High End Audio: Luxury or Necessity?

Is a fine audio system a luxury or a necessity? See what a so called "expert" thinks

jdmcderm's picture

My smart alec comment upon reading the teaser was going to be, "I thought there was only one 'so called expert' around here."  What do I know.  Nice piece and thanks for all you do to spread the word about both vinyl and well reproduced music.

Time_Stand_Still's picture

For audiophiles and other hi-fi buffs the question about the building of an audio system is not one to take lightly. Most people  err, consumers are not audiophiles or hi-fi buffs. Most   will have some sort of audio playback system, often  low buck  low quality. It's good enough for the majority of audio playback consumers. But a certain and significant percentage of audiophiles and hi-fi buffs want and demand more. The audio system may not  be a requirement for living but is not seen as a mere luxury. For those like us it's  a part of the pleasure of music listening. Yes, we too can be gear heads and that's ok as long as it's kept within budget and scope of the goal to get what we hope and feel will be better audio playback.

It's not about how much one may spend, though I'm sure most of us if we had large or even unlimited budgets would not skimp on   the costs. It's about building a system of gear that   has a level of competence and synergy with each piece and with who each of us are as individuals. The  hobby of  buildng audio systems is a journey based on  budget, a growing one at that, maybe :-)  past experience and growth in listening ability. I'm a better listener today than I was 15-25+ years ago. Though  I always strived to listen  my abilty to do so is better and having better gear over the years has helped in this regard. I certainly DO NOT have an unlimted budget nor even a massive one but I  have  through years of  learning and trial and error  built a system that has more synergy and deeper real world quality.

It will never end  for most of us and I suggest any audiophile, hi-fi buff and  real music fan would  be lying if they say they will STOP changing gear out from time to time. Some of us will be more sedate in doing such, others more aggressive in the chase to build what is in reality an impossible audio perception dream. But we enjoy  getting ever closer to that real life sound. But much like the  repeating number is in math, it's a  journey like that repeating number that  is forever  taking us closer to the  reality of music sound as is the repeating number takes itself closer to the next whole number.  But we will never get there looking at that repeating number nor in audio riding on that path, but the ride is still meangingful and fun.

It's not about a luxury but is about accepting the price we each pay   for our personal enjoymant of  quality recorded music listening.

Rayman's picture

its both. And are willing to forgo other luxuries to afford it .

Jim Tavegia's picture

What you said hits the nail on the head, but I still think the masses will miss it. That is really sad as what they could be hearing is totally lost on them. I don't think the music matters as much to them as THEY think it does, for them, I think, it is about just hearing SOME music and not really worrying about being connected to the performer or the performance. For them it is more like taking a drink of Soda to quench their thirst. 


I love that MBL youtube video of this wealthy fellow with an amazing sound system who is truly invested in his gear and the music. He hears this crack during the performance and thinks the disc is defective, only to find out his system is so resolving he hears the conductor break his baton at the end. His wife returns the disc to the store wanting an exchange which she receives. This repeats with the 2nd disc as well. 

The video shows the clerk in the record store playing back a supposedly defective disc, only to not hear the baton break on HIS system and shruggs his shoulders, casting off the problem as nothing. 


It ends with the couple at the concert of the same work with the same conductor and SEE him break the baton at then end and the mystery is solved. Great relief.

I have used that video on a number of acquaintences to open their eyes to the possiblity. 

randybass's picture

Do you have a link to that youtube video you mention?

