In the Audiophile World, Higher Price Doesn’t Always Equal Higher Performance

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One of the biggest audiophile fallacies is a pricier or more exclusive product is going to perform better than a more affordable or mass-market solution. Perhaps that was once the case, but new-school audiophiles are increasing supporting manufacturers who deliver heaps of value paired with game-changing performance. Today’s younger audiophile is also far likelier to openly question the dicey science often paired with outrageous technological and marketing claims that used to be the norm in this hobby. That is a refreshing and badly needed change.

Don’t view this audiophile awakening as an attack on the highest of high-performance gear on the market today. Some ultra-high-end products are so extreme in terms of design, so labor intensive, and so mind-numbingly complex that they have no choice but to cost a fortune. Everybody in the hobby understands that, but this isn’t the concern at hand. The problem is the snooty old guard who thinks you can’t be in the “audiophile club” without spending more than a new Ferrari on a pair of power amps. That simply isn’t true or relevant today. From our perspective, if all you really care about is high-fidelity music reproduction, you’re in the club, no matter how much you paid for your amps. Granted, sometimes you have to pay a little more, but let’s be honest about what you’re paying for.

S.M.S.L.'s DA-8S Integrated Amp
S.M.S.L.’s DA-8S Integrated Amp stacked view

What contributes to the cost of audio gear these days?

  • Brilliant engineering and insightful design aren’t free by any stretch of the imagination, especially if your design teams are in North America and Western Europe.
  • Licensing technology is sneaky cost that few enthusiasts factor into the product cost equation but they should. In small volumes, offering room correction or THX certification or even UL-ratings (kinda essential) all comes at a cost. 
  • I’ve written extensively at Audioholics.com about the geo-political issues revolving around semi-conductors. The United States is playing “catch up” to make up for the fact that in a little more than a generation, we have somehow allowed Taiwan make nearly every semiconductor in the world and China is sitting there licking their chops for a Crimea-like invasion that would send chills down the back of the global economy. One lauded audiophile manufacturer told me that IF (if, if, if) he could get chips from perhaps The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company that they would cost $2 per chip. He’s too small of a player and has to deal with outside brokers and for same chip that say Apple could buy for $2, he will pay $345! 
  • Metal work is expensive and it is an important part of why big-time audiophile gear gets sold. Do D’Agostino amps sound good? Hell yeah they do as Dan is a proven legend. Do his components look cool? They do that too, very much so. That’s why people a bending over backwards to buy them despite high retail costs. 
  • Labor in North America and Western Europe is high and not getting any lower.Respectfully, you can say the same thing for China and more specifically Vietnam, but not at a relative cost. Globally, consumer electronics labor isn’t getting any less expensive as we tick years off of the calendar. 
  • Shipping a 40-foot container from Asia to California used to cost roughly $5,000 and that held a lot of goods. be it receivers, speakers, electronics… what have you. Today, the same shipping is closer to $20,000 and slower than before because of various, well-publicized global supply chain issues. The cost of shipping from your distribution point in the U.S. is more expensive too. If your Bowers & Wilkins speakers are in Buffalo and you are a store in San Diego, add that extra shipping cost to the overall tab, too, as that isn’t any cheaper today with domestically higher fuel, labor, and logistics costs.
  • Gear made overseas almost always come with tariffs. The 45th President of the United States made those 10 percent higher before he lost his last election and that goes into the cost bucket too, but there were tariffs long before Mr. T brought his styles to Washington D.C. and I don’t see my Flyers-fan president writing executive orders to repeal said costs on consumers. 
  • Specialty AV dealers look for products with high retail profit margins when Internet direct, professional audio brands, and even the new Chi-Fi companies are willing to work on far less margin, thus often much lower retail prices.

Now that you know many of the modern-day cost factors in consumer electronics, it is easier to see where audiophile values might present themselves. Most gear made in Switzerland isn’t going to compete in term of overall value with mass manufactured Asian products, but of course, you likely will get wonderful hand craftsmanship. As a consumer’s audiophile budget increases, so does his or her options for how and where they want to invest their money, but just because a product is made in small quantities using uber exotic materials in James Bond lair-inspired locations doesn’t mean it is better. At least not in terms of audio fidelity.

Schiit Modi 3e DAC reviewed by Andrew Dewhirst
Schiit Modi 3e DAC paired with a Schiit tube headphone amp of the same size.

How Does Someone New to the Audiophile Hobby Find Meaningful Value?

