In last month’s “The Luxury/High-End Conundrum,” I discussed reader Craig’s beef with the present landscape of high-end audio: “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?”
Craig’s frustration is understandable: A growing number of manufacturers are concentrating their efforts on the cost-instead-of-sense segment of the marketplace, which in recent years has seen $500,000 speakers and hundred-grand DACs. These products, far from being affordable for the average audiophile, not only dissuade some potential buyers from entering our hobby at all, but can supplant efforts by some companies to deliver great sound at real-world prices.
The most recent example I’ve heard about is from Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems. Despite the fact that D’Agostino’s products have produced some less-than-stellar measured results on Stereophile’s test bench, the brand continues to be well thought of, particularly by buyers who admired his upper-end work at Krell over the years. Now we hear that D’Agostino will offer the Helius, a mono amplifier, for $250,000 USD per pair. I’m sure it will be huge and gleaming and sound revelatory, but with a price that will buy a house, it will never be owned by more than a few audiophiles. Clearly, the Helius is intended for the hyper-discerning, golden-eared audiophile who can’t get musical satisfaction from D’Agostino’s Momentum mono amp, which costs a mere $55,000/pair.
Not. You know as well as I do that, at $250,000, the Helius can be considered only a high-end trophy for the ultrarich, whether or not it produces high-end sound. This is precisely the luxury market reader Craig speaks of.
I could cite more examples -- and to some of you, I’d sound like a child who’s been told he can’t play in the sandbox anymore. There’s some truth in that: I can’t afford the Helius. But as far as I’m concerned, such products contaminate the sandbox. They’re not about performance, folks -- they’re about catering to a Far East market that demands ever-more-expensive gear whose design goals have nothing to do with those of high-fidelity audio. We don’t need Dan D’Agostino to make a quarter-million-dollar amp -- particularly when his $55,000 model broke on John Atkinson’s test bench. Mr. D’Agostino, remember your Krell KSA-250 power amp, which cost $5700 when you introduced it, in 1991? At three times the price today, an amp of similar power and quality would be considered a steal. Why can’t we have that?
There are ways to avoid the conundrum described by Craig, but it might require a reimagining of what the high end looks like. The clearest way is to forgo the notion that only separates can produce real high-end sound quality. For example, if you’re willing to abandon the bought-it-by-the-pound mentality that in part made the Krell KSA-250 so popular -- a mentality that many buyers still share today -- you can actually get better sound for much less money.
In the amplifier department, I’m thinking about the awesome products from Devialet. Consider that the Devialet 120 DAC-preamp-amp retails for $6495 -- not much more than the KSA-250 of almost 25 years ago -- and includes features that could only be dreamed of in 1991: wireless streaming, online customization, Ethernet connectivity, etc. And despite their reasonable prices, the sound quality of the Devialets currently constitutes the state of the art. But luxury buyers who just “know” that the six-figure amp must be better -- because they still believe that, to sound best, an amp must be heavier, bigger, occupy more boxes, and therefore cost a lot -- won’t even consider something like a Devialet. For you, Craig, and me: If you want to avoid the luxury/high-end conundrum, Devialet is a perfect starting and ending point.
My other point here is not to let nostalgia for or loyalty to a brand or a designer dictate your buying decisions today. Instead of wondering how those $250k amps might sound, you can, for a tiny fraction of that amount, actually own what many believe to be the state of the art. But you’ll have to branch out -- there are brands and products other than Devialet’s to consider. If you don’t need the masculinity of a brand name like Krell, consider that, right now, Mola-Mola’s products are generating huge buzz in audiophile circles. These models don’t cost 50 grand. If we could all get past the mistaken assumption that higher price automatically means better sound, perhaps we could embrace other, more relevant metrics, such as: how advanced is the engineering that has gone into the product? In that area, Mola-Mola’s chief designer, Bruno Putzeys, is hard to beat.
Ultimately, the not-stupid-rich audiophile needs, once and for all, to leave behind the notion that the luxury marketplace has any bearing on the quality of sound he or she aspires to own. Can you imagine an audiophile community in which, instead of discussing the price of the latest flagship model, we compare the lengths of our signal paths, or the distortion measurements of our loudspeakers -- or, horrors, the actual sound -- all irrespective of price? I sure can.
. . . Jeff Fritz