High-Performance Audio Products' Value Is a Bell-Shaped Curve

AR-BellCurve225.jpgNot all audiophile products are created equal. Nor do they all carry the same overall financial value over the short, mid, and long-terms of ownership. Today, a modern audiophile system comprises a number of key product categories, including source components, preamps, amps, speakers, cables, and accessories.

Some categories hold their value better than others. For example: high end digital components historically have been the most volatile products in terms of value because advancements in feature sets happen faster than with all-analog components. All too often your $10,000 DAC rushes rapidly out of the state-of-the-art. Ouch. 

Traditional stereo preamps and power amps have much better mid- and long-term financial value, as they are less likely to see technological changes that are disruptive in terms of performance. Speakers can be another good place to invest your AV dollars for long-term value. 

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My best long-standing advice to audiophiles who are growing and upgrading their systems is to very seriously consider sticking with blue-chip audio companies when making new investments. 

The barrier to entry in the audiophile market, for manufacturers at least, is very different than in the home theater world. Some retired old dude with a woodworking background or some college classes in electrical engineering can start making his own speakers or tube amps right in his garage with a pretty modest investment. You can't do the same with an AV preamp or a 77-inch OLED UHD TV without tens of millions of dollars of upfront money.

Does that dude in the garage have any viable U.S. dealers? Does he sell on Amazon.com, the AV catalogs, or other reputable online retailers? Have audio enthusiasts heard his products? Has he gotten any reviews from any publications that have any standing in the community? Does he buy any ads to promote and build his brand? 

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For hundreds of small hobby-based audiophile companies, the answer is "no" across the board to all of the above, and that should be very concerning unless you've got money to burn.

Trusted companies such as Audio Research, Mark Levinson, Krell, Pass Labs, Classé, McIntosh, Marantz, and many other audiophile brands have built reputations over decades in the industry. Enthusiasts all over the world know, respect, and long for these brands. People are out there ready to buy their electronics at a minute's notice. 

Post a used component from an A-list brand for a fair price on AudioGon.com, eBay.com, the forums, or elsewhere and don't be shocked to see a sale completed in mere minutes. Other, more obscure audiophile brands will require a more adventurous buyer and likely a lower price to get a deal done and the delta in purchase price and real-world sales price is going to be made up out of your investment money, which makes it harder for you to make that next key audio upgrade. 

AR-ARCPreamp.jpegAs an example, in the automotive world, cars that retain their value better can be leased for less money because they can be sold for more in year three or year four. Think of audio the same way, especially as you grow your system out of entry level and mid-fi. That's not to say there aren't times when new companies come to market with exciting, new, high-value products, but you should look to the standards above to see if they are doing the right things to invest in their brands so you feel more comfortable buying their products. 

Simply finding a company that builds a better mousetrap isn't enough. They need to be a marketing company, too, with good distribution, strong reviews, and lots of consumer demand before you plunk down the platinum card for a big charge. Unless, of course, you plan on being buried with your gear.

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Another thing to consider is that audiophile components hold their value differently depending on their initial MSRP. Entry level and mid-fi gear (be it speakers or electronics) with modern features, good reviews, from a brand with a good reputation, will always be worth something and likely upwards of half of what you paid. As products get more expensive, there is a bit more of a tipping point. The performance of today's speakers has gotten better and better in the higher-end audiophile space, while the relatively significant prices have come down versus say five to 10 years ago. There are many meaningful speaker brands who price their most popular high-end models around $30,000. Wilson Audio, Bowers & Wilkins, Martin Logan, Focal, Magico, and others come to mind. Many of them make much more expensive speakers for the more extreme audiophile, and they come with price tags that are less Aston Martin and more Bugatti in terms of scope. 

On the aftermarket, though, these products appeal to a much smaller audience for a number of reasons. First off, most people can't afford such lofty products under any reasonable circumstances. Secondly, people who live in the cities who see the types of astronomical incomes needed to make such an investment often don't have rooms that have the space to give such a product enough space to shine. A Park Avenue penthouse might cost $10,000,000, but it likely doesn't have a "music room" with high ceilings and enough cubic footage to support a pair of, say, MartinLogan CLXs or Wilson WHAMs, but could easily accommodate a pair of Wilson Audio Sashas, Bowers & Wilkins 800 Diamonds, more modest MartinLogans, and so on. 

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Simply put, the physical size of reference speakers makes it so that there are just fewer people who could ever dream of logistically accommodate them. 

Just as you would plan your kid's college fund or your retirement strategy, it is important to make a plan for your audio and AV system. It is cool to be extravagant from time to time when the funds allow for such an investment. Build a long-term plan while you are reading reviews or jamming out to music. That's part of the fun of the hobby. Take pride in owning a product that you bought right and sold right, as it is likely a key stepping stone on your audiophile journey and the journey is a big part of the fun. Let's not forget that, folks!

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