What’s that smell? Picking up where Art Dudley left off

  • Art Dudley’s recent Stereophile article calling bullshit on high-end bling has a lot of people singing hallelujahs. Few readers will be blind to this possibly being an (indirect) editorial – and advertising – repositioning for Stereophile but it got me thinking about how much I agree with Dudley.  His post read as more of a stand against the exploitation of the wealthy – both accidental and deliberate – rather than the wealthy themselves.  At the high-end, there doesn’t seem to be too much incentive to price keenly. Some manufacturers charge seemingly arbitrary amounts for their wares.  This doesn’t sit well with me either.  Price competition shouldn’t just evaporate as the RRP hits the stratosphere, should it?

    Fact: there will always be people who want to buy blinged-out boxes and cables. Hi-fi purchases are part utilitarian (music reproduction) and part aspiration (‘look at my rack’). Dudley pointed out that a lot of the high-end gear speaks to both utility and aspiration and that in some cases it’s perhaps the latter cart that’s driving the former horse.  I know a couple of guys here in Sydney who run Conrad-Johnson amplifiers not just because they sound good but because they speak well of their owner’s taste.

    The explosion of the middle class in Asia will go a long way to ensuring the financial viability for years to come of many high-end manufacturers – jewellery casework or not. Western buyers who sit inside the top twenty percent of income earners probably won’t see a problem with $100K loudspeakers either. After all, they will ardently defend their right to buy it because: a) they want it and b) they can afford it. They will swiftly point out that no-one is holding a gun to their head.

    True enough. But that doesn’t mean that said amplifier won’t be seen as poor value for money by (some of) the rest of us. With economic crises squeezing middle-class disposable incomes in Europe, the USA and Oceania, the ‘rest of us’ is a group that’s becoming ever larger. The strength of the super-luxury goods markets is a sign of the times: wealth inequalities are  w i d e n i n g.  Us versus them?  Perhaps.

    Perceived value always resides in the eye of the purchaser. One man’s bargain will be another man’s bullshit. Wilson Audio Sasha loudspeakers sound sublime but I wince when I see their $28k RRP.  Owning them would run me even more than the sticker. I would need better amplification and cabling as well as a bigger room, which means a bigger house.  All of this means a larger income needed for yours truly.   This isn’t an imagined scenario.  Just this week I moved on a pair of  loudspeakers whose total cost of ownership ultimately summed to more than I could afford.

    Many of my non-audiophile friends wince when I tell them that I bought an amplifier for $1500 or speakers for $2000. They laugh harder and more awkwardly when I tell them that the additional speaker stands ran me a further $500 and the speaker cable about the same. I counter with two arguments: a) I want it and b) I can afford it. Ha!

    But…there’s a line in the sand that I won’t cross: spending so much that I can’t afford to do other things in life. Life isn’t all about hi-fi.

    In considering my next purchase, I look closely at the opportunity cost of the box(es) to hand. When I see a $10k pair of loudspeakers I also see a few months off work, visiting far-flung destinations. The latter idea always triumphs. When I see thousand dollar loudspeaker cables, I instead see a new budget integrated amplifier.

    Music is an integral part of my life. That doesn’t make me special or unique – if you’re reading this you will probably think similarly. Having the vehicles for its reproduction both at home and on the move will always be priorities for me; but the personal cost of those priorities is not boundless/endless.

    The quality of music reproduction in my home is determined by a personal financial glass ceiling. My focus is very much on hitting the bang-for-buck sweet spot; just before the diminishing returns from each additional dollar jumps off a cliff. Hopefully you will see this reflected in this website’s review coverage. I never review anything I can’t personally afford.

    Moreover, I’m continually meeting people who share my view that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a good sound. The chaps behind such companies as Peachtree Audio, Wyred4Sound, Zu Audio, Emotiva and Rega (to name a few) are making it easier and easier to compile a superb-sounding system from for $3k. Result!

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s easy to get a great sound for twenty grand. The fun lies in getting 90% of that sound for a quarter of the outlay. That’s why I mostly buy from – and write about – the lower-end of the market.

    You could say that I call bullshit on $50k monos because I cannot afford them. And you’d be dead right. That amplification might sound amazing but it would break me financially for years to come. It’s just too much amplification for my apartment and too much amplification for my life.  However, this doesn’t mean I’m advocating the other extreme: that we should all revert to living in caves with DIY kits and exposed PCBs.   I’m advocating pragmatism and compromise.  No hi-fi rig is perfect.  The game is about finding the compromise you’re most prepared to live with.

