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 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.