I was recently reading a review about a solid state, class A/B amplifier that retailed for just under $21,000. That review, certainly positive in its regard for the worthiness of this amp, asserted the cost was not pervasively expensive. When compared to other amplifiers on the market, the reviewer posited the amp delivered sufficient power to drive almost any dynamic speaker load, and its cost was mostly affordable. "Reasonably priced" was the actual term used. One comment, however, took that assertion to task. That comment stated the amp's cost was by no means affordable and offered brand names such as McIntosh and Bryston as having greater affordability - this despite there being audiophiles that could not even afford them. I have every confidence that is basically a true statement.
When, exactly, is expensive not too expensive? At what point in time does the price of an amp, speaker, or any other component not seem decidedly high? Of course, if the buyer is possessed of great wealth, then affordability for stratospherically priced components is not all so difficult. What about the rest of us? What exactly do we expect from the high performance audio hobby?
Right now, today, we have a mad dash by manufacturers to make products with more features, greater capabilities, higher levels of sonics and less cost than probably any time in the hobby's past. For most manufacturers, I suspect considerable time is given to making the next generation of all in one, do everything there is, world class sounding stereo systems that sell for almost nothing. Okay, noble idea, worthy goal for sure. Only one problem, what if that is not what you, as an audiophile, are looking to purchase?
Budgets for an audio system are governed by a wide variety of variables. So wide, in fact, I will not attempt listing any of them here. Let's leave all those factors aside. Let's ask a question on a more global scale. What is too expensive compared to what the component delivers? Is this a question with purchase cost as the only determining answer?
When I read the review on the afore mentioned amp, I didn't feel as though the cost was that unrealistic. For one, most manufacturers of our components are smaller companies with only a few employees and cannot possibly buy in any appreciable volume to warrant steep discounts. Secondly, most high end components made today are done with manufacturing practices that produce high costs. Like that nice, sculpted, component faceplate produced from a single block of aluminum? Great. You've just picked a machined part, one of the more expensive manufacturing methods available today. Add to that the purchase of the internal electronic parts, all the engineering costs to even bring the design to the manufacturability stage, and the resultant cost is something almost certainly more expensive than a receiver purchased from Best Buy. Additionally, our components are basically hand built, one at a time and sold in lower volumes - not mass produced in automated robotic assembly cells.
There will conversely be a veritable chorus of dissenters claiming that virtually any of our products are manufactured for pennies and marked up what, ten, twenty times the manufacturer's cost. And to a certain extent they may be correct. Markups on high performance components can be exaggerated. Some companies do practice this, others do not. These are uncontrolled variables and something we, as consumers, cannot change.
So, what is a fair price for a 200 Watt Per Channel, Class A/B, Stereo amp these days? When does the consumer decide the amp priced at "X" dollars is too expensive but this one at "Y" dollars is affordable? Hard question to answer, right? Again, much of it comes down to income but not always. Suppose someone saves up for the expensive amp because it far out performs the lesser costly amp? What if the buyer is not saddled with debt and has cash on hand despite not making a huge income? I suppose we could play the what if game all day. Let's somehow try and answer the question.
Audiophilia is not a pervasively widespread hobby. Go anyplace where there is a large crowd and I doubt you will find ten of us. And on some level, maybe a romanticized viewpoint on my part, I tend to think some measure of exclusivity for our hobby is not altogether a bad thing. I am NOT espousing that all prices on all components should cost $50,000 and up. I am NOT saying that if you are not in possession of a half million dollar system you are not an audiophile. But it does stand to reason, given the performance of our systems as compared with all other playback methods, the relatively low numbers of products produced as compared to a receiver from Best Buy, and all the costs associated with manufacturing a true high performance component, that prices are just going to be higher as compared to everything else.
Fortunately today, the price / performance ratio has probably never been better. Anyone who will be attending the Rocky Mount Audio Fest this year should avail themselves to the budget priced rooms. There, systems will be found that cost from $1000.00 to $5000.00. I have always found these systems to sound remarkably good for the price. On the other hand, one may easily also find a variety of products that sell for $20,000.00 and up. And while there will always be those who deem this an unrealistic, untenable, ridiculous price for any type of stereo component, there will be those who do not.
When something costs too much can ultimately only be answered by the buyer. And while we all would like that world class, best of the best component for whatever amount of cash we might have in our pocket, that is sadly not the reality. Ours is an expensive hobby. Period.
Perhaps the fun, or challenge, is trying to assemble a system without breaking the bank. Maybe that is the true measure of an audiophile.