Written by 7:16 am Reference Speakers

Is High End Audio Exclusionary and Elitist?

So, you want a great-sounding audio system. Be prepared to ante up. Or plan on spending lots of time building your own…


Short answer, yes.

Based purely on economics, few of us have the means, even if we have the desire, to own a $39,000 DAC or a pair of $100,000+ speakers. So if “high-end audio” were solely about price, a lot of us would be pursuing other, more affordable hobbies.

Fortunately for us average-earners there’s this other side to our hobby – that’s the “high performance” part. I’ve heard $39 USB card DACS that qualified as legitimate high-performance audio products. But are $39 DACs and $29 earbuds part of high-end audio? I suspect not, but they are certainly part of high-performance audio.

I suppose you could claim that high-performance audio is as exclusionary as high-end audio, but the criteria are different. In high-performance audio value-for-the-dollar is as important, if not more important, than ultimate sound quality. In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz divides consumers into two types – maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers always buy “the best,” while satisficers buy the least expensive product that fulfills their requirements. The archetypical “high end” purchaser is a maximizer, while the typical “high performance” buyer is a satisficer. But economic forces can drive even the most ardent maximizer toward a satisficer point of view on some items, such as cables and interconnects.

My gut feeling is that most of the growth in the audio biz is coming from the personal, portable, and computer audio categories, all of which appeal more to value-conscious consumers as opposed to uber-price buyers.

Back in the ’80’s and 90’s virtually anyone on a middle-class salary could buy and assemble a state-of-the-art sound system. Nowadays to put together a system of all “top-rated” high-end components is outside the reach of all but a few. Perhaps that’s whey we’ve seen resurgence in DIY products from the likes of GR Research and Linkwitz Lab. Many young engineer types are more than willing to solder a couple of components together or build a speaker cabinet if it means they can afford great sound.

Nowadays if you want to put together a best-of-the-best audio system you had better be willing to sink a ton of cash, be willing to invest a lot of time building your own stuff, or concentrate on personal or computer audio.

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