Do You Have to Spend a Fortune in order to Own a Truly Serious Audiophile System?

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There are those outside our beloved hobby who might claim audiophilia is little more than a collection of technological snobs. Others may feel audiophiles are certifiably crazy. They point to the lunacy of the cost of upper level audio systems as an example and from an outside perspective, I can see and even understand their outlook. 

They say if you want to be a millionaire in the wine business - start with $20,000,000. The same can be said about the audiophile business
They say if you want to be a millionaire in the wine business – start with $20,000,000. The same can be said about the audiophile business

Who is More Crazy, Wine Enthusiasts or Audiophiles?

Audiophilia isn’t the only hobby looking for that last measure of performance, just look at the world of fine wine. While most wine aficionados are not certified sommeliers, there are scores who go to great, audiophile-like efforts, to ferret out a great, potentially under-the-radar bottle of vino. They will research the vineyard, what the weather was like the year of bottling, the specific types of grapes, soil content (terroir as it is called in French) and, well, you get the idea. Sounds a lot like the type of passion, research and enthusiasm that goes into finding and procuring the best possible musical playback system, doesn’t it? 

How then do we explain the reasoning behind why someone enjoys and is thoroughly captivated by the sound of a low-cost, entry-level budget audiophile system as opposed to a world class, best-of-the-best, cost-no-object system? Does a world class audio system mean music will be more enjoyable? Is an entry level audio system somehow less so? 

Most oenophiles will probably never taste, let alone own, a 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild priced at about $300,000 per bottle. At the same time, most audiophiles will never own a million dollar audio system. That doesn’t mean both cannot enjoy their given predilections at far more real-world prices. 

Every audiophile is looking for the Nth degree of performance but how much does one need to spend to get there?
Every audiophile is looking for the Nth degree of performance but how much does one need to spend to get to their goals?

How Do Audiophiles Justify the (any) Cost of a Stereo System?

My very good friend Doug has loved music for all of the 40 or more years I have known him. When he lived in New York City, he attended jazz concerts at some of the city’s more celebrated clubs and legendary musical venues. Doug has a system with a total investment of maybe $1,500 in purchased components. Most of his system was actually purchased used thus the retail value might be a little higher but by all means, he owns an audiophile system more on the entry level side of things. 

The retail (or purchase) price of his system has no effect on how Doug enjoys his system. I have been to his home on many occasions where we would cue up an early recording of a jazz titan, much like the ones he heard live in Manhattan. His system sits on an entertainment center and just to the right, mounted on the wall, are three prized guitars out of his 30 to 40 vintage instrument collection. 

It is absolutely fair to say Doug enjoys music and his system every bit as much as I do mine which is many, many times more expensive and far more complex in its design. Do these cost  differences really matter? Should they matter? I feel it fair to say… probably not. It does not take a $300,000 dollar uncorking of something rare and exotic in order to enjoy a glass of red wine. It also does not take a $500,000 audio system to become captivated by compelling, audiophile grade sound. Our individual preferences are typically and probably more easily satisfied with even a rather simplistic audio system. 

This is an early photo of Andrew Dewhirst's new audiophile listening room in Canada. He just moved and is getting everything all dialed-on over time.
This is an early photo of Andrew Dewhirst’s new audiophile listening room in Canada. He just moved and is getting everything all dialed-on over time.

What Do We Really Want From Our Audiophile Systems?

At its core, music engages our emotions. It is for this very reason movies almost always have some sort of a musical score. Having music helps ascribe our emotions to the movie. 

It is very common to have a song remind us of something, somehow, from somewhere in our emotional past. Maybe it is a long lost love or some major and memorable event in our lives. It is this very real emotional connection to which an artist aspires. Is it therefore necessary to hear every nuance, every transient detail, all the dynamics and everything audiophiles demand to make this connection? Does it take a six figure stereo system to make an emotional connection or can it be made with a handheld device? My guess is the answer varies based on access to gear, budget, levels of enthusiasm and perhaps a lot more. 

But here’s the rub… Many audiophiles feel while music can be engaging to some extent however playback occurs, it is much better when played back as close to live as possible or at least as close to the original studio recording as possible. And that goal, some feel, justifies an hyper-expensive stereo system. 

