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Is the Cost of a Stereo System Discussion Over Yet?

Paul Wilson asks if cost is really the big roadblock to having a high-performance sound system?

Of all the subjects discussed in high performance audio, I suspect cost is one of the more fervently, most derisively and frequently discussed subjects in the audio scene today. It is almost a universal truth that when the subject of cost is raised, the one unifying opinion is the costs of today’s systems are simply too expensive. 

AR-ExpensiveOneSmallForamt.jpgAbove all else, cost is a relative subject and there are those individuals who will accede to more expensive gear simply because they can afford to do so. Systems whose cost is even incrementally above five figures for some, many perhaps, is a fruitless desire and most likely, a pointless waste of disposable income. Justifying a six-figure system will likely be ludicrously viewed as completely out of the question. There are better, more cost-effective ways to combine a wallet friendly system with other pursuits outside of mortgages, college tuition and all the many things families must fiscally endure. 

For others, a six-figure system is laughably simple, and may not even achieve the desired level of sonic excellence. For those individuals, it may require a collection of audio parts whose compiled cost does not begin with a one, two or even, perhaps, a three – followed by five trailing numbers and a decimal point. 

Manufacturers in today’s economies worldwide are furiously attempting to accommodate both types of buyers, and all those who may move from one to the other. Business longevity essentially requires doing so. 

AR-ExpensiveTwoSmallFormat.jpgFor many of us, it is difficult to believably understand why a set of speakers, or any other component for that matter, might cost “X” number of dollars. Read most any forum where the subject of component cost is discussed and it will be hard to miss the derisive comments. One prevailing assumption is most manufacturers make a something for “X” number of dollars and then, unceremoniously, mark it up five to ten times “X” just because they can. Not surprisingly, some probably do exactly that and very likely are able to do so successfully. Others are more realistic in their profit levels and likewise market their products successfully. Determining which is which is the hat trick. 

We audiophiles have many different and varied methodologies in which cost is justified. I suspect those justifications are always within certain fiscal guidelines.  Few of us who buy anything are especially disposed of the continuing practice of spending many times their income on an audio system to the detriment of everything else. Rather, we buy a system within our means. For the most part, that is. 

Non-audiophiles are constantly amazed at how much a system might cost. For those of us who follow the hobby, we have almost become conditioned at the notion of $100,000 speaker systems, $75,000 mon-blocks and $40,000 cables. We might think that they are so hopelessly overpriced they could never be a worthwhile expenditure, but we do recognize their existence. Tell a non-audiophile that a speaker cable sells for $38,000 and the look on their face is usually one of incredulity. Because in their world, that is legitimately as much as a pretty decent automobile. That anyone would pay so much for a piece of wire is anathema to basic common sense. Ask the audiophile who made said purchase and the explanation why, will, more than likely, be quite different. 

AR-vanatoo1a.pngAt the 2017 Rocky Mount Audio Fest, there were five rooms that offered budget friendly systems. They ranged in cost from $1000.00 to $5000.00 – for the entire system. Several even included a one year’s subscription to Tidal at the CD quality level. As one who spent a fair amount of time in each of these rooms, I can unequivocally state that I would take any of these systems, even the digital audio system at a total retail cost of $978.00 (including Tidal) over anything, and I mean anything I could get in a big box store. I was pleasingly surprised at the sound of that system. As I moved up the cost ladder to the $5000.00 system, the sonics and the “wow factor” commensurately increased. Naturally, a $978.00 system will never suffice to one whose demands for sonic capability requires a six figure (and up) system. I cannot, however, believe that anyone who enjoys a better listening experience would be completely dissatisfied with any of the “budget friendly” rooms as presented at RMAF. With a little exploration, there certainly exists different iterations of systems in those price classes that also sound really spectacular. Is it just possible that cost is becoming an unjustly maligned aspect of the audiophile hobby? 

Cost is a relative subject. Whether it is the justification of a Ferrari compared to a Mazda Miata, or a Timex watch compared to a Patek Philippe, or any of our available world class cost and performance audio components to a mid fi system, there will be those who can and cannot afford or justify such expenditures. For high performance audio, and from what I have seen, there exists right now a better assortment of components with lower cost and better sonics than perhaps any time in the history of Audiophilia. Any of us can balk and deride those systems and components whose cost is stratospherically high. We can look with disdain at those who spend such extravagant sums all in the pursuit of playing a song on a stereo. There will always be those that can, and do, purchase those systems held in such repute who will have little regard for how their choices may be viewed. In that, our hobby is quite similar to any where costs may be unbelievably high. 

What should not be ignored, however, is with a little work and a little effort, finely reproduced music on an affordable home audio system can be achieved. Cost. Performance. Size. All the pieces of the puzzle are there for the taking. They just have to be found. And heard.

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