Cohnaudio's picture

I obviously agree with argument for the importance of lisening to music on a good system rather than through an MP3 player.  Music, along with art and theatre, serves to enrichen our lives and sometimes can help us to look at the world from a different perspective.  Listening to music through an MP3 player is like viewing the world's great works of art only through coffee-table books - the true impact of the work will never be appreciated.  Having said that, I find it Ironic that for the piece they interviewed Ears Nova.  While the firm has good equiptment, I feel it epitomizes what is wrong with the audiophile industry and what keeps many from the hobby.  I found the level of arrogance to be unbearable and finally walked out on a listening session for a pair of $60k speakers I was planning to purchase that week.  (A frined of mine said that when he went there he  almost punched the guy).  When I asked some questions and made some comments about the equiptment, I got a diisdainful  response, with the guy basically telling me that I had no clue what I was talking about (I have been listening to high-end audio for over 30 years).  Another common problem I find with high-end audio stores (particularly in NYC) is the refusal to take a person seriously unless they are clearly ready to drop big money at that store.  Just to get a listening session, one must somehow establish their bona fides by proving they have the money to spend (a number of people have told me that they lie about the systems they own, just to get a listening session).  I own a high-end system, but I don't feel I should have to boast about my system just to sample their wares - perhaps I should walk in waving wads of money.    I understand that the people that run these firms are running a business and are trying to apply their limited resources to customers who may reasonably purchase some equiptment, but unless the industry, and the enthusiats themselves, take an inclusive, rather than an exlcusive, approach, more and more people will move to MP3 and articles and great websites like this will be insufficent to change the trend.  I have seen a couple of instances where a high-end store advertised in a local paper listening sessions for the general public (I beleive it was for a new or well-known album).  I thought that was perfect.  Maybe nobody that went to those sessions will by the $70k speakers (at least not right away), but some who may not have been familiar with high-end may have gotten the bug.  Perhaps some of the audio clubs out there can also reach out to non-audiophiles for listening sessions.  By inviting them to listening sessions and explaining the equiptment, I have managed to convince two of my frineds of the importance of good sound and they have now purchased very high-end systems (I am still working on my 21-year old daughter who, to my chagrin, still insists on listening to MP3).  Keep proselytizing Mikey - you're doing God's work. 

Michael Fremer's picture

Yes, one of the industry's biggest issues is poor retail treatment. I just don't get it. Every audio retailer should be forced to take the Lexus "White glove" training course. When you spend a lot of money (or even if you don't!) you are entitled to courteous treatment!

Martin's picture

For some people, it's a part of life. 

For others it's irrelevant.

The mysteries of neurology and how our individual brains function. 

Moodeez's picture

I've never known of a hobby that makes a concerted effort to drive away potential converts like the high end audio industry does. WTF is with these people?! I also hold the high end press accountable for making people feel they have to spend absurd amounts of cash to experience audio nirvana. They don't. If you need to spend $60k on a pair of loudspeakers to satisfy your ego, you're shoveling feces against the tide. Great sounding audio CAN be had for reasonable money. A top down approach will yield a tremendous sounding system for a fraction of what the elitist bedwetters would have you believe. Top down? The majority of the magic comes from the front end. Invest as much as you can in a 'table, tonearm and cartridge, have it set up properly and your otherwise good sounding related equipment will blossom. I am sick and tired of hearing these same stories year after year about how shabbily people are treated by high end retailers. Shame on them! If high end audio is floundering or on the decline, I place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the audiophile press and the arrogant and oblivious retailers who foster the notion that megabuck systems are required to enjoy great sound. That premise couldn't be farther from the truth. 

Andrea Tubaro's picture

That's a difficult question. We do not understand why notwithstanding music is part of many people everydays' life High End Audio is a niche. This is like the current market of wine and the fact that 90% of what is sold out there is very poor quality. High End Audio stands to MP3 and iTunes files  like artisanal products stand to industrial ones. Some will not understand the difference, others will not care and some will find it too expensive. We can work on the first point by creating events where the difference between MP3 and 24/94 files can be demonstrated and the industry can manufacture High End products with a reasonable price. Unfortunately the large majority of the industry wants just to make as much money as they can. Most people work for the money and not the pleasure of doing something good. Living in a niche is not so bad provided the industry can survive.

smargo77's picture

like in new york or california (for the consumers) I have often said that the manufacturers should showcase their inexpensive gear and play that - so if you brought a guest - they could relate somewhat


how many times have we been to shows and the most expensive gear sucks! let us hear the inexpensive stuff and if that can be tuned to sound good - "just wait until you buy more expensive stuff - it will really blow you away" - This is what manufacturers should be telling the consumers 

wandique's picture

John Mahoney once said tha audiohiles are "synesthesiacs" ( http://gizmodo.com/5213042/why-we-need-audiophiles ). Wow ! I've never had heard that word before. Anyway he got his point. Between the industry and the "real people" lies the listening pleasure that some systems deliver for our ears only. Maybe it is a kind of "luxury" but it please us. I prefer think of a kind of comfort. Some people buy "prêt-à-porter" clothes, other prefer the work of a taylor. Taylored clothes are high-end, the other are mid and low-fi. 