    In case you haven’t sniffed the scent of my argument yet, let me smell it out for you:  hi-fi buying decisions are impacted by the dual contexts of 1) income and 2) priorities. I don’t know how much Art Dudley earns but I bet he doesn’t pull a futures trader income.  He probably rides in a middle income boat where half a million bucks on a complete system is well beyond his reach.  Consequently, Dudley too has drawn his own line in the sand.  That and he probably thinks that some high-end manufacturers are bleeding their customers for all they are worth by fuelling the illusion that if it costs more then it must be better.  Value for money is important no matter what the absolute cost.

    It’s simple really: the vast majority of audiophiles can’t (and won’t) afford $10 000 interconnects because they (we!) earn more modest incomes. The opportunity cost is too great. No matter what the quality of those cables, we see that price and we think: what’s that smell?

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. Very interesting article and comments.

      Something along these lines was discussed on a forum out of New York I sometimes frequent. Here is what I said

      It’s a big problem all right. One thing when I chat to newbies is explain retail and marketing realities. A small manufacturer of a quality product has two paths.

      Path one is to spend a fortune on marketing, taking them to shows, holding Champagne and caviar breakfasts, getting Stereophile to review them, take out full page glossy ads etc etc. Then tee up retailers in high end salons and say they are a very important part of ensuring their customers can fully appreciate and understand their product. Cost to customer – ten or more times the cost of making it in the first place. But of course everyone knows about them, can lust over them in glossy magazines, can hear them in a high end salon and talk of other high end products with a salesperson, can hear them at high end shows and marvel at the price charged while thinking wow it must be good to charge that, and can read what supposedly knowledgeable reviewers think. Hell you even don’t have to listen to them – if this expert thinks its good then it must be good. Of course some reviewers are chosen for their ability to write nice prose rather than audio knowledge and experience but the magazines don’t really advertise that.

      Path two – keep costs low, sell direct, and rely mostly on word of mouth. Cost to customer – just what’s necessary for the guy to scrape out a living – maybe 100% the cost of making them in the first place. But you actually have to listen to gear at friends places and not necessarily high end shows or salons – in fact probably lots of gear – to know its good. You will also need to seek it out yourself – it’s probably not at your local Hi Fi store. In fact if you mention it in those places it’s likely you will get blank looks. Of course that way you are more likely to get what you like rather than what some reviewer likes – but you must trust yourself.

      Which is most likely to be the better product – IMHO the guy that survives by word of mouth and not marketing hype. A status symbol – hell no – sounding better – quite likely.

      The point is if you go to shows like that the people showing there are much more likely to be in the first group – hence the high prices. Its just market reality – they aren’t trying to rip anyone off or anything like that – however if you choose the first path it’s what you have to do.


      • Thanks Bill. Don’t you reckon Path 1 and 2 represent the extremes of a continuum? I can think of many companies who are a bit of both.

        • Hi John

          Of course they are extremes and what each manufacturer does indeed lies on a continuum. It’s just good to keep in mind what those extremes are when judging equipment.


    2. Working in the french luxury industry I think it is a complex topic, high price points might seem abusive but there are some aspects to this commercial strategy which (somehow) do make sense :
      – First of all it’s a question of freedom of choice, there are folks out there with a lot of money, the ones that can afford jewellery worth a couple of millions, private planes, fleets of luxury cars, extensive art collections. This public actually wants to spend a maximum of money on the kind of stuff that normal peeps can’t afford, a large part from their buying satisfaction actually derives from the fact to be able to afford items that only them can acquire, as they acquire the pendant of their ‘high social status’ in a product. In this scenario we’re merely contemplating a offer-demand scenario, people looking for that rarefied, non-mainstream ultimate luxury fantasy and people catering to these tastes … in a way these manufacturers more operate like jewelers, they sell ‘gems’. Again, a simple offer-demand scenario, not more, not less.
      – On another level I do think it’s a good thing that in Hi-Fi manufacturers can choose their business model, for instance if you decide that the low quantity/high price-point scenario suits your business best because you want to work with best materials, long development times, handcraft, low inventory, keep you shop small, the kind of high margin games allows you to do just that. Not every engineer/designer who has a passion for audio is also capable or willing to run a larger corporation, preferring to be able to be profitable on a ‘high-end shop’ level, somewhat the equivalent of a craftsman. I personally like the idea of small outfits who can charge sufficiently in order to stay small.
      These are only two aspects which I would like to bring in on the periphery, there’s many nuances and viewpoints to this discussion, there’s also many con-artists and sharks in the scene and so on, I would never deny that … sometimes high price-points can make sense, often they also do not. The most important being that it’s an open and vibrant marketplace where everything exists, the fair-priced, the expensive and so on, to each their own I guess. In the end it boils down to a question of choice and the liberty to buy according to these choices.

