We all, regardless of the product being purchased, have a tolerance for the cost of something. Irrespective of the thing being bought, we have what perhaps may be an unwritten threshold, an invisible ceiling, as it were, of how much money we will spend towards an items purchase. An audio system most certainly applies.
There are few people in the world for whom cost of anything is of almost no concern. If a million-dollar Patek Philippe watch is desired, no problem - simply tell the business manager, or the personal assistant to get one. For just about everyone else, however, we must live within our means, whatever those means might be.
It goes without saying there exists in the world varying levels of income and differing degrees of one's ability to afford something. I have always thought need and want were, to a point, mutually exclusive. One does not especially "need" a multi-million dollar, ultra-expensive, world class sports car. However, if buying one is no problem, it becomes more an issue of want - "I want one, I can afford it, so I'll buy it." Audio systems can really be viewed in the same manner.
I have often thought about building a nice brick and stone patio to replace what I now have in my backyard. My vision is something with a roof yet open on the sides, small kitchenette, TV, grilling station, ceiling fan and so on. And frankly, I can afford to build one. But here's the thing, I don't really need one. In the summer, my backyard is in the hot North Carolina afternoon sun. I am no stranger to grilling out in oppressive heat and humidity. As it is, I've burned my hand more than once on the stainless steel handle on the grill. Secondly, we have such a short time in NC when the weather is perfect so spending long periods outside without heat, flies and mosquitoes is limited. As such, devoting tens of thousands of dollars to build such a contrivance is hard for me to justify. Does justifying an audio system essentially work the same?
When I really began rebuilding my system and putting together the one I had wanted for a long time, I had absolutely no plan. Yes, that's not the most intelligent thing to do. I'd buy something, component or cable, listen for a month or six, and decide, na, that's not doing it for me and summarily replace it. Another condition in which I became entrenched was the proverbial weak link in the chain. I remember listening to music one day and thinking "this is not nearly good enough for that." And the quest for the new thing began. At the end of it all I have a remarkable sounding system. But I invested far more than I would have ever dreamed in the process. My suggestion - make a realistic plan and adhere to it.
Conversely, this is a hobby about fun and emotional connections. Or so it is to me. I want to be spellbound when I listen to music. I want a jaw dropping experience. I want to be wowed by my system each time it is played. And if the cost to accomplish this is more than I had planned, well, okay, so be it. There are worse things in life.
Still, having said all of this, most people will at some point say to themselves, "this is as good as I really need." Ah, there's that need thing again. Had I applied need to the equation I'd have never wound up with the system I now have. At best, I'd still have that system whose total cost was about $10,000. Was it a nice system? Absolutely. Did it sound good. You bet it did. Did it really "do it" for me? No, not at all - hence my rebuilding effort.
We still have the original question, though. When does an audio system become too expensive? I think one needs perspective to realistically provide the answer. In what context, for example, is too expensive? If someone could easily afford and were highly desirous of that Patek Philippe watch, would they ever be willing to wear a Timex? Both are well made, both tell time, one costs a whole lot more than the other. Cost, need, which one wins out?
Our audio systems are the same. Suppose one can afford a decidedly more expensive system than they currently have. They might, just possibly, be equally content with a less expensive system - one that lives up to the performance barometer they set for themselves yet is a less expensive choice. Which is the better option, spending more because of being fiscally able, or go a more conservative route? Good question and I struggle for an appropriate answer.
I read comments and replies on forums and what seems to be acceptable in a system is vast and wide ranging. To some, any one level of excellence is more than sufficient - to others, that same level would never be suitable. Cost is and always will be relative. What for some is financially out of reach is for others a simple and justifiable expense. However, this is a hobby that really defines being superfluous - we don't actually need an audio system (although some may think they do), we simply want one. How much that want will cost is seldom clearly defined. And regardless of our income level, struggling with the question of want versus need will continue to be one that is difficult to realistically answer. We have our own definition of need versus want, and we all have our own fiscal ability to provide an answer to the question.
I suppose the best response to when is an audio system too expensive is whenever the individual decides. Because in the end, justifying system cost will always be an elusive, moving target.