Do We Really Need High-End Audio?

Do We Really Need High-End Audio?

In the roughly 17 years that I’ve been an AV reviewer, I’ve covered pretty much every product category. I’ve reviewed video displays, speakers, remote controls, disc players, AV receivers—you name it. And while the products I reviewed covered a wide price range, there was always one category I tried to avoid: High-end audio. Now, I can’t give you an exact price or spec that represented the cutoff where I would pass an audio review opportunity on to someone else. The best way I can quantify “high-end audio” is to say that you know it when you see it. And perhaps that’s part of my concern with it.

 

Eventually my focus moved into the realm of display reviews, and one reason I’m quite comfortable there is because, generally speaking, there are clear, quantifiable steps that distinguish one performance class from another. You can measure black level and contrast, color accuracy, and now HDR peak brightness and accuracy. You can say to someone, “If you really

value [this], then you should buy [that].” “If you mostly use your TV to do [this], then you should save your money and get [that].” Of course you’ll run into products that straddle the fence between budget and mid-level, or between mid-level and high-end, which may make it harder to render a final verdict, but those are more the exception than the rule.

 

That wasn’t always the case, though. I first started reviewing displays in the early days of high-definition. There were virtually no budget HDTVs, but there was certainly a high-end realm, inhabited by brands like Mitsubishi, JVC, and Pioneer Elite. Sitting at the very top of the food chain was Runco, maker of the ultimate high-end TVs and 

projectors. It wasn’t necessarily that Runco displays performed significantly better than other lower-priced options, but they were sold exclusively through dealers that were trained to provide a level of service and support to justify the products’ high-end prices. And that model worked for them. It’s fair to say that Runco owned the luxury market.

 

But then a funny thing happened. Samsung and Vizio came along and proved that you could sell TVs that performed really well for a lot less money. JVC and Epson did the same thing with front projectors. High-definition displays became less of a luxury and more of a commodity, and the brands that couldn’t adapt to this new reality died. One by one the high-end display products just sort of fell away. Even Runco was ultimately purchased by commercial-display company Planar, which tried for a while to keep a presence in the luxury home market but eventually gave up.

 

Sure, names like SIM2 and B&O still exist, but they cater to a very niche market of loyalists. For the most part, the era of the truly exorbitantly priced home video product is dead.

 

That’s not the case in the audio market, at least not to the same extent. This market has faced similar challenges over the past 10 years, as companies like GoldenEar, SVS, and ELAC on the speaker side and Emotiva on the electronics side have proven that you can deliver high-performance audio products for a lot less money.

 

It has certainly been disruptive, forcing some brands out of business and others into the hands of private-equity companies. But big-name audiophile brands like Paradigm, Focal, MartinLogan, Revel, NAD, Anthem, and Marantz are still alive and kicking—and producing great gear at lower price points than ever before.

 

But it poses the question, as the mid-level offerings from these companies get better and better, how can they continue to justify the existence of higher-end lines, especially in the speaker market? How do you quantify the improvement? That has always been my struggle.

 

Sure, you can measure a speaker’s frequency response and sensitivity. You can measure an amp’s power and distortion. There are some performance benchmarks by which to judge a product. But measurements don’t tell the whole story in audio.

 

Personal preference is certainly a valid benchmark. Some people prefer a little fuller bass, a little more prominent midrange, or a more emphasized treble. That’s true of any audio product, no matter the price. (Hey, it’s true in video, too. Some people prefer a less accurate, more exaggerated picture. But unlike with a TV, you can’t offer multiple performance modes in 

a pair of speakers that will significantly alter the sound profile to appeal to different tastes.)

 

As you move into the truly high-end audio realm, the performance conversation moves away from those basic sonic characteristics that are easily defined and more toward elusive qualities like space, texture, and liquidity—words that often make the more technically minded audio fan bristle. What exactly are we describing there? I’m not even sure what liquidity sounds like.

 

Certainly, build quality and design help to distinguish many high-end products. The use of higher-quality parts. A product that has been hand-assembled, or at least individually inspected and approved. Real-wood cabinets. Automotive-grade custom paint finishes. 

 

But even here you reach a point of diminishing returns on your investment. Some of the most eye-catching speakers I’ve seen at recent trade shows include the Focal Kanta No. 2 ($10,000/pair), the Paradigm Persona 5F ($17,000/pair), and the Revel Performa F228Be ($10,000/pair). For me, 

these seem like the pinnacle of performance and luxury, so when I see the existence of $65,000/pair or $100,000/pair speakers, my response is: Why? I’ve yet to hear a satisfying answer to this question, which is why high-end audio is still a category I shy away from as a reviewer. I just don’t get it.

 

I also wonder how much longer it can last. The high-end audio market has proven itself more resilient (or maybe just more stubborn) than the high-end video market, but is the end nigh? One audio reviewer I know has mentioned that the trend at many audiophile shows these days is to create products where exoticism, rather than sound quality, is the apparent goal. He sometimes derides these products as “wacky.” Like, if you can’t convince people to buy something expensive, convince them to buy something “unique” instead. This trend might be even worse, but that’s a topic for another day.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

1 Comment
  • John Bishop

    Adrienne you make some valid points, but your conclusions are debatable;

    (the bias disclosure; I am on the Tech Advisory board for RAYVA, EVP Mavericks Architectural Cinema div James Loudspeaker, Sales agent and tech presentation contributor to Barco and Stewart Filmscreen. And formerly Mobile Sound Editor for Motor Trend; car analogy to follow)

    Luxury cars, sports cars, and certainly exotic cars have no reason to exist if the measure of a car is limited to a few basic metrics. But I wouldn’t impugn the very existence of exotics simply because I didn’t get it. They deliver a unique and sought-after experience by those who do get it.

