Ear Jewelry For Audiophiles
Have you seen what some of the latest, ultimate, super-duper High-End turntables look like? To me, they're reminiscent of what the "cities of the future" looked like in those old Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon movie serials of the 1930s and 1940s – great networks of massive gleaming towers, all surrounded and interconnected by loops and swirls of the aerial highways predicted by the people back then to be the roads for the flying cars of the future.
Even as a kid, watching ancient re-runs on TV of the derring-do of Rogers, Gordon, and the Hawk Men of Planet Mongo (who, of course, having their own wings, had no need for flying cars), I wondered why flying cars would need roads at all, and, even if they did, why anybody would build a city like that. Other than being pretty and looking "futuristic" in a swoopy sort of way, what possible good could a roadway, perhaps hundreds of feet above the ground, do to justify its extra expense and the hazard it would pose to flying traffic?
Other than that it was aesthetically pleasing and might have helped to sell movie tickets to early-mid 20th century audiences, I couldn't think of any. And that's what I think of some of those ultra-exotic turntables, too, except that now the audience to be sold to and the product to be sold are different.
If you stop to think about it, the actual function of an LP turntable is really very simple: all it has do is to turn a vinyl record at a very precise speed (33.3 or 45 rpm); utterly consistently (with no "wow" [low-speed variation] or "flutter" [high-speed variation]); without bearing-noise ("rumble"); and, (as a little lagniappe), to do so without adding or propagating drive noise or mechanical resonances, or transmitting external noise (including potential "acoustic feedback") that could interfere with the sound of the music.
Like many other simple tasks, though, (like a cable doing nothing at all to change the signal it carries) it's easier to talk about than to actually do. "Perfect" speed control and "absolute" control of noise and resonance may never actually be achieved, and are difficult and expensive even to try for. That means that the products (turntables, in this case,) that do make a serious effort to achieve them are likely to be expensive and, accordingly, to sell in just limited quantity.
That's common with performance or luxury goods of every kind, or even just goods of extreme quality: They're difficult and/or costly to make, which drives their price up; which drives the number sold down (Economists call it "negative price elasticity of demand"), which means that potential economies of scale may never be realized; which keeps the price high; which keeps the quantity sold down; and around and around again.
Another factor that often arises in this kind of a situation is art – or at least creative cosmetic design. For many products, just doing their job very well may not be sufficient to make people want to buy them or to justify all of their, often considerable, expense. They need something more, and that something may be rarity, exotic materials or elaborate construction, great beauty, or even just a distinctive "look" (Think of the definitely "Steam Punk" looks of some of the electronics from Line Magnetic.) Whatever it is, expensive things – even wondrously high performance expensive things – need something to "close the deal" and to make people willing to actually part with their money.
For some things, the expense itself and the bragging rights it confers may be the determining factor. Consider the multi-million dollar Bugatti Chiron automobile: Regardless of a top speed in excess of 300 MPH (sic; buyer beware of reliability problems) and an instantly recognizable appearance that shouts its brand name, its most important feature to many people may simply be that everybody knows or can imagine how expensive it is!
The same thing – the need for expensive goods to justify their price with something other than just their performance – definitely exists in High End audio. Many years ago, in the 1980s, the designer of some of my very favorite electronics came out with a new and, for its time, very expensive amplifier. This was in a unique and very stylish "Titanium" finish, and had a 5/8ths inch thick machined aluminum faceplate with two heavy machined aluminum front lifting handles (plus two plain black ones at the rear) for moving it. All-in-all, it was gorgeous, and when I said so to the designer, he told me that just that faceplate and front handles had added hundreds of dollars to his cost of manufacture.
I was impressed but, always the economist, I asked if he had considered using less extravagant cosmetics, lowering the MSRP accordingly, selling more units and ultimately making more profit. His answer surprised me at the time, but has since been proven correct by my own experience and that of many others: "No," he said, "without the fancy faceplate and handles, the amp would still be expensive to build; I'd still have to charge a lot for it; and, without its premium good looks, I might not be able to sell any at all."
Looking expensive certainly helps things to justify high prices. There's a problem, though, and "Buck Rogers' City of the Future" turntables or some of the latest ultra-expensive "designer fantasy" speakers are good examples: Making a magnificent product look magnificent and justify a high price definitely works and may well be needed to bring an outstanding product successfully to market. It's also possible, though, as altogether too many High End manufacturers now seem to be doing, to take a less-than-best product and "tart it up" with outrageous designs, precious or exotic materials, elaborate but non-functional machine-work, and an epoch-making price tag and sell it to wealthy innocents who think they're buying "the best at any price", when in fact all they're doing is paying too much for the performance they're getting. It's the Bugatti Chiron again, but this one may barely break the speed limit!
(Editor Steven's note: Considering the lackluster reliability and very expensive engineering defects personally experienced with VW Group's Bentley products, Roger Skoff is probably right about 'limp mode' for the VW Group's Bugatti branded cars, whose engine is based around the same basic design).
Make no mistake; I'm all in favor of great looking stuff. Our hobby isn't cheap in any case, and I do want my system to look as good as it sounds. What I don't want, though, when I'm buying audio gear, is to pay for fine art.
I don't need gold or silver plated chassis unless somebody can prove to me that they add more sonic value than they do cost. Same thing for swoopy shapes or carbon fiber wraps that, as near as I can tell, add a lot to the cost of manufacture, but do little or nothing for the sound. As far as I'm concerned, the "state-of-the-art" in High-End audio should always refer first to sound quality and then – and only if all other things are equal at or near the same price – to the artistic beauty of the equipment.
For my system, I want real engineering, using genuine top-quality materials and components, and not just some jeweler's or marketer's fantasy. I neither need nor want anything other than great sound in a good-looking package at a fair price.
Keep your infinitely complex, soaring architectural visions. I don't need them to decorate my equipment stands; I'd rather build them myself, behind my closed eyelids, when I put on a disc, lean back, and...