  • Don’t count every component category as equal when it comes to your overall audiophile investments. Front end components like DACs, transports, and streamers are the most financially and technologically volatile in the hobby these days. You can spend big time on any number of digital components but they don’t historically hold their value as well as slightly less bleeding-edge speakers, amps, and preamps do. 
  • We always encourage readers to buy A-list “blue chip” audiophile products with strong distribution, great dealer support, and all of the goodies that come with years in the marketplace. However, when looking for some bigger audiophile values, you might need to look into slightly smaller manufacturers and/or ones who are delivering really strong value and might be a little bit more hungry. I was recently comparing value of top-level Bowers & Wilkins as well as Wilson Audio speakers with Focal Sopra No. 2 speakers and the French-made Focals were just over half the price at $22,000 versus almost $40,000 per pair. I wouldn’t call any of these brands anything other than A-list, but the value difference is obvious.
  • It is OK to not own your dream system in your first year in the hobby. It is totally cool to dream of owning that Audio Research preamp or that Krell amp but to have a Parasound or Schiit Audio product until your Powerball ticket hits. The journey is the fun of the hobby. We need to never forget that.
  • Digital room correction is available in all sorts of components these days, be it an $800 ELAC integrated amp at Magnolia or a $4,000 preamp from Anthem or a $23,500 preamp from T+A or even a $500 Denon receiver. We can fix system and acoustical problems in the digital domain in ways that are far better than we had even just five to 10 years ago.
  • An investment in your acoustics and/or your room is going to get you more bang-for-your-buck than likely anything other than a big speaker upgrade. Acoustical treatments can be expensive but don’t have to be. Audiophile catalogs offer all sorts of solutions for bass traps, absorption, and diffusion. Spend $2,000 on acoustical treatments to get that $20,000-style sound. 
  • Do you own listening and research before you pull the trigger on a big audiophile purchase. Just because a reviewer has 30 years’ experience, doesn’t mean that he is feeling the same consumer electronics vibes that you are. Audiophile reviews are designed to start conversations not always sell a component on the spot. (I can feel our affiliate numbers going down from that last sentence but it is solid advice). 
  • Don’t dismiss Internet-oriented brands or manufacturers. If you were going to start an audiophile company today, you would almost be forced to go down this road for distribution. Why not support those who are pushing the envelope a bit in this audiophile channel? They know that they have to offer more value and often deliver in spades.
  • Made In China isn’t always bad no matter what you hear on cable news. Chi-Fi is a big deal and the value that these guys offer to entry-level audiophiles in 2022 (going into 2023) is often just insane. Would you rather have a turntable handmade in Belgium by Trappists Monks? Perhaps, but do you want to pay for it? Only your budget knows the answer on this matter. 

Talking to Sam Tellig (Former Stereophile “Value” Reviewer)

As part of launching this new publication, I randomly heard from Sam Tellig, who was for decades the audio reviewer at Stereophile Magazine that focused on value in that print journal. He’s been gone for about five years from their pages but he’s still enthusiastic about the value that is out there today and the importance of being able to actually afford the gear that makes up our hobby.

Tellig was the likely inspiration for my first real digital system, which included a Rotel RCP-855 CD player and an Audio Alchemy DDE 1.0 DAC – both somewhat affordable front-end component options in the late 1980s. It was fun to dream about owning Mark Levinson or Audio Research gear, but it was even more fun to actually own a digital system that offered upgraded performance at a price that a sixteen-year-old me could buck up for. 

The Role of Reference Audiophile Gear Today

The audiophile hobby has always been about pushing for that last bit of performance, cost be damned. That search for performance is an important part of the hobby today as it has been in the past. Even if we can’t dream of owning a $40,000 DAC or a room-correcting $25,000 stereo preamp, it is worth exploring what they have to offer technologically. 

Where value comes into play is with the next generation of audio enthusiasts. The idea of spending the same sum on a pair of speakers as you might on a down payment on a first home is absurd and frankly reckless. The implied pressure to spend big time to “be in the audiophile” club is a concept that should be rejected and enthusiastically. The journey from your first system to your latest upgrade is the fun in the hobby. Re-listening to your favorite records all over again because you found just the right upgrade is a worthy buzz. And in the end, what a strong performing audio system can do for your lifestyle, blood pressure, anxiety, and overall happiness is the key. Your music system, be it an $800 Chi-Fi entry level getup or a $100,000-plus, highly evolved audiophile system can deliver on the above promised, lifestyle benefits. Around here, everybody is invited to the audiophile club regardless of your investment. 


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Richard Fitzmaurice
Richard Fitzmaurice
3 days ago

I started my hobby in 1998. I strongly resonate with your article. In the beginning my approach was to do research and buy name brands that I could afford. I still do research, but now I consider smaller companies. My Marantz AV8802 will not pass HDCP 4K movies. The easy solution is a Marantz AV7706 which I can no longer justify. I have tried work arounds using my Marantz which I have stopped. I am now looking for a solution from smaller companies to replace the Marantz. My issue is that 4K movies down converted to Blue-ray and upscaled to 4K by the TV looks exceptionally good. A price/performance win is going to be hard.
I tried to illustrate that my home theater approach has changed over time like your article.
I was a contributor to you Internet forum on home theater before you closed it, I miss
your forum which you were a major contributor.

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