High Prices in High End Audio

Are high prices of high end audio justified? …And are they Green?

As I pointed out in a previous post about pricing (See: Are Green Audio Products More Expensive?), people can expect to pay slightly more for products when they are also ecologically-friendly. This then begs the question of whether hi fi should command much higher prices. Some products certainly are priced extremely high and one has to wonder whether this is justified. Likewise, does being green require such expenditures.

Cables

One type of hi fi product that often raises eyebrows is cabling, especially when these are priced extremely high. For example, the Oracle MA-X Super HD Bi-Wire Speaker cables from MIT retail for $42,000, more than an entry-level luxury sedan. So, does this cable sound better than their next model down, the Oracle Matrix Super HD 120 Bi-Wire Speaker cables, retailing for a more modest $26,000? This  is the cost of a mid-level  Toyota Camry. With such a considerable difference in price, does the extra $16,000 buy an equivalent amount of improvement over the next model down? Common sense would suggest not.

Personally, I’ve never had the opportunity to hear such expensive speaker cables, but everything I have heard (up to about ~$5000) sounded pretty much the same as considerably less expensive cables. In the sub-$1000 category, everything I have been able to compare with home A/B testing sounded 90% the same. Only when dipping down to the generic and sub-$50 bottom of the heap, can I honestly say there were noticeable differences from more expensive cables, differences that I could hear and replicate. Of course, these are my personal experiences with a small number of cables I have had the opportunity to hear and test.

My opinion on this is that at the very bottom, mass-production errors and low-cost construction materials combine to arrive at a verifiably sub-par product. At the other end, where high-prices are the norm, my opinion is that the cables may, under very particular circumstances, and when connected to very specific equipment, exhibit differences that a very small number of people can hear. However, those are, in my opinion, only differences in sound character, and not necessarily differences that represent higher sound quality – in short, they may sound different, but not better.

What about other components?

Cables are a fairly easy target since most people don’t believe that the differences significantly audible. They are, but only slightly so in my experience. Consequently, most people do not believe that the higher prices are justified. All right, but what about larger, more complex components such as speakers and amplifiers? Does the same argument apply? Again, it is my professional opinion, from what I have heard, that yes, above a certain price-point, the components may sound different, but not necessarily better. For example, a $10,000 preamplifier will sound different, but not necessarily better than a $5,000 one, despite the 100% increase in price. Dipping down into the $1000-2000 price point there are models that give the more expensive ones a run for their money. Odyssey Audio makes an amplifier called the Khartago. While perhaps not the most energy efficient amplifier, for a mere $895 it meets many of the green criteria, competes with amplifiers 2-3 times its price, and can drive just about any speaker available, even Magnepan ribbon/planar speakers.

It is important to point out here, that while products such as the Odyssey Khartago aren’t the most green, they meet enough of the criteria that we do include it here. At these price points, compromises have to be made. This then begs the question, what is the price point for a truly green product. Unfortunately, just as there is no product that is entirely green, there also isn’t a precise price point. Like all things in life, it’s a matter of compromises. Our hope is that if customers make the conscious choice to demand greener products, then the industry will gradually conform to that demand – after all, manufacturers do need to sell their products. In the mean-time, we’ll continue to point out products that go a bit farther than the competition to be green. Likewise, there is ample competition to be green for us to compare products against each other.

Speakers

There are a number of speaker manufacturers who have adopted very green position and make it a cornerstone of their corporate philosophy . For example, Escalante Designs, a company that strongly emphasizes green manufacturing and design, has an entry-level monitor, the Pinyon, that retails for $7000, a hefty sum for a medium-sized bookshelf speaker. There is considerable experience and research behind Escalante speakers, however, so the question before us is whether the $7000 price point is justified.

Zu Audio, another company that has a strong commitment to green manufacturing, also has an entry level  speaker, the Omen Bookshelf, that retails for $1200. We then have to ask: does Escalante’s speaker sound $5800 better? Having heard both, I can say that the Escalante speaker sounds larger and more authoritative. That said, this doesn’t  really justify a price-point that is nearly 6 times as much. The Escalante speakers sound very different, yes, but this is less a function of sound superiority than it is of simple difference in character – it is different much more than it is better, in my experience.

As for being green, these two bookshelf speakers’ credentials are surprisingly similar, especially if measured by our own criteria. If being green is a primary concern, then either speaker will meet the customer’s needs. That said, sound preference and system synergy should determine which would be the better fit for each individual customer.

From a green perspective, one question that remains is whether paying 2-20 times as much for a product that sounds different but not necessarily better is justified. It is true that many people who buy at these price points aren’t too concerned about the cost, and for them perhaps this is a moot point, but that is not the position we hold. That difference could go to purchase solar panels, fund a soup kitchen, support a children’s hospital, or fund student scholarships. At the risk of sounding too preachy, it could bring a poor child from the third world to this country and change their life profoundly, and quite possibly that experience will change the lives of many other people.

In conclusion

There should be a common sense limit for how high a product is priced. That extra smidgen of performance or synergy that the higher-priced product may provide should be weighed against what else that difference in cost could fund. This decision is ultimately the responsibility of the purchaser. We will try on this site to identify products and companies that do not price their products excessively high, but we can’t evaluate every product. In the end, the customer should use common sense and a little research to arrive at a product that meets minimum sound quality in the system it is intended to be used in, and also not be priced excessively high. From their end, manufacturers should be able to justify higher costs to the buyer without too much difficulty. If not, the buyer should look elsewhere – there are enough other choices to select from.

From our perspective, there are many products in this industry that are simply priced too high. Even those products that have ample research behind them, use the best components and materials, and/or are assembled by hand in the US should be reasonably priced. This is so because there are other products from different manufacturers that meet the same or comparable criteria that cost less. Buyers should shop & compare, or if they really have money to burn, have someone do this for them.

What this ultimately boils down to, is that there is a shared responsibility when it comes to being green. Just as manufacturers should make efforts to be green, so too should customers  request these. Since this is a large and competitive industry, this should not be too difficult.