Enjoy the Music.com
The Absolute Sound
April / May 2010
Self-Imposed Myopia
Editorial By Robert Harley


The Absolute Sound April / May 2010  In Issue 200's Letters column, reader Peter John Leeds argued that high-end audio, as an industry, systematically engages in price gouging. He specifically cited Wilson Audio's financial success as prima facie evidence that the company overcharges for its products. I responded to Mr. Leeds' letter by suggesting that Wilson's long-term success is evidence that the company doesn't overcharge for its products. I noted that Wilson competes in the marketplace against other brands, and that consumers are free to buy, or not to buy, whatever products they wish. The fact that tens of thousands of audiophiles have walked into dealer showrooms, listened to a variety of loudspeakers, and purchased Wilson products suggests to me that the company offers quality and value. As reader Ed Robinson notes in this issue's Letters, consumers are generally not forced into commercial transactions.

There's an unfortunate tendency among some readers to view the high-end industry myopically, seeing (and objecting to) only the very high-priced products and ignoring the affordable, great-sounding gear that most people can buy and that we review in abundance. Just last week I received a letter from reader Ray Engel, who castigated the entire field of high-end audio as being absurdly expensive. He cited a number of expensive products we've recently reviewed, but neglected to mention the affordable gear we cover: "If it is supposed to take $295k to put a smile back on my face when I listen to music at THX levels, then I'm out." When did TAS ever suggest that such an outlay was required to enjoy music? (Mr. Engle also states in his letter that he chooses to listen to music on a Crown amplifier and JBL loudspeakers, which he claims offer far greater value that high-end equipment.) Mr. Engle concludes his letter with: "I guess I'll still subscribe to The Absolute Sound out of morbid curiosity to see just how insanely high prices can go. When TAS named a $32,000 mini-monitor [the Magico Mini] the 2006 Overall Product of the Year, I guess you endorsed that insanity."

I submit, Mr. Engle, that the real insanity is listening to music through Crown and JBL gear. I say this not out of uninformed bias, but because I once worked in a mastering room that used JBL loudspeakers driven by Crown amplifiers. The letter writers complaining about the cost of some high-end gear overlook the fact that every issue of TAS features products that just about anyone can afford. In fact, in last issue's Editors' Choice Awards, we feature eleven loudspeakers, seven integrated amplifiers, and seven disc players costing less than $1000 each. Yet the letter writers vehemently rail that TAS is about nothing more than cost-no-object equipment.

The most gratifying experience I've had in my 21-year audio-journalism career was receiving a letter from a schoolteacher who discovered the joys of high-quality music reproduction through The Absolute Sound. He had no idea that high-end audio existed, but stumbled on TAS at the newsstand while researching how to spend his hard-earned dollars on a hi-fi. Based on our recommendations, he bought a system for about $3200 a substantial investment for him. His letter expressed his profound gratitude not only for introducing him to high-end audio, but also for the specific product recommendations. He described how owning a great-sounding music system reconnected him with music, as well as how music listening had become more central to his life. To have played a role in helping this person discover the pleasures of owning a high-end system is far more rewarding to me than publishing reviews of state-of-the-art equipment.

The larger issue implied by Mssrs. Leeds and Engle is whether the existence of ultra-exotic high-end gear makes the world a better or worse place. Rather than viewing such gear as cynical exploitation of ignorant consumers, I see products that push the state of the art in music reproduction as causes for celebration. We should exult in the achievements of those designers who have the courage and talent to pursue their dream of making a product that takes us one step closer to the music. I'll never be able to afford some of the cars I read about in Automobile or Winding Road, but that doesn't make me angry and cynical about them. Do Mssrs. Leeds and Engle wish that the Ferrari Enzo didn't exist? If so, why? If not, why object to ultimate expressions of the audio arts and not to the unfettered dreams of automotive designers?




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