T+A from Germany makes some of the finest audiophile electronics that money can buy
T+A from Germany makes some of the finest audiophile electronics that money can buy.

How Has Audiophile Hobby Changed in Modern Times?

In the long history of the audiophile hobby, there likely has never been a better time to invest in a relatively inexpensive yet very capable audiophile system. There are quite a few manufacturers, many of them reviewed right here in Future Audiophile, whose sonics-to-cost ratio is excellent. 

There are some exceptional value oriented components available today. Manufacturers such as NAD, SVSMonoprice and the many Chi-Fi products, to name just a few, offer exceptional sound at real-world prices. There are audio societies, like mine, the Carolina Audio Society, where members gather and talk audio. These societies can be an excellent place to learn new ideas and meet fellow enthusiasts. 

We have new technologies emerging. Central to these new products are the Gallium Nitride amps whose raison d’être is a hybrid Class-D architecture with Class-A like sonics, light weight, little to no heat and best of all, very low cost. These days, it is not necessary to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain an engaging, emotionally connecting, lively and thoroughly enjoyable sound. 

By the same token, cost is, relative. What is expensive to some is lunch money to others. Manufacturers are therefore obliged in many cases to have products for various levels of buyers. Difficult though it may be to accept, there are those proponents of our little hobby who feel any system not in the high five figures, or more likely the six figure range, and often with a “one” not being the first number in the price, as less than what they consider a worthy audiophile rig. 

At Future Audiophile, we try to cater and be relevant to both. It is for this reason we have reviews for power ampsstereo preamps and related equipment in the less than $500 cost range. It is likewise the reason we have reviews for a variety of components whose list price is in the many, many thousands of dollars. 

Music (thus naturally audio) is best when enjoyed as an inclusive, fun oriented, social gathering of friends to enjoy the simple pleasure of playing a song. As we become older, our musical interests will undoubtedly change as will our system preferences. Many audiophiles will have friends and family members whose musical interests are vastly different from their own. Having different system goals across a wide variety of enthusiasts is a given. Our principal job is to cater to everyone who enjoys the audiophile hobby.  

The sound of a live cymbal is one of the hardest (perhaps impossible) tasks that an audiophile system will undertake.
The sound of a live cymbal is one of the hardest (perhaps impossible) tasks that an audiophile system will undertake.

Conclusion

When you really look closely, music surrounds our lives in so many ways. From the television programs to the advertisements constantly bombarding us, to the background tunes we play when friends are over, to the ultra-high end systems in purpose designed rooms, we are never far away from music. My friend Doug loves his system just as I do mine. Cost is simply not relative. And difficult though it may be for me to completely accept such premises, it is a true fact nonetheless. 

The bottom line is this: If you like, even love the sound of the music you hear on your system, then regardless of cost, it is the right system for you. Maybe you will someday grow tired of that sound. If and when that occurs, there are many options at all price points to up the sonic ante. In the end, the audiophile hobby is one that may be enjoyed in many different ways and at a wide variety of price points. And unlike a magnificent bottle of wine, an audio system will still be around the next day waiting on you to play yet another great song. 

Do you have to spend a lot of money to have a real audiophile system that you love? Where do you stand on the topic? Let us know in the moderated comments below. We love to hear from you!


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Trevor

What a fabulous time to join this hobby. We’ve had many years of western designed Chinese (Taiwan & PROC) manufactured high value products with increased quality, buy with confidence. I have noticed a upward price trend with speakers, with existing lines being discontinued & new lines (with fixes & improvements) introduced at much higher prices. Electronics appear to be less affected. Of course always check reviews but if you’ve got your eye on a particular Chinese made speaker, I wouldn’t (& did not) hesitate, enjoy!

Jerry Hajek

One can amass a decent ‘phile pile’ without having to get a 2nd on the manse…Really. Although I’d not claim to have total SOTA in hand and at ear, I’m pleased enough. If anything could be improved, the space my ‘collection’ is current curtailed in would be the situation to be improved.
But, that would and will require more than I’m prepared to spend on improved audiophilia….but plans for that are more or less underway….
Listen Long & Loud, J. *G* 😉

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