Oligarch Audio Is Not the Same as High-Performance Audio

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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. 

What is oligarch audio? Steven Stone looks into the term
If you need to have the money to own this yacht to be able to afford your audiophile system then perhaps your system is a little over-priced?

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.

Watches and audiophile gear
Oligarchs love watches as well as audiophile equipment

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 (buy at Amazon). 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 (buy at Amazon) 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.

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Michael Zisserson


I really enjoy this article. Oligarch audio is not audio at all. Its status. The often mistaken problem is: When audio reaches Oligarch levels, it is a living example of the issue that regardless of the subject matter (audio, cars, boats, planes or anything else made of metal and plastic) it is not about the performance of those THINGS, rather the rich trying to satiate their need for more. This reflective of a mental sickness more than anything to do with audio or music. What’s worse? It does not guarantee performance…Or even the ability to enjoy it.

I have heard systems under $10,000 all-in that delivered the audiophile experience better than one I head worth $650,000+ IN A CUSTOM ROOM. I have also heard amazingly musical systems that run the gamut from a few thousand, to one hundred thousand I could live with for the rest of my life.

Any well put together system can deliver the experience, and that is an often missed aspect of this hobby. It is somewhat of an inverse U-curve transfer function. Not unlike earned income and people’s reported happiness. Anyone can get all they need in terms of the audiophile experience and musical enjoyment for surprisingly little.

As far as the Oligarch companies are concerned? Good for them. Much of the modern world was built exploiting people’s weaknesses and if they are smart enough to built a lucrative life from selling audio jewelry to the ultra-rich, I am jealous because I wish I thought of that long ago!!!

jeff kalina

Ares Cerat or something similar is a good example. Although you failed to mentioned the
‘know it all” attitude required to be on display by Oly pitchmen the Cerat guy is the creme de la creme of attitudinal hucksters.


With respect to your description of “oligarch audio,” is there not a hint of Marxism, a la Karl, per the disparity between between the haves and the have nots, the owners of the means of production (bourgeoisie) and the factory workers (proletariat)?
Or, are you referencing the psychological vacuity of those, who without an intrinsic internal sense of purpose and value/worth, sublimate it through external means; where the more they can afford the, more they will purchase and in the process become more distant from their “real” self?
Maybe both. . . ?
Both, however, result in destructive positive feedback loops.
Ironic, ain’t it, that the concept of the absolute sound (not necessarily the magazine) serves as a metaphor for an unfettered perception, the ability to ascertain a so-called unvarnished truth: enlightenment–albeit in the case of music playback, requires fancy objects to cultivate/discover subjective states of being.
Ironic, too, that the source material–music–can be considered sourced within an immaterial realm each of us connect through, no matter our language: spoken, unspoken, sitting, listening, moved without movement, heartfelt, moved to move, dancing. . .
Personally, I think you could have provided an important service had you published the review on the $40,000 DAC that was sent to you for this exact purpose.
You’ve done a good job pointing out the emperor’s clothes.
What’s the next step?

Stacey King

Oligarch’s run the world! I think the term Oligarch is representative of people who are very connected and profit of their connections.

I personally believe you don’t have to go to the obscure brands to represent your thesis. Companies like McIntosh, Audio Research, Conrad Johnson (stalwarts in the audio industry) fit your narrative. These companies have slowly moved their price points, so far up, that normal music lovers, can no longer afford. It’s kind of sad!

I’ve had opportunities to listen to systems that are fantastic without getting into these crazy dollars we see today. In fact, just recently, a friend bought a pair of the “all inclusive” Kef LS60 speakers. After months of spending time on tweaks, setup, etc… the sound he is producing is absolutely phenomenal.

In summary, if a brand, and a consumer want to spend money, on this stuff, so be it… I’ll bet a good setup person can do more with less…


The best single piece of equipment I own is a Nagra T Audio studio tape recorder. I bought that for 8000 Swiss Francs from Nagra many years ago, fully refurbished with new heads and belts. My preamps and amps are DIY. Cables are also DIY, using pure silver solid core wire in extruded Teflon. I spend US$2000 to wire the whole system, which consists of two preamps (phono and tape head), a DAC, active crossover and three pairs of amplifiers. I have borrowed expensive “high end” cables for home audition and most of them sounded dull and lifeless compared to my own. Those that sounded decent cost too much. My speakers consist of field coil compression midrange and bass drivers and ionic tweeters. Even with these expensive components, the total cost came to less than $25K, including tube field coil supplies, but they play in the big league. I recently bought a PS Audio Directstream MkII DAC, Playing my own DSD128 transfers from my master tapes, I quite honestly cannot tell the difference. I think this is the ultimate test of the worth of a piece of equipment. Unless the Wadax can somehow make the files sound better than the tapes, how can it justify the 18X price differential ? And the PS Audio is not cheap (disclosure: I got staff pricing for writing technical articles for PS Audio’s magazine) either, but at least it performs. I think digital technology has finally evolved to a level where it is possible to have almost perfect reproduction, at least with DSD. A good sounding system depends on knowledge, not money.

Jerry Del Colliano

We used Nagra digital reel to reel players at Cello in the mid-1990s to play Mark’s recordings in 24 bit.

They were VERY VERY EXPENSIVE but the only way to resolve that type of sound (or anything close to it) at that time.

They still are pretty cool.

I am not sure 8000 francs is “oligarch audio” however.


I wholeheartedly agree.


Did the $40k DAC just turn up in the mail one day?
I mean, you could have said ‘no thanks’ prior to it being shipped to you for review, since you seem to be implying that you didn’t even listen to it?

Jerry Del Colliano

For the record – I didn’t send Steven a $40,000 DAC when I have sent expensive DACs to others.


Finally, someone who is saying it like it is in our industry currently. Cost no object systems are bought by wealthy inviduals who have no idea what the arts of music playback are about. Large, heavy, and expensive boxes that wooze of status.


As a young man I lusted after: a Linn Sondek, Naim amplification & Celestion monitors but had to settle for less. Of course, 70s UK vinyl was pretty abysmal so I wasn’t missing much. I had fun recording punk etc from John Peel’s late night BBC FM radio show over a prime five year period. In the intervening years the CD put far more emphasis on the music than equipment. Consequently I amassed an Oligarch level 2000+ CD collection. I believe one can have just as much fun as any Oligarch searching for inexpensive audio nuggets that create great sound.

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