In 1944, while World War II still raged near its peak, Johnny Mercer wrote a song that urged people to “Ac-centuate the positive, elim-inate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with Mr. In-Between” Well, that war is long over, and whether or not another one may be brewing somewhere in the world, in at least one commercial product area, in at least one respect, we seem to have followed the song’s advice almost to excess: For audiophiles, not only do we no longer “mess with Mr. In-Between”, but all signs of his one-time presence seem to be disappearing at a rapid clip.
Not even all that long ago, it was possible, when shopping for new hi-fi toys and goodies, to find examples of whatever one was looking for at almost every conceivable price point, from the very modest to the far-beyond-dauntingly expensive. One could if one wished, audition on the same day CD players (just as one example) ranging in price from the truly minimal (but still perfectly adequate-sounding) Chinese-made “house brand” players, sold in their tens of thousands to whichever “Big Box” retailer wanted to add a low-price leader to its weekly advertising, all the way up, in fairly reasonable increments, to the truly magnificent (but violently expensive) three-piece units from DCS and other companies of its ilk.
Also not too long ago, the big, mostly-Japanese, “mid-fi” companies offered receivers and CD players in what, if I remember correctly, seemed to be price-steps — at least toward the lower end of their product lines — of only about US$20 each, so that a prospective buyer always had another feature or step-up in performance or quality available to lure him to the next level of purchase for just a very few dollars more.
What’s happened now, though, is that, while there are still plenty of products available at, even despite inflation, low or very low prices and there’s a great and growing profusion of products at high-to absurdly-high prices, “Mr. In-Between” seems to be a vanishing species.
At the recent (mid-August) California Audio Show, I saw lots of things at lots of prices, but, surprisingly, I saw very little that I wouldn’t either call cheap or expensive.
When I still owned XLO, I told our salespeople, dealers and distributors that every single one of our products was expensive to the person who buys it. Even our then cheapest interconnects, at US$50 for a one meter pair, I said, were expensive to their buyers for two reasons: The first was simply that if they weren’t seen by a potential buyer as being expensive — if, instead, he thought they were cheap, a great bargain, and less than he could afford to pay – he probably wouldn’t buy them at all but would rather, in his search for audio nirvana, buy a different (and believed-to-be-better) product for a price a little closer to the limits of his budget. The other reason is that everyone (even high-budget, thoroughly experienced Hi-Fi Crazies – even ME, for G*d’s sake, before I actually got into the business and learned how difficult and expensive it could be to make really good cables) feels at some point deep in his heart-of-hearts that wires really are just wires, and that they ought to be just 39 cents a foot at the local hardware store instead of whatever price is being asked for them.
I’m sure that this same sort of relativism about price applies to all kinds of Hi-fi products and to many other things as well, but it’s not really what I’m talking about here. When I say that there were cheap goods and there were expensive ones at that Show, but nothing in the middle, that’s exactly what I mean. Andrew Jones’ new speakers for ELAC were wonderful at only US$299 a pair, and there were lots of other speakers there that were wonderful at US$20,000 a pair or more (the $19,900 GamuT, stand-mounts, for example) but even the fabulous ACA Seraphim speakers that start at US$7,999 and which, at that figure, I described elsewhere as being the best things I’ve heard under US$40,000, were still nothing like what I would call “mid-priced” speakers except in terms of today’s, to me, grossly inflated High-End pricing.
I did see some quite excellent solid state electronic components at the reasonable-sounding figure of only US$1,599 or US$1,999 each (as opposed to the bulk of what I saw there, which was almost all priced at multiples of those figures for just a single component), but then I stopped to think about it and realized that to buy a source component, a preamp, and an amplifier at those prices, I would still be talking in the range of US$5,000 to US$6,000 even before I added the necessary speakers and cables, and that for me to do so would bring me AT LEAST into the solid US$6,000 range. And, if I were to use cables and speakers as good as the electronics, it would probably be more like US$8,000 to US$10,000 or even more before I was finished.
Where are all the good truly mid-priced goods? You know what I mean; the things that cost more than just conventional mid-fi, but not so much more that somebody NOT deeply enmeshed in our hobby would still be both able and willing to spend the extra bucks to get the extra musical enjoyment?
Where’s Mr. In-between? I had originally hoped that the new interest in headphones and their related gear – because of its lesser cost and lesser demand for space (no dedicated, or at least dominated, listening room required) would provide a gateway through which music lovers could pass on their way to becoming audiophiles, but even those things, from what I’ve seen of them at the Show and elsewhere, are still, just like home systems, either cheap (and mostly bad) or very expensive (headphones at more than a grand and their amps and processors at twice that much or more), and pretty good, but there’s not much in the middle.
Where’s Mr. In-between? If you know, please write-in and tell us about it. If we can’t fill the growing gap in the middle with good gear priced in successive and affordable steps, either Dr. Dre or mid-fi at the lower price points and wildly expensive systems that neither of us may ever be able to afford may eventually be all that’s left.