|25 September 2002|
The High-End audio industry is resplendent with value-oriented products as well as cost-no-object, performance-oriented ones. In the course of reviewing, rather than criticizing the shortcomings of the lesser products and giving lavish praises to the superior products, I try to maintain a balanced perspective of the values of the High-End. If an expensive piece of equipment did not perform to my satisfaction, I would share my thoughts with my readers as to what the root cause is, so we can all weigh my methods and procedures. I am doubly alarmed when a product does perform spectacularly, and usually go to extraordinary length in my report, detailing the conditions under which I reached my conclusions. Come to think of it, I am in debt to my very supportive publisher and his very capable, exacting, persistent and tireless editor, who work laboriously to keep my writing sprees under control.
Recently, a sentiment was raised on Decware's web-based Forum towards my 15 March 2002 review of the $499 SE84C Zen Triode Amplifier, which opined that more expensive SET amplifiers were "rip-offs." That was not the first time similar sentiments had surfaced.
Although opinion expressed on Decware's Forum is undoubtedly a form of peer support among users of the same product, "rip-off" can be a strong term and can mean different things to different listeners. To me, a product is a "rip-off" when someone copies, repackages and re-labels an outstanding original product, then adds a price tag several times the MSRP as set by the original manufacturer. Quite differently, overpricing describes the situation in which a manufacturer's sense of the market and competition is blinded by visions of profit.
In a strict and fair sense, in order for the Zen amp to be able to render more expensive products as overpriced, or even "rip-offs," it has to possess identical qualities. While I considered the SE84C an exceptional product and encouraged readers to audition it in their own systems, I also noted in my review that its characteristics might not meet everyone's needs and preferences. I never considered the Zen amplifier as indisputably superior, and I doubt that view would generate disagreement from any readers. Nevertheless, I did consider the spirit with which the SE84C is designed as admirable and express the wish that more products be made with the same diligence. The fact that Steve Deckert was able to come up with a sound design using inexpensive parts and then priced it accordingly should be a cause for celebration and purchase but nothing else.
Personally, although I believe it is a legitimate curiosity to want to understand the justification for more expensive products, and that advanced designs are prone to examination and study by competitions, I don't believe high-end products in general are "rip-off's." Instead of stereotyping premium-priced products as "rip-offs", audiophiles should recognize excellence of products from both sub-$1,000 and beyond-$10,000 categories. If, in any instance, a product possesses property of such value that one is willing to pay more to receive a unique satisfaction not attainable from more affordable units, be it of sonic or other criteria, then the unit is a qualified success.
In my personal experience so far, under equalized listening conditions, higher-priced premium products from well-established makers still offer higher fidelity than their contemporary, more affordable products. For example, the $6,000 Audio Note M3 preamplifier is more complete in its sonic presentation to me than the built-in digital pre-amplification stage of the $8,950 Wadia 27 Decoding Computer. The $4,000 8 Wpc Audio Note Quest 300B monoblocks are more detailed than the 15x more powerful $3,450 Music Reference RM9 II when mated to compatible speakers like my Genesis VI. Among CD transports via the coaxial digital outputs, my $4,995 CEC TL1 belt-drive transport still carries a higher level of fidelity than the transport section of my $3,450 Sony SCD-777ES SACD player. Among D/A converters, the Wadia 27 is more detailed than the less expensive, $4,995 Sonic Frontiers SFD-2 of the same era that I once had. In retrospect, despite the 6-year-old $14,000 CEC/Wadia combo's many incomparable qualities, the $8,100 47 Laboratory 4713 Flatfish CD Transport and 4705 Progression DAC digital system that I reviewed in May 2002 surpassed the CEC/Wadia in data retrieval finesse.
Readers may notice another aspect of my personal experience, one in which performance of the latest gear usually surpasses that of earlier generation. Technological advancement being a predominant factor, newer and better parts play a crucial role as they are capable of working within more exacting, sophisticated and stringent specifications as demanded and expected by the designer.
I am sure many of us can relate to my findings and opinion on the Decware Zen amp. The point is that each of us has his own high-end values and then votes with his spending accordingly. If within one's economic concept a $6,000 preamplifier is justified as superior to a $4,000 unit, for however minute improvements it offers, then it has found a market among the audiophiles among us. Yet, some of us may not want to spend more than $1,000 on a preamplifier regardless of spending ability, as well as the product's worthiness. Likewise, though you may be a billionaire, if you consider a $85,000 speaker system as ridiculously priced, despite its superior sonics, when compared to a slightly lesser-sounding system at a substantially more accessible $9,500, then may the superior system find a customer elsewhere.
To the manufacturers: our supply and demand driven system expects a product to speak volumes for its manufacturer who prices it astronomically, because such pricing not only reflects its creator's confidence in the ingenuity and superiority of his product, it also puts the survival of the product line in the trust of a minority. While we have no doubt our economy will recover to a prosperity even more magnificent than its predecessor, it is doubtful if some of the more expensive members of the current High-End industries will survive to see the sun again. The prudent approach, therefore, may be to repackage their own premium products in a scaled-down model and price it accordingly for the sake of revenue generation. A good success story is Loudspeaker manufacturer B&W, who is extracting technologies from its flagship Nautilus product line and incorporating them into less ambitious speakers at significant savings. Not doing that would be poor business planning. With only the rarest of exceptions, no luxury-item manufacturer can expect to maintain longevity creating strictly expensive products. Think about Genesis.
Unfortunately, efforts from the few SET amplifier manufacturers in making excellent but ultra-expensive SET amplifiers hardly represent a serious marketing initiative aimed at making the amplifier a more adopted preference among audiophiles in the foreseeable future. Neither are some companies at the other end of the spectrum helping the situation, in their venture of making super-cheap SET's. In some cases, such discrepancies in pricing and quality are telling audiophiles that either you pay premium to get the best, or pay much less just to get by, thus forfeiting your right to complain.
Whether you are financially well-endowed or stricken, regardless of whether you have a PhD or a high-school diploma, whether you're a brother or a mother, you're staying alive and music belongs to you as well as to all of humankind. Perhaps it is this fundamentalism in our lives that fuels many music-loving audiophiles' condemnation of fine, expensive and unreachable audio equipment. At the same time, we are searching for the next "best-buy," let's remind ourselves that whether we like it or not, in a universe of limited resources, there will always be a price on objects rare and in demand, be it of natural origin or of human manufacture. And the sole society and system that withstood the test of history and politics in the distribution and management of such objects is the one we are living in.
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