In a recent posting on the Stereophile web site, a reprint of a 1990 article outlining a new Bob Carver amplifier, the Silver Seven, detailed an amp that sold at the time for $17,500. According to the article, and because of the cost, Carver never expected to sell very many, so he initially built two. In short order the amp was being built thirty at a time.
When the Silver Seven debuted in 1988, some thirty-one years ago, it seems reasonable $17,500 for an amplifier was completely preposterous. Let's face it, most amps in those days were only a couple of thousand dollars and that was for a pretty good one. Such was likely the reason Carver assumed so few would be sold. Who in their right mind would ever spend such a princely sum for an amplifier when there were so many very good options available at a significantly lower price?
By now I imagine you are thinking the same could be said about the prices of equipment being built today.
Depending on the manufacturer, it is possible to spend amazing amounts of money on various components. Prices such as $300,000 for a set of speakers, $250,000 for amps, $300,000 for a turntable, $80,000 for speaker cables and the list goes incessantly on and on and on...
On the more normal side of pricing it is possible to have a nice sounding system for under $2000.00. If you can spend somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 you will have something quite impressive - a system with remarkable sonic quality. And those prices are based on new components. Used systems, if done correctly, may easily sound equally impressive for much lower costs.
It goes without saying obscenely expensive equipment is purchased by those with substantial means and significant disposable income. Because the audio hobby is funded with exactly that - disposable income. No one in their right mind is going to have their car repossessed because they want a better stereo system. Hopefully not, anyway. How much we spend is a personal decision based on any number of factors, income principally being the obvious one.
Regardless how much our systems actually cost, it stands to reason those costs will one day seem very affordable. I remember my parents talking about going to a movie for a quarter. I, myself, remember McDonalds commercials advertising two hamburgers, fries and a Coke and change back from your dollar. And yes, that was a long time ago but still in my lifetime. How many of us who have pursued this hobby for generations remember component prices a fraction of what they are today?
When I read the Stereophile article originally published in 1990, my first thought was how I would welcome an assault on a state-of-the-art amplifier for $17,500. Because without question, when you combine the word "assault" with the phrase "state-of-the-art," seldom will the selling price be, what is at the time of manufacture, reasonable and affordable.
As expensive as Carver's amp was in 1988, by today's standards it is not really outrageous. In fact, it seems realistic a modern amplifier assaulting state-of-the-art would certainly not sell for $17,500. I cannot help but wonder if my outlook is perhaps jaded due the prices of audio gear in modern times?
We easily talk about prices in the high four and low five figures for audio equipment like it is the most normal thing in the world. I have even seen advertisements with the word "just" in them. You know, "this speaker system is "just" $30,000!!" As if that is the most understandable and common occurrence in the audiophile hobby. Sadly, that is pretty much the case and prices, as they always have and always will, for ever and ever - continually increase.
This is essentially a perception issue based on the cost of other things in our lives at the time. A car selling for $50,000 today probably sold for half that thirty years ago. However, and this is an important distinction, the thirty-year-old version of that same car was not nearly as feature laden, did not drive as well and, in all probability, was not as safe.
One of my cars has so many sensors, alarms and warning devices I sometimes feel like it is driving me, not the other way around. And yet the cost when it was new was notably higher than a decade before, regardless of features, and is almost certainly decidedly lower than it will be a decade hence. As we all know, prices on everything increase over time. And yes, I am confident that many will also say, "yeah, but income doesn't."
I cannot help but wonder if someone, even one of our more notable current day equipment manufacturers, built a really exotic, state of the art, best of the best, world class amplifier and sold it for $17,500, would it be considered too expensive or would it be purchased in such quantity it couldn't be built fast enough? At what price is cost no longer a factor? I could easily have chosen to drive a less expensive car. But I would very likely sacrifice features, comfort, safety and all those alarms telling me to watch out for something. I chose instead to spend more to get more. Is that how we base our decisions on our audio systems?
At what point is an all out assault on the state-of-the-art no longer a viable purchase? Also, do we form our own opinions about what is and what is not state-of-the-art? Or do we simply agree with what manufacturers tell us?
Prices will continue to rise. That is an unavoidable consequence of life. And because most of us would rather be a part of society than live off the land on a remote island, we endure, grudgingly so, prices that spiral ever upwards. The only thing that really changes are our own perceptions on what is reasonably affordable, and conversely, what is not.