If your non-audiophile mates are anything like mine, they give you a thousand yard stare when you suggest that a $300 pair of headphones might be a worthwhile addition to their life. $1500 standmounts that also require a $1500 amplifier? Cloud cuckoo land, mate.
It’s as if the continually diminishing perceived value of recorded music has also infected the perceived value of the equipment that reproduces it. Outside of the razor thin audiophile niche, laptop speakers and little white earbuds are the rule, not the exception. TV speakers and Bluetooth monos stand in for the stereo systems of yore. No wonder the popularity of live gigs continues on the up and up – it’s many people’s ONLY exposure to a half-decent sound system.
This disparity between the sound quality experienced at home and that heard at one’s local live venue grows wider with each passing year; and yet that Marshall stack still wears the beer stains from 2006 with pride.
As I sit writing this piece, I’m grooving to Built to Spill’s utterly superb Untethered Moon. Handling its reproduction are the following items: KEF LS50 loudspeakers, Vinnie Rossi LIO integrated amplifier w/ in-built phono stage and a Pro-Ject Xtension 10 turntable fitted with a Dynavector 10×5 cartridge.
In the context of the numerous $100K+ systems seen/heard at audio shows, this could be considered ‘entry-level’. Some might even venture the term ‘affordable’ but that’s just white, middle-class privilege male talking. We audiophiles see the value in this collection of boxes but with their sum total tipping the scales at around $10K this hi-fi rig is anything but affordable for your average thirty-something. US$10K is around one fifth of median household income in the USA:
During last September’s panel discussion at Chester Group’s New York event in Brooklyn, the21st Century Audiophile theme was kicked off course by the simplest of questions: “What IS affordable?”. Steve Guttenberg suggested an amplifier combo from Dayton Audio and Lepai arriving below the $100 marker is where the conversation about audio gear ought to start. Music to this fella’s ears.
With the New York event failing to properly capitalise on the youthful and cultural diversity of its Brooklyn location, I took Guttenberg’s germ of an idea and presented a more fully-cultured version to Marjorie Baumert, the organisational nouse behind Denver’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. Our conversation took place two weeks after New York during opening night drinks of her 2014 event.
“For RMAF 2015, how about giving over three rooms to more affordable systems?” I optimistically asked. “I don’t mean $5000 affordable, I mean $100, $200 or $300”. Baumert not blinking I pressed the point home. “Perhaps ask a range of exhibitors to donate the necessary gear? You could even make it a competition: who can put together the best sounding room for $100/$200/$300?”. Nods of approval were exchanged and that was that…
…until this week, an email from Baumert:
The wheels are turning on the affordable rooms we discussed at last year’s show. I know we talked about $100 for each but the first one I put together was $500…so I thought I would seek out your advice.”
“The Entry Level Vinyl Room will be a pair of speakers from Audioengine in combination with Music Hall’s USB turntable. I will donate 2 other rooms and am not exactly sure what to call them or what they will look like. Basically, I think there should be some sort of digital system in one that attendees can plug into and the other perhaps streaming. Tidal will donate the streaming for me.”
“The rooms will be on the tower side so I can move some traffic from the CanJam area over to the tower to keep the exhibitors happy! My nephews and other young volunteers will staff the rooms. Your suggestions are welcome!!!”.
Colour me impressed.
In hindsight, that $100 ceiling looks hopelessly naive but Baumert’s cleary running with the idea of giving three rooms over to more affordable fare that she could otherwise sell to high/er-end exhibitors. Time to keep the momentum rolling.
“Hi Marjorie – I know we’re trying to keep a tight lid on overall spend but if you’re not running this as a competition, how about a $500 room, a $750 room and a $1500 room? Visitors can get a flavour of what’s possible as an entry-level spend clicks through the gears.”
“$500 could be what you have already with Music Hall and Audioengine. I’m assuming you’re referring to the former’s USB-1 turntable (US$249) and the latter’s A2+ powered speakers (US$249)?”
“The room $750 could comprise a pair of KEF X300A speakers + USB connected laptop streaming Tidal. Those KEFs used to arrive with an RRP of US$799 (so I could be cheating a little) but if memory serves the RRP was recently dropped to US$599 in the USA.”
“The $1500 room? Magnepan MMG (US$599) + NAD D3020 (US$499, includes Bluetooth streaming), then add a Schiit Mani phono stage (US$129) and a Pro-Ject Elemental turntable (US$229). I reckon this room would really knock expectations sideways. If you’re not keen on the Schiit and Pro-Ject combo, hit Roy Hall up for a second USB-1.”
“Otherwise you could ditch the vinyl front end altogether and pair the MMG with Peachtree Audio’s Nova65SE (US$899). Bringing our story full circle, Steve Guttenberg just this week reported terrific results when the Peachtree DAC/integrated was paired with Magnepan’s newer .7 loudspeaker. If nothing else, the Peachtree unit is more enjoyable to look at than Roy Hall. ;)”
“Or what about a Rega Brio-R amplifier (US$995) taking its lead from a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon turntable (US$399) and powering Pioneer SP-BS22-LR standmounts (US$129)? No need for an interceding phono stage here as the Rega has one built in.”
“Also – How about some signage that directs people who’ve just bought a record in the ballroom to the level hosting these systems? Somewhere they can spin guilt free! Anyone dropping $100+ on a rare pressing might not be too keen to have a super-budget cartridge dragged across it surface but others won’t mind. Not everyone prioritises ownership prestige over every day enjoyability. ;)”
The door now opens to you dear reader. How would you specify a $500 room? A $1000 room? And a $1500 room? Go large with your thoughts in the comments section below.
This year RMAF runs a little earlier than usual: October 2nd though 4th at the Denver Tech Center, Colorado.
Further information: Rocky Mountain Audio Fest