    3. On another note : I actually have much more contempt for the evolution of the mainstream consumer market and marketing related design choices of manufacturers in that field : just take some boom boom-ish subwoofer, add a couple of satellite-speakers to add some fizzle and sparkle in the higher frequencies and you have a device which will already, to the untrained ear have a ‘wow’ effect and will make the sale to the average consumer, although there is a complete absence of midrange, timbre and musicality. This is truly devastating and crippling in regards of listening habits … kids who grow up on these devices will actually be unable to make the distinction between a musical sound and the fast food stuff … In that sense it would of course be fantastic to see more high-end outfits propose products which can compete with these mainstream devices, which would be a viable alternative to this kind of approach to music reproduction, and in that sense the high price point thing doesn’t help of course.

    4. I think it’s also worth pointing out John that most of those people who are constantly tinkering, constantly on the look out for the next best and most expensive thing on some level fail to enjoy the fruits of their efforts. It’s not about enjoying the music. It’s about making it bigger, better, stronger, more. More what who knows.

      I think a good DAC and some Audioengine A2s can render a recording at listenable volumes in a smallish space extremely well. Yes I’d like to have some d’agostino power amps but that’s just because I like the look of them. I’m with “The Audio Critic” in most regards and think amplification is amplification and cables are cables. Besides, I’d rather drop some of my hard earned on seeing Gareth Liddiard live and some craft beer and really enjoy the music, not the musical playback system.

      • Gareth Liddiard live is an intensely wonderful experience.

        And yes, I agree with you, a lot of audiophiles are restless. They find is tough to stop, sit and listen…..and enjoy that which they already own. But that’s a different point for a different day. 🙂

    5. A very sensible and truthful article, John, thanks for putting it out there.

      Like you say, buyers at the high end are often buying equipment that could easily and profitably have been offered at a much lower price. IOW they are being ripped off, but who cares, I don’t.

      They are also often buying gear that actually performs worse than much, much cheaper equipment. But because they don’t understand what is happening, they become easy prey. None of which matters to me as a buyer (or you, going by what I just read).

      Remember, high end buyers essentially believe that if it cost less, it can’t be as good. To convince them otherwise would require changing their belief system, not just providing them with information. They *need* grossly overpriced stuff compared to performance. The market is simply meeting that need. The whole idea that performance against price reaches a plateau, not just diminishing returns but completely flattening, simply won’t be entertained by these buyers.

    6. It’s one thing charging $50k for a unique exotic design like an MBL Radialstrahler or something truly innovative.

      Paying that money for a rectangular box with standard drivers and a long story of how cleverly they built it does not fly for me at that price tag.
      Especially since the ideal speaker cabinet is a sphere.

      Also, crossing frequencies of the drivers in the vocal range where human hearing is most sensitive does not make for an argument either to spend these figures on such fundamentally flawed products…

    7. JD – I could not agree more!!!!

      90% of the sound for 3-4K, I love that.

      It astounds me that even those with the ultimate means for Hi Fi would spend 100K on speakers or 50K on amps when there is sooo much need in the world.

      ‘whats that smell’, surely a veritable Sh%%#T Farm of markiting or hardly detectable levles of SQ above the mentioned Wilsons or there abouts.

      I’m not always a blind test sort however I would advocate a BT for anyone wanting to spend 30K – 100K on Hi Fi. Put up the money let some gurus provide some speakers or amps (that you cant see) to choose from and take home the ones that you picked as best.

      If you pick em you can have em -the rest goes to a charity of their choice.

      How’s that for a hi fi gamble!!

    8. I’m sorry but I have to say there is a thread of misinformation/misunderstanding about ‘the high-end purchaser’ that permeates these comments. In another life I was lucky enough to be in a highly remunerated position… not the $10m p.a. level but sufficient to buy high performance cars, use the annual bonus to purchase a second home by the sea etc etc….and to indulge in my forgotten love of audio gear. What fascinated me was that my colleagues, most being equally or substantially better remunerated, always looked for best value when making major purchases (house/car/discretionary toys like boats and stereos etc) and often investigated thoroughly before viewing and then making decisions. And I would say that that is typical of those in the commercial world – well remunerated, conservative in approach and cautious in their buying decisions. And many decisions are made with careful advice (advisers in the commercial sphere and personal world’s are a certainty) so where doubt arises it may fall to a trusted retailer to provide compelling and trustworthy advice. Perhaps cliches about the wealthy all being obsessed with conspicuous consumption really need to be set aside and the role of retailers should be more carefully considered. Thomas

      • That’s fine Thomas, and I am sure it is true for many high-end buyers.

