I recently received a letter from a reader, Craig, that I was going to answer in SoundStage! Ultra’s “Letters” section. But the more I thought about my response, the more I realized that this letter and its main subject deserved a more detailed response than I usually provide in “Letters.” So I decided to devote an “Opinion” to it. Here’s the letter:
To Jeff Fritz,
With respect to your recent column on closing the curtain on TWBAS: Bravo, Jeff. Bravo! I’ve said this before, but you are about the only member of the audio press who I care to read anymore. And this column is the perfect reason why. Like you describe, I was once a wide-eyed “audiophile” who was enamored with a lot of this ultra-expensive gear. And like you, I found my priorities change over time. I very much appreciate your willingness to buck the trends and tell the whole story, warts and all.
If you are interested, I have an idea for a future column. I don’t know how you would approach it, but the inspiration is as follows: Since my own transformation, I have struggled with a recurring problem. I now self-identify as a music lover, not as an audiophile. I do this because, as a music lover, I recognize the need and value of specially designed (and often very expensive) audio equipment. Because of this, I am drawn to the high end of audio. I come seeking fidelity. But I am often frustrated by an increasing priority for and dedication to luxury. I have no problem with luxury or those who seek it, but it’s not what I am looking for. What to do? Well, that’s the conundrum.
And beyond my own frustrations, what’s the larger impact of this differentiation? The high end is constantly wringing its hands over the lack of younger people engaging in and joining the high end. But how many younger people engage in and join any luxury industry?
Just an idea. Either way, I continue to enjoy and appreciate your writings. Thank you, and keep up the great work!
The conundrum Craig speaks of is the juxtaposition between luxury and traditional high-end audio that exists in today’s marketplace. Make no mistake: There is a difference, and not realizing that can, if you’re not careful, cost you a lot of money.
Traditional high-end audio, is first and foremost, about performance. Performance, in this context, is the fidelity to the signal input into the component: how close does the product come to passing the audio signal, unadulterated, on to the listener -- straight wire with gain and all that. Granted, there are many components that flavor the sound in one way or another, but even they are designed with sound in mind first. Will the listener like the sound? Using this product, will the listener ultimately better connect with the music?
The luxury market is a different animal. Maybe the easiest comparison to make is to the watch industry. As we all know, relatively inexpensive quartz watches can keep very accurate time. But that doesn’t do diddly to dissuade the connoisseurs of fine timepieces from plunking down huge bucks on their Pateks and Richard Milles. These are the collectors, those well-heeled folks who want to wear a statement on their wrist. And they usually don’t mind when others notice.
The thing is, there’s a pretty clear distinction between the Timex at Target and the Patek at one of those if-you-have-to-ask stores. In audio, the line gets blurred. Here is the scenario: The Master of the Universe Model 1000 loudspeaker is marketed as the most ambitious audio product ever built. Its designer has made umpteen claims about its performance setting new benchmarks for the industry. “It sounds better than live music!” You’ve heard the song and dance before. It also has 20 coats of hand-rubbed paint, and is so complex that it takes a four-man team six days to dial it in. When you dig deeper into the Model 1000, however, you start to discover little things that make you question its validity: 1) There are no measurements available. In fact, the company states that measurements are not capable of truly representing the performance benefits of the Model 1000. 2) The Model 1000 uses the same drivers -- you know, the things that make the sound -- that many other speakers use, some of which cost a lot less. 3) There aren’t dealers where you can A/B the Model 1000 against other speakers. 4) The Model 1000’s ad copy includes new technical terms that no one has ever heard of, because the speaker’s designer is the only one to have identified them [ahem]. And those are just the tip of the iceberg. But the paint sure is purty.
The problem with the Model 1000 is that it’s designed for the luxury market under the guise of being about performance. Is it deceptive? Yes. Does this happen all the time in high-end audio? Yes. Avoid this product at all cost (savings).
There is also overlap: between audio products that qualify as high-end -- i.e., those designed for performance -- that also have luxury touches that make them attractive to the buyer interested in such touches, and that raise their cost; and products created to appeal, first and foremost, to Russian oligarchs. Anyone who buys a six-figure audio product expects no less than great build quality. Good manufacturers know this.
The problem that Craig sees, and that I agree with, is that the luxury flourishes price many potentially attainable products out of reach of the average audiophile -- or, as Craig has renamed him, the music lover. With some research and a sharp ear, it’s not too hard to eventually weed out the “luxury” product that can’t reproduce music in a high-end way. But when you find a product that’s to the liking of your music-loving self, but can’t afford it because the ten-grand paint job has priced it just out of reach, it’s depressing.
This luxury/high-end overlap is not going away. In fact, it’s increasing rapidly, as companies in the traditional high-end sector seek to expand their footprint into the luxury marketplace. What’s an audiophile -- er, music lover -- to do? I have an answer, but you and Craig will have to wait until next month to read it. And trust me -- you’ll want to know.
. . . Jeff Fritz