcerated clients working off unpaid legal fees. As a thought exercise, let us compare two housepainting operations, then two audio operations.

Case A is Sammy the Fence. Sammy's painting rig consists of his girlfriend's old station wagon, a ladder, a few brushes, and some paint. Sammy's costs consist of the paint and his time. But Sammy is demonstrably in the painting business, just as some people are demonstrably in the audio business. And just as it is not impossible for Sammy to do a respectable job (footnote 2), a loudspeaker or amplifier put together on someone's kitchen table from bought parts can indeed sound pretty good.

Case B is Applied Coatings, Inc. Applied Coatings is the result of the merger of two family businesses, each with decades of experience. Applied Coatings has large rented premises for office, garage, and storage space. Applied Coatings pays property, liability, vehicle, and workers' compensation insurance premiums; pays employment taxes, health insurance, and retirement benefits for its employees; pays property taxes on its fixtures and equipment; pays trade-association dues; sponsors a youth soccer team, and makes charitable donations within its community. Applied Coatings has 20 employees, four vans, a cherry picker, and eight power washers.

Now, if the estimator from Applied Coatings provides you a quote to paint your house that is more than twice Sammy's quote, that does not mean that Applied Coatings is ripping people off. It means that Sammy is in the painting business only until his probation officer gets off his case.

Footnote 1: Ever the contrarian, violinist Arturo Delmoni thinks that the hot couple was Perry Mason and Paul Drake.

Footnote 2: I sincerely doubt, however, that Sammy will do a good job. Inexperienced or careless painters don't expend enough effort on surface preparation, don't use a primer, don't extend the paint appropriately for conditions, and don't apply the paint properly. The result often is thick paint chips flaking off, especially from under the eaves, where salts form.