My publisher, Jerry Del Colliano, says I coined the term “Oligarch Audio,” but because I form all my thoughts in a spoken and written language, in my case English, I doubt I’ve ever had a completely original thought in my lifetime, so I take that claim of authorship with a grain of salt.
What is my definition of Oligarch Audio? It is audiophile gear that is priced so stratospherically high that only the absurdly rich could possibly afford it. The Absolute Sound refers to this as “Estate Audio.” Tomato, tomato. And in the end, Oligarch Audio is more about status than sonics or audiophile performance.
Some gear is so obviously Oligarch Audio that no one would question their inclusion in that category: Thrax, WADAX, Solution, and CH Precision are a few audiophile firms whose offerings often qualify. Is there a specific dollar amount that propels a product into the Oligarch category? Most folks would place any individual component that is priced at over $100,000 as an oligarch-level device, as would I.
Samuel Clemens, who wrote as Mark Twain, has the following quote attributed to him: “The rich buy expensive things because they can.” This one quote sums up the primary aspiration behind Oligarch Audio. I’ve often seen this drive called passion for audio, but in my mind that’s just a rationalization for beyond-belief excesses with no final purpose other than furthering the owner’s elite status. “It sounds better to me” is the excuse used for many of the excesses in audio.
Harry Pearson, the former publisher/owner of The Absolute Sound, who gave me my first writing gig, was an expert playing in Oligarch Audio long, long before it was a thing. He always wanted the most expensive item is a manufacturer’s line, which would then wait in his reviewing cue until he finally got around to it, or it was discontinued before a review was ever completed. He encouraged the idea that whoever dies with the most expensive toys wins. That was, and still is, total bullshit.
You may be thinking, Yeah, right… how much has your audio system cost you?” Currently, when I added up all the pieces in my usual reference signal chain, I came up with $25,000 for the hardware, about $10,000 for the cabling, and around another $10,000 on the room acoustics and treatments. That’s less than half the cost of one oligarch-level component. I’ve had many folks who pride themselves on their hearing acumen come to my room and listen to my system. No one has ever told me that I somehow cheaped out.
Recently, I returned a DAC I was sent for review (not for FutureAudiophile.com) without reviewing it. It had a list price of $40,000. I returned it because I could not do a review that would have served any useful purpose. Currently, the most expensive digital devices I use as a regular references are the under-$3,900 Gold Note DS-10+ with external power supply and the under-$1,000 Topping D90SE. Comparing a $40,000 DAC to them is ludicrous, not because it can’t have the potential to be a higher performance device than my current DACs, but because the review could only go two ways – if it performed merely at the same level as my two reference DACS, which given their high level of performance was entirely possible, the review would, in essence, be a pan of the product. If indeed the DAC did perform better than my references, it would be a major “duh” moment, for that kind of money it had better be better… another useless review for those considering DACs in that price range, so I politely returned it. Even $40,000 DACs are, in my humble opinion, priced so only a handful of audiophiles whose net worth was far in excess of what’s considered the middle of the middle class could even think of affording it.
I recently finished a book I recommend to anyone over the age of fifteen who can read English, entitled Status and Culture by W. David Marx. After reading it, I’m now a Marxist – David, not Karl. The book explains “How our desire for social rank creates tastes, identity, art, fashion and constant change.” In other words, it elucidates many of the reasons – some rational, some not – that influence the vast majority of our public and private behavior. Folks who purchase million-dollar audio systems aren’t crazy, but they do live in a different world, with a very particular set of tells. Read Kevin Kwan’s Rich People’s Problems for a laser drill down into one particular subset of wealthy elites.
I’ll leave you with one brief passage from Status and Culture: “Conventions explain how status pushes us into following certain arbitrary behaviors. But to gain status for such acts (like purchasing a piece of Oligarch Audio gear – my words) we can’t follow conventions in private: we must perform them in front of others.”
I wouldn’t think of telling anyone to buy or not to buy a particular component just because it is or is not expensive (unless during a review I discover it has issues). Nor am I saying that you should feel any guilt because you actually have the money to buy that crazy expensive component you’ve wanted for years.
All I am saying is that you should seriously consider whether a product has relative value worthy of its lofty price tag. If so, and you have the budget, why not? But if not, I assure you that there are other contenders who can perform fantastically well for under $100,000 per component.
How would you define Oligarch Audio? What products would you put in that category? If you won a big Powerball lottery, would you buy audiophile gear north of $100,000? Comment below and we will share your thoughts in our moderated comments.