Written by 7:00 am Audiophile News, Audiophile

Is There A Split Brewing in High Performance Audio?


When I look over the landscape of our beloved hobby these days, I get the pervasive feeling there is a schism brewing between the historic and modern day. Simply put, systems are changing, with the features and functions admired and required likewise changing. 

When I was a kid, several of my good friends had parents with a high performance system. One of them would be by today’s standards considered a “1%” system, or one on the leading edge of world class. When I was fortunate enough to be able to hear it, I sat mesmerized by the music. 

Those sessions, along with my best friend’s brother buying an all McIntosh system, this in 1972, started me down the audio path. I never forgot the enthralling attention I paid to those magnificent stereos. 

In my view at the time, and to a certain extent even today, I believed an audio system needed to be wildly expensive to sound good. Really good. Unlike anything else ever heard before or since good. Then as now, a really inexpensive system could be modestly purchased and used for background music. If you wanted, however, something to really move the needle, be prepared. 

In 1972, I had picked out a system that was then hyper expensive. For whatever reason, the figure $30,000.00 sticks in my mind. I forget most of the components, but they were the world class products of their day. My guess is now, an equivalent system would range in the $300K to $500K range, if not more. My actual 1972 system, however, was absolutely a budget system. I had nowhere near the resources for a $30K audio system. 

Today, speaker systems in the $250K range and up are commonplace. Monoblock amps, preamps, turntables and more may easily be obtained in the $100K range, and up – way up. To wit, the Airforce Zero turntable retails for more than $400,000.00 and that’s without a tonearm or cartridge!

Most of us, however, probably very few of us, will ever plan to invest so lavishly in a turntable, much less an entire system with commensurately priced components. While having a million-dollar audio system for some sounds entirely fanciful and perhaps even ridiculous, for the overwhelming majority of listeners, something different and more affordable is required. 

One question that comes to mind is why? Why would anyone really need a million-dollar audio system? Just to listen to a song? Okay, let’s stay within the confines of high-end audio. Would a $100K, $50K, or even a $10K system not sufficiently get the job done? Maybe, but then again, maybe not. 

I read all the time about how superfluously glorious these budget audio systems sound. Adjectives like “unbelievable,” “remarkable” and others are commonly used. I sometimes sit in confused bewilderment at how the sonics of a $3K system can even marginally compare to one retailing for $300K or more. Beauty, as the adage goes, is in the eyes of the beholder. So, it would seem, is sonic greatness. 

One thing I do know for absolute sure – there will always be absurdly expensive audio components and systems. There will always be a market for a $400K turntable, regardless of how many feel such a thing is nonsense. 

What is also happening, and right beneath our collective noses, affordability is becoming more widespread and systems are sounding better. Today’s $3K system sounds much better than the equivalently priced components thirty years ago. This would seem to indicate sound quality is improving and cost is becoming increasingly affordable. 

We have systems that are little more than one box solutions. One device to stream, pre-amplify, amplify, enable countless settings and a wide variety of inputs. One needs little more than a one box solution, two speakers, some wires and presto, music awaits. 

If there is any measure of consistency in high performance audio it is that change is ongoing. Today, digital audio rules supreme as the overwhelming choice in high fidelity. Yes, there is analog in the resurgence of LP’s, but they pale in comparison to the sheer volume of digital music streamed, downloaded, purchased and enjoyed by so many. 

Affordability measured against features and performance is a major consideration with today’s audio buyer. Another ancillary concern is required space and the ability to multi-function. There are many, many systems fully capable of dual duty – home theater and also two channel audio. Families very often don’t have the requisite space for a combination audio, home theater room and are not prepared to spend six figures and up for music and movies. As such, budget priced systems reside in the family room and must incorporate with other furnishings, not stand out from them. 

Yet million-dollar systems continue to sell. 

I have little doubt budget audio will be a continuing trend. There is a pervasive, full-fledged effort by manufactures to deliver more for less. And why not, better value is now an essential requirement in audio. Fifty years ago? Probably not so much. Those systems were a luxury enjoyed by a few – like when I was a kid. Today, budget friendly begats new sales opportunities. Gone are the days when an audio system was expensive on purpose, a thing to be admired, perhaps even jealously desired. Buyers today demand more for less and are getting it. 

My audio room contains over 500 square feet of space. I have eighteen different components and more cables, interconnects and power cords than I can reasonably and neatly arrange. Then there is the cost, which to many would be obscene. And every so often, I curiously wonder how much of a dinosaur, an audio trend consigned to history my system has become and is becoming. When will a one box solution be the singular choice in audio? Then I push play and well, the enquiring notion seems to slip away. 

My enduring questions are simple. How much of a divide will come to pass in the near future between the world class, 1%, hyper expensive, $500K+ audio system and an “affordable” variant? What percentage of audio systems will be housed in a dedicated room with no other purpose than music? Conversely, how many systems will perpetuate costing less than $10K, be a one or two box system, have speakers that are mostly hidden from view and do everything including the dinner dishes? 

How large will the schism ultimately become? 

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