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The Absolute Sound

From The Editor...
December/January 2002/2003
By Robert Harley

  Reviewing the Musical Fidelity A308 preamplifier and power amplifier for this issue led me to reflect on the concept of value in high-end audio components. Every manufacturer pursues his own particular business strategy and aesthetic, which results in the huge range of products we see in the marketplace. At one extreme is the manufacturer of ultra-exotic (and ultra-expensive) gear, like the Walker turntable also reviewed in this issue, who must amortize the product’s design—and the company’s overhead—over very few units. Cost of parts alone may not be the only significant factor in determining retail price. Often built by the designer himself with an attention to detail rarely seen in any consumer product, these components push the limits of what’s possible in reproduced music.

At the other extreme are manufacturers, such as Musical Fidelity, who employ economy-of-scale manufacturing techniques to produce components that may not be state-of-the-art, but deliver a very high level of performance for a fraction of the price of the cost-no-object components. Similarly, some manufacturers offer expensive metalwork and extraordinary build quality, which can double or triple cost. Others are content to wrap their circuits in plain-Jane boxes, which significantly lowers cost. Which leads to two questions: Is economy-of-scale manufacturing antithetical to high-end values? And, conversely, can an extremely expensive product be high in value?

Tackling the first question, I believe that mass manufacturing is absolutely consistent with high-end ideals—just as long as the designer and the company truly care about music and their customers enjoying the experience of music. Careful, musically sensitive design coupled with the manufacturing and distribution clout that only a big company provides can deliver to the listener the most performance for the money. In fact, one could make the argument that such companies are more important to the high end because they serve the greatest number of listeners.

Does it necessarily follow, then, that expensive, handmade products are by definition low in value? No. For those who can afford such items, the (sometimes) higher performance, superior craftsmanship, greater pride of ownership, and exclusivity are well worth the price difference.

What matters most in any music-reproduction product—from the mass-produced loudspeaker to the output-transformerless power amplifier made in a basement—is the designer’s attitude toward his work. If he cares about his customers experiencing the joy of music, and has the skill to embody that care in his product, then it doesn’t matter how the product is manufactured. Fortunately for us, the high end embraces a vast range of approaches, allowing us to match our priorities and budgets with what manufacturers have to offer.

I’m pleased to announce that long-time TAS contributor Wayne Garcia has been appointed Editor of this magazine. Wayne brings a wealth of experience to the job, including an extensive background in high-end retailing, reviewing, and magazine editing. Wayne served as Executive Editor of TAS in the mid-1990s, and was a founder (along with Jonathan Valin) and Editor-in-Chief of Fi: The Magazine of Music and Sound. His musical sensibilities, listening and writing talent, and organizational skills will help us continue to deliver the unique perspective TAS offers on audio and music.

Due to the sudden death of a close friend, Harry Pearson was unable to contribute to this issue. HP’s Workshop will return in Issue 140.


  Robert Harley



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