Jody's picture

It's a luxury of course.

You would think that high end audio equipment manufacturers would form an effective lobby, to try and educate people (as well as record labels, the media in general), and help end the so-called "loudness wars". Because what's the point of amazing gear, if most mainstream music from the past 15 years has been butchered, usually during the mastering process?

I mean, audiophile reissues and original records from the 80s or earlier, will only help sell so many $60,000 speakers.

WaxtotheMax's picture

And its not just a system, but a room as well. I have heard "marginal" by comparison high-high end equipment sound remarkable in a certain type of room and I have heard some of the best of high-end systems suffer in other environments. Finally it seems to come down to the individual ear as to what sounds good to a person. I still have acuaintences argue the sound quality of MP3. I find that most of my purchases were of an individual nature as much as technical awareness. Rest assured though, I am a person who definitely leans to the need for higher-end equipment. I once dated the daughter of a THIEL Audio family member, and at the age of 17 was introduced to some of the most incredible audio equipment in the entire world. My taste for the best of the best has never wavered since.

hifitommy's picture

it most certainly is a necessity for me.  it brings me closer to the music which to me is an organic need.  music has always been in my life since early childhood when i remember hearing les paul and mary ford on the radio and steam locomotives climb hills at night.

as a teen with great rock and roll going on i went to my friend's house whose dad had a hifi  he built from radio shack components and heard details and fullness that closer resembled live music and knew then that i had to have more revealing equipment than the portable record player in my room that was ruining my 45s and albums.

i ended up with a good mentor who had worked in broadcast (kppc, kpfk, and drake chenault) to foster my quest for excellent sound.  now i have a more than respectable system that didn't cost a fortune to assemble.  i would happily live with either a budget system or heavenly (in cost and satisfaction) one centered around the likes of MBL101s or soundlabs electrostats or other fine products.

lestrum's picture

The first question is how does one define "high end" audio? A $20,000.00 system, $10,000.00, $3000.00 etc?

It took me a number of years to assemble a system, including speaker stands that I calculated was valued at roughly 3 grand retail. Since I haven't bought any new components in at least a decade, with the exception of two new pairs of headphones, given depreciation factors, it's probably worth less.

I still love it all and it serves my needs well. As many correctly pointed out, the average person is content with the system he/she purchased in your local retail outlet, And of course many are satisfied with an all in one box, or portable(fast food) audio.

So in the eyes of these folks, when seeing and hearing my system it's top notch and not "cheap". However in eyes of people who write for audio publications ,work in the industry, high end specialty stores, etc, I'm a peanut. Of course I live in a 900 square foot condo, so am limited.

The question however begs to be asked: At what point does the law of diminishing returns kick in? Where does the curve flatten? Are you getting that much better a system spending 20,000.00 as opposed to 10,000.00? How high do you spend before it doesn't matter? That's the real question.     

It would surprise one to find out many well to do and musicians themselves, don't own high end products. It's anyone's guess as to why,

Those who have written about the snobbery when entering a high end audio"palace"(lol) are absolutely correct. More often than not it is the attitude of the salesperson for whatever reason and doesn't help further the cause, especially given the assault high end audio is under thanks to portable devices.

All this said, in conclusion, yes, if you are a serious listener, by all means high end products are a necessity, even on the lower price ranges. The satisfaction can't be measured only in dollars but the imagery, color, and precise sound you experience.

Thanks for giving me the space. And again, dealers reading this, please become more inclusive.





brian2's picture

I think it depends on what you plan to use it for, or about how much time you spend using it - use it on a daily basis and it could never be a luxury. My friends asked me something similar about the best hdmi splitter I decided to buy, just because they wouldn't use it, it didn't mean that it wasn't a necessity to me.