    High end audio; the world above your pictured loudspeakers, can deliver substantial and quantifiable benefits, which are manifest in the listening experience. Materials engineering, driver size and format, driver technology, network design and the rest can all have an impact on performance and the resulting listening experience. One of the most basic for accurate sound reproduction, especially in cinema, is the sustained undistorted output levels and dynamic headroom capability of a speaker system. Axial and polar response, the absence of resonances or diaphragm related breakup are important, but if levels and dynamic range can’t be met, the experience is diminished.

    A pro-cinema screening room is a unique space, and they only use a grade of equipment that would be considered high end or exotic relative to a Best Buy sourced HT.
    All of the pictured speakers and many above and below their price points will sound great to most people given playback in a 2,000 cu’ room (14’ x 18’ x 8.5’). But in a cinema, none of these would do the job in a space of 3,000 to 6,000 cu’. And even in a smaller space it’s hard to ask for the realistic reproduction of cinematic gun fire, for example, when the screen wall is comprised of 3 x 1” dome tweeters. The physics just isn’t there.

    It so happens this week we are introducing as part of the RAYVA Alliance program a series of four bespoke cinema system designs, all of which can be considered high end in both sound and image. They feature James Loudspeakers’ Mavericks Architectural Cinema immersive audio systems in 7.4.4, 9.4.6, 9.4.8, and 11.4.10 channel architectures. The first is considered premium, but 9.4.6 might be high end, and the others are certainly exotic. They all feature the James Loudspeaker Quad Tweeter Array, so the screen wall has from 12 to 20 tweeters to handle the cinematic dynamics and all speakers are based on the same driver arrays, so timbre is matched to perfection.

    The imaging is handled by Barco 5K CinemaScope Laser DLP projectors on Stewart Filmscreen SnoMatte surfaces. This is reference cinema exhibition and post technology, and they are tuned to cinema’s image standards.

    The speakers are musically very high end, and the imaging is based on pro-cinema technology; therefore, the overall system can be categorized as ‘Audio-Cinephile’.
    When the room, the sound, and the image are all designed to cinema standards, the experience delivered is unique and the art of movies are experienced the way the move makers intended. These are high-end and expensive in order to achieve this performance level; the range from $75k to $300K to address small to very large rooms. This includes all the AV, Sources, Acoustic treatments, power management, design/build documents and calibration and final certification of cinema grade performance.

    Runco was not a video company, and they didn’t make TV’s, they made monitors that tried to emulate a movie image standard on ‘exotic’ flat panel plasmas. They were a Home Theater company making projectors based on the best cinema related technology at the time, DLP. And they incorporated cinema grade anamorphic lenses to bring widescreen cinema to homes for the first time; CineWide was the name and it worked directly with Stewart Filmscreen, Cinecurve and VistaScope screens.

    I was the New England Rep for Runco from 1993 until Planar closed it, and in 2004 when those widescreen technologies were introduced I was a nationally visible advocate through articles and white papers published in Widescreen Review, CEPro and other locations.

    The excitement of genuine cinema technology applied to the residential space has always been there, and it is just as powerful today with new HDR and Immersive sound. These new RAYVA Alliance systems are based on cinema standards for immersive sound and a cinema grade HDR image.

    And if I may offer a different perspective on the history of high end TV’s and projectors;
    1. Samsung and Vizio didn’t show us TVs could be made cheaper, they showed us inferior TV’s could be made cheaper by replacing plasma with LCD. We got poor flat field uniformity, poor white field purity, a step back in adjacent pixel contrast, and white on dark blooming. But they were much cheaper to make.
    2. Epson & JVC didn’t show us projectors could be made cheaper, they showed us LCD derived technology with lower grade optics, and the same poor white field and flat field performance was cheaper to make.

    The performance standards of cinema attach great import to things we don’t look at in the CE world. Point and shoot cameras aren’t confused with Leica or Hasselblad in photography, even though the pixel count on the former’s tiny imagers are impressive on the spec sheet.

    I hope you have a chance to experience a cinema at the level I’m describing where the projection lenses have a high MTF (modulation transfer function, a spec found in pro photography to differentiate the high from the low). MTF starts with line pairs per inch targets, and a screen like the Stewart SnoMatte material was measured in a laboratory to resolve 16K lines on a 10’ surface! Extraordinary! These are small details, but they add up to an experience few ever enjoy outside the confines of a truly professional private Hollywood Screening Room.

    Runco never claimed to have the best TV, they built cinema experiences and their motto was; ‘Bringing Hollywood Home’. Sam once called me the Godfather of CineWide, and I was passionate for what it brought us.
    I can now say the motto lives on with these new RAYVA Alliance systems that I believe do Bring Hollywood Home. They are the genuine art; delivering HDR in both Cinema Sound & Image.

    It’s great that those ‘audiophile’ brands are making cheaper products, but they’re also making more expensive ones, and for the right people, that’s the right experience.
    We need that too, and we need the high-end components that make a superior experience possible; Audio and Video.
    That’s my take, and to me, that is CineLux.

    So the answer to your question is; YES WE DO!

    Cheers,

    September 10, 2019 at 12:38 am