When you make a purchase, any purchase, you have some expectations for quality, performance, and longevity. For some products, we hope they will last a season, like the cushions on my patio furniture. Other things, we want to last for years, like a new car.
Where precisely does that leave high performance audio? There is an undeniable swing towards componentry with a lower purchase price. Manufacturers recognize there is a growing market for better than Mid Fi equipment as long as it is not too expensive. A little more is okay, a lot more, well, that is a problem.
For much of our hobby, however, high cost and what comes in the box reluctantly goes hand in hand. For some of us, we simply have accepted the expectation the new whatever is going to be expensive. We may not exactly like it, but we do, inevitably, accept higher cost parameters. What about quality? What about longevity? Is there a price level where quality and longevity diminish? At what point do those diminishments become acceptable?
For some products, the high, even the pervasively expensive equipment carries with it a higher level of quality as an unmentioned expectation. Yes, the Rolls Royce dealership has a service department, but when you buy one, how quickly do you expect the occurrence of mechanical problems?
Yet spend any appreciable amount of time perusing the Internet, and specifically high performance sites and forums, one subject comes up time and again – someone has an audio component not functioning correctly, has broken down or for some inexplicable reason does not work as it should. Is this how we want our products to behave? Has the all out, indefatigable quest for low cost abated any reasonable hope for exceptional quality and years of trouble free service?
For most of our hobby’s history, components have been pretty much designed by one person. That design was proven out, sometimes in engineering labs and sometimes on kitchen tables. However, once production started, the expectation of quality also existed alongside of product features. In modern times, and presumably henceforth into the future, cost is one of the primary determining factors.
Manufacturers are feeling the heat to produce low cost goods to boost sales and likewise, profits. For the best of the best, the pursuit of perfection already carries a high cost, so such pricing is not unexpected – as well as a high-quality product. Just like the Roles Royce, the hyper expensive gear best not find itself in need of the service department – and usually doesn’t. Can the same be reliably said about current budget priced gear?
To a certain extent, there are audio manufacturers building lower cost equipment and not really exceedingly expensive equipment. Other manufacturers have little in the way of anything less than five figures. The question then becomes, does more expensive equipment have an innate higher level of quality because it costs more? Does lower cost equipment subsequently carry expectations of lesser quality because it is not expensive? Does “you get what you pay for” realistically apply?
How many audiophiles are willing to pay more to get better, trouble-free longevity from their equipment as opposed to paying less if it means getting less in return? Has our hobby therefore been reduced to making these kinds of choices?
My Father was one of the thriftiest and cost-conscious people I have ever known. Yet for some things, like suits for instance, he didn’t economize at all. He only bought Hickey Freeman and Hart Schaffner & Marx suits – which in those days, probably not today, but at the time were two of the more expensive brands. His reasoning was that he paid more, yes, but he also got many years of service out of them. Because these suits lasted far longer than the el-cheapo suit, it could be argued they actually cost less in the long run.
Should we then, as audiophiles, be forced to pay more to get high quality and longevity? Or spend a very small amount and like my patio chair cushions, hope they last a season and then be replaced?
My path was to purchase audio gear more on the expensive side. Even by today’s standards, where $100,000 amps are commonplace, my system would be considered pervasively expensive. And likewise, I’ve never had any problems with anything I own – not counting the turntable which I basically dropped and screwed up the cartridge, tonearm, and lift mechanism. My main components – amp, preamp, DAC, server, phonostage, speakers, subs, cables, interconnects and power cords – they have consistently functioned and performed flawlessly.
What then, would be an acceptable total system cost to be the beneficiary of years of service with no incident of failure? Would $500,000 be too much? What about $15,000, is that even enough? And if your system cost is $2000, do you hope it will last until the same time next year without breaking and then you will obtain a replacement? When purchasing anything, especially something brand new, we presume it will work as advertised and not break down anytime in the near future. Am I wrong in the presumption that lesser priced gear will likely have problems before more expensive gear?
Obviously, anything can break or not work as it should at any time. Even the Rolls Royce dealer has cars in for repair every so often. However, and as much as we might be loath to admit, “you get what you pay for” is to a large extent true for audio components just as it is for suits, cars and pretty much anything else we may purchase.
And finally, if it lasts for many years and never causes a problem, is that $35,000 amp really that much more expensive than the $2000 amp that suddenly stops working after six months? As usual, the answer depends on the mindset of who’s asking the question.