What Are You Really Paying For With Audiophile Gear?
I recently finished writing about the importance of finding new audio/video enthusiasts (and creative ways to do it) to join our offbeat club of people who love the best in AV performance, gear and experiences. One of the most important things that I would preach to new converts to my new technology and entertainment-based “religion” would be the concept that it is more important to enjoy the journey of building, upgrading and evolving your music and/or movie playback system than reaching some predetermined end game. There might be a place that you get to when you simply can’t justify any more investments – call it The Holy Land – but the route to get there is the majority of the fun. I would encourage all of us to relish in the joy that comes from procuring that unique new component, or to embrace the positive vibes that comes from installing that new tweak that improves your sound. This is the fun of the hobby, just like owning a car collection, where you have to sell a few of your “babies” along the way to get the combination of vehicles that you ultimately desire. Missing those products that you had to move on from is a reasonable feeling as we all have. Lusting after that new “XYZ Audio 123” product is also equally part of the fun. Learning about the new gear, hunting down a demonstration of said new product, then finding a way to buy one, is all part of the process. Even making an investment mistake in a key component can help define more of what we like and what we don’t like in the hobby.
Not all AV components are equal, not by a long margin. Some differences are huge. Others are so small that you need to secure them to your rack so they don’t fall on the floor because of normal use. Some components are made as if the metalwork was designed by Tiffany’s, whereas other products are cheap plastic hunks of crap, but still somehow loaded with compelling electronics inside. Some gear comes in designer colors, polished wood finishes, and/or with gorgeous metal work. Others look like the audiophile components are made in a basement … and in many cases they are, as you can see at any number of hotel room displays of audiophilia at the regional shows.
Hardcore audiophiles will tell you that they judge their system based on its pure, unadulterated performance, yet few use professional measurement systems to see how their collection of gear actually works in their specifically treated room. Even the best recording studios and mastering labs often have room for than nth degree of additional performance, but you have to use science, not “audiophile religion,” to find it, and that is much more a part of the world of pro audio than high-end consumer audiophiles. Basically, the audiophile community is saying “why tune my Lamborghini using this so-called diagnostic computer when I can do it by ear? I’ve always done it by ear so that should be good enough, right?” Wrong. There’s more performance out there even in the best of systems. There are computer-based AV products that can use professional measurement microphones that both diagnoses and cure audiophile maladies. These are the state-of-the-art components that have trickle-down effects all the way to today’s $500 AV receivers. Amazing but painful to snobby, audiophile clichés. Sorry, clichés …
What are we really
buying when we really open up the checkbook for an audiophile or many high-end
home theater products? Speaker technology, arguably the most important in the
audio equipment chain, hasn’t seen a lot of game changes in the past few decades. The form factors of speakers today are unquestionably more compelling,
narrower, and more visually appealing. The finishes that contemporary high-performance
audiophile speakers come dressed in are really fantastic, including buffed metals,
exotic yet sustainable woods, carefully curated paint colors, and so much more.
Today’s speakers are easier to drive, and easier to park in your living room
with other non-AV, lifestyle furniture, and they are gorgeous. A lot of what
you are paying for include the above-mentioned finishes, which are by no means
cheap. If you are buying from a traditional dealer, you must take into account
their profit margins, which are high. Rare earth materials like neodymium,
which is the metal that makes up the ultra-light magnets in drivers, is the
main reason why your beat-to-shit iPhone 6S is still worth something in trade. There’s
a lot that goes into a modern audiophile speaker that doesn’t present to the
In terms of audiophile components, designs vary in age, but the ones that audiophiles love most (Class-A, Class AB, tube amps, for example) have been around forever. Improvements, new materials, new pathways are always being found and, just like with a racecar, products keep getting incrementally better and better. But when push comes to shove, you are paying a lot for American or Western European hand labor. You are paying for big, beautifully designed heat sinks. You are paying for low-volume but high-complexity metalwork that makes your stereo preamp feel like audio jewelry. If an imported product, you might also need to factor tariffs and international distributors into the cost of any product. These are the real-world factors that make up the often high cost of AV electronics. Could these costs go down? They could if the products were built in more volume but with today's supply-chain issues, that's unlikely.
Some components are so expensive to make that high-performance audio companies simply can’t manufacture them in the modern age. The category of AV preamps comes to mind. In the 2000s, companies like Meridian, Krell, Theta Digital, B&K, Sunfire, and many others made badass AV preamps that had great audiophile looks, build quality, cred, and performance, as well as the audiophile price tag. Today, most of those companies don’t make a modern AV preamp, as you will find from, say, Marantz, Harman (fill in the brand here), and the likes of Trinnov and Emotiva, which made the big investment to have an AV preamp platform in the modern era. The cost and access to chips (think about those 100,000 GM cars sitting in Michigan unsold because of chip shortages), the cost of manufacturing, the high cost of high-tech U.S.-based labor and, most importantly, the cost of licensing whiz-bang technologies, such as room correction, various surround sound formats, HDMI, UL approval, and so much more. To be in the game at all, you likely need an investment of $2,000,000 for even the smallest of audiophile companies and, even at that, the price of said audiophile-grade AV preamp is going to be sky high, and don’t be shocked if the reliability falls far behind that of the $1,100 Japanese receiver, which is made by the tens of thousands and sold to every market in the world.
The Hunt for the Right AV Gear
The moral of the story is: always be hunting for value in AV, no matter what level of the game you are playing. I have a Crestron-based $100,000-plus home theater, 4K-distributed video and audiophile-distributed AV system in my house, and I use a top-of-the-line Marantz receiver as my AV preamp for a 13.1 surround sound theater in our media room. I made the decision to buy the Marantz because the performance was there. The reliability was there, too. The features were delivered in spades, with the Marantz at $4,000 retail versus many times that from audiophile companies. Most importantly, the value was there, versus today’s best AV preamps. In a perfect world, I would want a Trinnov Altitude 16 AV preamp, but the price on that is well above $10,000 (on its way to $20,000), and realistically, I don’t spend enough time in my media room to justify the investment in a category that is ever-changing with new technology. I can still dream of a Trinnov when I win Powerball (I come so close sometimes, easily one or two matching numbers for a $5 return), but in the meantime, I’ve been able to find my happy place for my system for now, and I am thoroughly enjoying my journey again, this many years into the process. The fun doesn’t need to end as your lifestyle AV needs change. There are just new challenges and opportunities, and that is all part of the process. Enjoy.
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Recent Forum Posts:
lovinthehd, post: 1547449, member: 61636
Oh, I was including those “more involved”. Certainly where a lot of bad information has originated. I'm not saying there aren't those like you who know more….
I wouldn't call myself an authority but I have a good memory and have heard a lot of the flaky info before.
highfigh, post: 1547361, member: 36433Oh, I was including those “more involved”. Certainly where a lot of bad information has originated. I'm not saying there aren't those like you who know more….
I think I would call many people ‘part of the customer base’- the ‘audio world’ might be those who are more involved with audio, whether as a profession or avocation.
highfigh, post: 1547376, member: 36433
Again, this is an audio thread- if you want a gun debate, start your own thread.
Tell that to the dude that starting dragging in guns in this thread.
mono-bloc, post: 1547373, member: 97870
Our friend was quick to provide a graph on shooting in Australia, but failed to report the state the gun shootings in America, He also failed to provide a comparison graph,, Silly Boy..
So we did a bit of a search, So far this year there have been over a hundred fatal shootings. This is an example , HTTPS://edition.CNN.com/2022/03/21/us/mashootingsshootings-weekend/index.HTML Then we found this ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,54737
Again, this is an audio thread- if you want a gun debate, start your own thread.