Longtime audiophile reviewer Steven Stone was being shy in a recent phone conversation. As far as I can tell, he coined the phrase “oligarch audio,” which describes audiophile components that are priced north of $100,000. By anyone’s measure, that is some bat-shit-crazy expensive audio gear. Since you are likely hip to our editorial bent here at FutureAudiophile.com, you know that we review everything when it comes to audiophile components, ranging from under-$200 Chi-FiSMSL integrated amps (our first ever posted review) to uber-high-end $32,000 digital-to-analog converters that are handmade in Germany. We’ve reviewed totally generic-looking Monoprice floorstanding speakers while also publishing reviews of high-end dream-speakers such as the Focal Sopra No. 2s and Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4s. Our plan is to cover the entire spectrum of the audiophile world, because over the 25 years plus that I’ve been a publisher in the consumer electronics space, readers have made one thing crystal clear in every survey that I’ve ever run: you want more content. We get it and we hear you.
My career in AV sales back in the late 1980s and early 1990s included selling my fair share of high-end audiophile products. Back in Philadelphia as a high-school audio salesman, I sold some Conrad Johnson, Forte, Meridian, Magnepan, as well as other high-end brands of the day. Only a few years later, as a freshman in music school, I sold more than my fair share of much higher-end gear like Wilson Audio WATT Puppy speakers, Mark Levinson electronics, and Transparent Audio cables. My last stop in audiophile equipment sales landed me at Mark Levinson’s Cello, and other than perhaps Goldmund (which wasn’t well distributed in the United States at the time), there was nothing remotely priced as high as Cello gear. In the mid-1990s, we were selling audiophile systems priced in the $300,000-to-$1,000,000 range. Even by today’s standards, that was crazy-expensive. Back then, we had clients selling body parts to get into the Cello club, and who could blame them, right? No matter how far that you go back in the hobby, there is always an uber-high-end component to what we do.
During the COVID pandemic, many, often older, audiophiles found themselves locked up at home with very justified fears of catching a nasty, viral respiratory disease. Many audio enthusiasts made major investments in audio gear that took their systems to whole new stratospheric levels. We saw an unforeseen rise in popularity of gear made in Switzerland, such as Solution, CH Precision, Stenheim, and others. The prices for some of these components were higher than that of a modern AMG Mercedes yet they were selling like hotcakes and in some cases were on back order for more than a year. One staff member at Audio Research told me the pressure that the former Italian owners of the mighty, audiophile tube electronics company had to introduce more and more expensive gear. Uber-high-end audio was having its best success in the history of the hobby, with large volumes of ultra-level components coming to market.
So Why Is It Important to Review Really Expensive Audiophile Gear in an Online Magazine Designed to Reach Younger and More Diverse Audiophiles?
In the publishing world, there is a cliché about putting a “Ferrari on the cover of Road & Track,” which means catching the attention of your reader with the sexiest possible product (or person or whatever) on the cover. Today, you can’t find a physical newsstand in most major U.S. cities and what’s on the cover of a printed magazine is additionally pretty irrelevant. An open-minded audiophile should care about gear designed for people with 1/10 of one percenter incomes because it sets the performance standard for what is theoretically possible in a cost-no-object environment, even if that isn’t our real world. To circle back to the car magazine analogy, everybody knows that many more Volkswagen GTIs and Subaru WRX cars get sold every year than, say, $275,000 entry-level Ferraris, so those less-expensive cars should also get some editorial love, too, but on the cover of the magazine often is the main attraction. Paddle shifters made their first showing at the F1 racing levels, but eventually became part of exotic sports cars. Now my SUV (with a baby seat in the back) has F1 shifting options. A lot of ultra-cool new technology comes from the world where money is no object.
Why Should Audiophiles Care About Reviews of Very High-End Components?
Audiophiles simply can’t upgrade their system every time they get one of our email newsletters or read one of their favorite websites filled with new component reviews, but they can absolutely aspire to find technologies, features, and other elements found on truly reference-level audiophile gear in the components that they want to buy as they expand the scope of their audiophile journey. And despite all of the big-time investments that we are talking about here, this level of research doesn’t cost very much if anything at all.
Reading a review of one of Nelson Pass’ insanely good class-A monoblock amps like the recent Pass Labs XA 60.8s, for example, is a worthy endeavor even if one couldn’t afford the lofty price, because Nelson’s company also offers a $5,150 amp called the Pass Labs XA25 (review pending) that doesn’t offer balanced operation or the expensive gauge on the front of the amp, and gives a stripped-down but still sexy sounding performance at a more aspirational level. Nelson’s kitchen table brand, First Watt, offers even more stripped-down amps in terms of the physical chassis and whatnot, but does deliver a lot of the more important, performance-oriented features from his power amps that cost many times more money. Clever audiophiles can figure out how to get more of the good attributes of a reference audiophile product without being forced to auction a kidney on eBay.
Raidho Acoustics builds super high-end loudspeakers in Denmark that can cost in the high five figures (if not six figures) per pair. In the real world, few audiophiles could ever justify the tremendous expense of these speakers, no matter how good they sound (I’ve heard them and they are very impressive). They have very very high-end AMT tweeters that sound exceptionally open and airy. The build quality of Raidho speakers is insanely good, as is the level of hand workmanship. What many more budget minded audiophiles can find is their down-market brand, Scansonic. Brian Kahn recently reviewed the Scansonic HD M20. These more-affordable speakers are priced at a very competitive $2,100, and Brian just loved them as a very compelling option in the most competitive price point in all of audiophile loudspeakers. In some audiophile circles, it is in vogue to sometimes get upset over the mere existence of super expensive stereo components that we never in a million years will have the money to afford. Let’s be clear… that anger is often misguided. These reference level products offer a window into what’s possible if you a had a near-Powerball level net worth. The fact is that most of us don’t sit on eight figures of cash over at Goldman Sachs, so we need to find more affordable solutions and often the road to those products comes from studying what the best of the best have to offer even when we might not be able to (or can’t justify) the costs as there are still serious benefits from studying the entire marketplace for products before making your next move on the audiophile chess board.