        However if it was true generally, then an awful lot of high end hifi makers simply wouldn’t exist.

        • My comment was a response to your generalisation:

          “Remember, high end buyers essentially believe that if it cost less, it can’t be as good. To convince them otherwise would require changing their belief system, not just providing them with information. They *need* grossly overpriced stuff compared to performance. The market is simply meeting that need.”

          People with the money to purchase at the high end often worked very hard to get there, and are NOT profligate. In my youth I worked mowing lawns, in Hifi retail, cleaning toilets, removing graffiti…I would argue that the people purchasing hifi ‘jewellery’ are not high-end hifi enthusiasts, they are just conspicuous consumers.
          They are convinced by a RETAILER that greater cost equates to better quality. To some extent we need them: in the same way that passengers flying first class cross-subsidise economy class, top line products by REPUTABLE manufacturers finance trickle down technology and allow better sound at affordable prices….they also tend to have higher margins enabling economic survival.
          But of course I agree that this also results in less reputable manufacturers producing purely ‘conspicuous hifi’ without underlying quality.
          Whether these guys will survive is debateable – the growing Chinese high income earners do appear to be more pre-occupied with status consumer goods but this could quickly swing towards Chinese made high end as that industry takes off. T

          • Thanks Thomas for your comments. I agree that many wealthy people are hard workers and frugal with their money. And many wealthy people who like hifi don’t buy high end hifi at all. Enough of them do, however, to support an industry.

            It is not just a question of audio jewellery versus expensive high performance audio. Even the latter is firmly priced for its intended market.

            I remember a presentation at which the marketing manager of Halcro Amplifiers spoke. (Their products are superbly engineered and built, and perform at a very high level, definitely not audio jewellery.) He was clear about their target market, and the price expectations of the market. He showed the “billionaires’ magazines” (which we don’t see on the magazine shelves) where they advertise to their target market, and the type of product that is advertised in these magazines (power cruisers, yachts, private jets, etc). It was a real eye opener. It would be wrong to think that the prices of these products (high end audio) are based on the cost of manufacture, marketing and sales; in fact, it would be a mistake for the manufacturer to do so.

          • I agree with Thomas, Arg … in a way this is simply a market which meets demand. There s little in the way of rationalizing the price of jewelry for instance, yet there is a ‘need’. Luxury is a curious beast.

            In itself there is nothing wrong with that … on the contrary, if such markets wouldn’t exist there would be no hi-fi manufacturers left and we’d be stuck with the likes of Bose or Sony. One also has to remember that the more budget-friendly hi-fi brands also can to a certain extent only survive because there is an existing hi-fi market, clientele, conventions, shows, magazines, websites and distribution.

            There is also the trickle down component … for instance if a manufacturer of speaker drivers is surviving on this clientele (let’s say Scanspeak) they might still opt to develop a lower price-tag component which might benefit more budget oriented speaker manufacturers.

            So maybe we need to see this a form of eco-system where the good and the bad, the correctly-prices and the outrageously overpiced co-exist, but my feeling is that there is some form of interconnection, difficult to have the one without the other.

            In the end it all comes down to personal choice and that is a good thing, of course only as long as there is an open market which offers alternatives. You can opt to to burn 100-200K on a system, but if you document a little, or maybe go down the DIY route, or mix both you can have a lot of fun in the 2-5K range, and websites like John’s are dedicated to this market and we’re all thankful for that.

    9. There is no fundamental conflict between “I want it and I can afford it” and making lifestyle choices on where to spend ones dough. They are actually (almost) saying the same thing as often the reality of making lifestyle choices determines the level of what can be afforded.

      But there is also another way that can, should one have the inclination, result in superior audio performance for ones buck.

      Learn how to wield a soldering iron. They are cheap, easy to use and one can whip up some very, very good sounding stuff that does not necessarily need to look like a piece of lab equipment. Be prepared to confront conventional orthodoxy and make your own interconnect and speaker cables. It’s not hard to do and the results invariably surprise the first timer.

      Somethings (digital things in particular) are less practical and one can, and probably should, give pause before launching into a scratch build anything digital. The techniques involved require skills that take time to acquire and a more expensive set of tools and test equipment. And I’m not advocating we all start building our own phono cartridges either.

      But there is a level of satisfaction associated with building something yourself and getting a result that would, in every conceivable way, be greater than merely laying down ones Amex Platinum card at the counter.

      my 2 cents, YMMV etc, etc.

      PS: Just found your site Mr. Darko. Most illuminating and refreshing. Thank you.

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