Is HiFi Green Enough? Part2: Testing the Theory

Hmmm, this speaker doesn't fit in my test tube...

Hmmm, this speaker doesn't fit in my test tube...

Is High End Audio by default already ecologically-friendly? Is this an interesting hypothesis or an undeserved accolade? If true, where does this leave GreenHiFi.com?

As was noted in the previous post, Is HiFi Green Enough?, a well-meaning entrepreneur suggested that simply because HiFi does not follow the same manufacturing processes  as more mainstream home electronics, that perhaps it was already green enough. Well, to find out if that's true, we are going to apply the same criteria that we normally apply to products and manufacturers here at GreenHiFi.com. We're going to put High End Audio to the test and see if it is, as an industry, already ecologically-friendly enough. The criteria we will use are the seven we determined would serve as our measuring stick in our very first blog post, Rating System for Green HiFi.

Let's begin.

1. Energy-Efficiency and Heat-Dissipation

HiFi equipment typically uses little energy compared to other household appliances. There are exceptions, but they are balanced out by the many choices for low-wattage equipment out there such as those made by Sophia Electric and the high-efficiency speakers they are designed for such as the ones manufactured by Omega. This is a good point, when comparing to a refrigerator or washing machine, but this doesn't necessarily apply to all electronics - a computer, for example, can use less energy. That said, taking my trusty Kill-A-Watt around the house, I did find that the equipment that I have does indeed use little energy. Another mitigating factor is that most typical music listening and movie watching does not involve high volumes and thus also less energy - exceptions such as orchestral crescendos and loud explosions are typically very short.

So on this criteria, I agree (+1).

2. Product Quality and Simplicity:

It goes without saying that HiFi is neither low-quality nor complex. Just the opposite, it typically has much higher quality parts and typically has fewer features so as to minimize these from harming the signal. Consider the beauty in the simplicity and the high praise that Naim products have received over the years. Even their modern Unity line is exemplary.

This criteria is rather self-evident, (+1).

3. Adequate Packaging:

HiFi manufacturers typically pack things well because they typically care a bit more about the products. It's a bit of a generalization, but HiFi products aren't produced in high quantity so more care can be taken to pack well. YG Acoustics, for example packs their impressive speakers in solid re-usable aluminum crates - ensuring that they can be shipped many times (hopefully they are not anticipating a lot of repairs, lol). One could argue that mass-produced electronics aren't as likely to have adequate packaging because margins are thinner, so corners are cut, and the electronics are not expected to be as valuable. They are more likely to be considered consumables and thus not expected to be shipped back & forth as much. This then requires lower-quality packaging.

That said, economies of scale can play a part in making the packaging more efficient and specific to the item being shipped. Therefore the potential for savings is there, although that is not always the case. Also, some HiFi manufacturers, aren't as dilligent about using just what is needed, such as when packaging is used for several types of products which may have differing weights and sizes. I've seen wooden crates used, when it was, in my opinion, not really warranted. I suppose that when a manufacturer cares more about the product, they can go overboard on protecting it.

I'm not sure I can be swayed enough either way, so this one is a toss-up (+0).

4. Toxicity of Components:

With higher quality parts, and a higher budget for production, it is likely that quality control and adherence to international laws are a greater factor than with mass-produced equipment. When selecting component parts, the designer may not necessarily consider a greener one, but s/he may be swayed by the fact that the greener one has been more rigorously tested.

That said, designers maintain that the primary concern for them is the sound quality of a part - pretty much the mantra on every HiFi's "About Us" page. Thus, we can infer from this philosophy that if a component part that is less green sounds better, then that is the one the designer will select - tree-huggers be damned. As is often the case, finding a particular sound signature that has a preferred synergy with the rest of the unit, is the determining factor and this could be very subjective. If so, then this is not a green quality.

Unfortunately, I can see this one go either way, so I'm calling it a draw (+0).

5. Labor Relations

This one also seems rather self-evident: because greater care is taken to produce a higher quality product and because the production runs are much smaller, it is likely that the people who work in the factories producing HiFi are better off than those working in factories that mass-produce. With smaller production runs, better control over the production cycle, and greater pride on the part of the designer, there is simply less room for abuse, especially the kind we see in large-scale off-shore manufacturing.

Yes, this one was easy (+1).

6. Product Recycling

This one is also rather obvious. Because HiFi is made with greater care in smaller quantities and at a higher price point, it should also last longer, which then reduces the how often the product needs to be recycled. This is why some manufacturers such as Bryston and Odyssey offer such generous warranties on their products - they know that their products will last, sometimes for many decades. Likewise, I have yet to hear from any HiFi manufacturer that they will not take back old "end-of-life" equipment for recycling. Sometimes have parts that are no longer available and can still be salvaged for repairs of other old equipment (provided the owner is OK with that of course).

An associated point is that the HiFi industry has a very vibrant used market, so this is also why these products are a lot less likely to clog landfills compared to mass-produced ones. It is easy to see how mass-produced products can have a lower apparent value, and so they are often disposed of when just a simple repair is needed. Sometimes they are even disposed of because the owner is "tired" of them and they are still completely functional. I used to work for a recycling service and we found that most electronics still worked just fine. Granted, we didn't thoroughly test every feature, but there was never a time that there wasn't rock-n-roll playing in that warehouse, on equipment that had just been donated - often replaced with something different on a weekly basis.

This one was easy to see (+1).

7. Fair Pricing:

This one is always tough to justify. Some HiFi gear is priced in the stratosphere and I do wonder why. The manufacturing cost of Magico speakers or a Metronome CD player is really just a fraction of the retail price. So where does the rest of the cost come from? While I can believe that some of the cost is due to the research and technology behind the component, I also believe that this can be quite exaggerated. Sometimes that extra special metal doesn't necessarily improve the sound much over a lower-priced one. This is then professed to be better, when really it is just ever so slightly different and colored. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than with cable, where a $10K price tag for a pair of cables such the ones from Transparent Audio, used to hook up that Metronome CD player to an amp is accepted without hesitation.

While I am in no way saying that the market should not dictate these prices, here at GreenHiFi we do need to ask if it is an acceptable trade-off to spend enough on a stereo system to feed a small nation for a week. There are many HiFi manufacturers who truly do price their equipment fairly, but unfortunately the number of manufacturers who don't is great enough that I cannot agree that this is green, per the criteria we have on this site.

If we also consider that in a world where there is so much war, poverty, hunger and disease, HiFi is a bit more of a want rather than a need. Without invoking too much Buddhist philosophy, it is clear to see that choosing to support, for example Doctors Without Borders with a $2500 donation (please do, they really do good work, by the way), rather than purchasing a similarly priced MIT Oracle AC1 power cord, especially  when there is a perfectly acceptable one in the box already, is a personal choice that should be weighed with some care: which choice would do the most good for the most people?

Considering the whole industry, then, I cannot in good conscience give this a positive mark. There is simply too much inconsistency (-1).

Conclusion

So out of a possible -7 to +7 range of points, the High End Audio industry scores a +3. Not too shabby. I've considered products that scored way lower. To answer the original question of whether HiFi indeed is green enough, the answer is yes, and I'm rather elated to conclude that.

Also, will this warrant a new direction for this website? YES! I've already made changes to the Information/Bio page, and I intend to comb through the rest site and re-write much of it. I's a big job, so don't expect this to happen overnight, but I'll be working on this over the next week.

Thoughts? Let me know what you think.

- Michael GJK