The Julia Rule

Things shouldn’t be overpriced. Of course, what is meant by “overpriced” may vary according to the situation at hand, but the idea is pretty much universal and totally common sense. Inflated pricing is insulting. But occasionally, there are times when the costs are so clearly out of line with all reasonable expectation that you’re forced to stop and say, “that’s just crazy — there’s just no way!” Enter The Julia Rule.

It’s not that things can’t be or shouldn’t be expensive. Cheap things are usually cheap for a reason. But the inverse isn’t always true — cost does not in any way entail quality, nor is there any reliable relationship between the two. There is certainly no correlation (more expensive things are things of higher quality) and most definitely no causation (because it’s costly, it’s of higher quality).  But while the expensive=good claim is patently false, it’s great marketing especially if you’re selling something overpriced. Like, say, the Chevy Volt. I don’t care what it costs to make that thing — it costs too damn much. What right minded person would pay $40k for a battery-powered Chevy? I mean, seriously!

But getting back to The Rule. The Rule isn’t meant to refer to that $10 charge for a box at Fedex (for a box), which is absurd, but more for something like a Mont Blanc ball point pen. Cost? $200. The “cartridge” for a Mont Blanc — that is, the thing with the ink that actually is capable of making the marks on the paper, that thing? That thing costs $2. The plastic shell it sits in, therefore, costs $198. What the hell is up with that? That’s total BS — and a clear violation of The Julia Rule.

Who’s Julia? She’s my darling wife, of course. A witty, wickedly sharp woman with an eye toward the finer things with a firm hand on reality — and her wallet. It’s not that she’s a cheapskate, not exactly, but she does have a thing for bargains. Which brings me to wine and how The Rule got established in the first place, which may help explain some of it’s complexity and when/why I’m likely to invoke it.

The Wine Analogy

My wife loves great wine (as do I, but that’s another story entirely). Her love of great wine is both good and bad. It’s good because we almost always have a great bottle ready to drink. And when I say great, I mean that — not “drinkable”, not “acceptable”, not “okay”, not even “good” — but rather, something Robert Parker would be happy to sip on. It’s bad because I’m in charge of buying the wine.

I’ve tried to buy the cheap stuff (my wife imposes a budget which kind of forces my hand in that direction), but my wife has a bloodhound-like ability to root out cheap imposters. She apparently likes making things difficult. I think it makes her laugh.

But she’s not being unreasonable (well, maybe not too unreasonable). Why? Because, together, we’ve found, tasted, and thoroughly over-indulged in great wine at extremely reasonable prices. How reasonable? $8 a bottle for wine Robert Parker rates as a 90 on his famous 100 point scale. Or a $18 bottle that rates a solid 95? That is a steal, my friend. A freakin’ steal.

But it also sets a bar. A reference point, if you will. If it’s possible to have wine that the most renowned (and infamous) wine critic in the history of the world has sanctified, and have that for cheap, it kind of makes dropping $100 (or more) on a bottle that earns that same rating a bit hard to justify. It’s a bit monochromatic as it really boils all of wine down to a single overriding quality: how good the sip is from the glass. But it also makes a sort of sense to me: every bottle sits on the same scale. It’s convenient, and makes it really easy on a prospective buyer. It’s a pretty easy case to make that high end audio really is about the sound quality … (well, the bling is important too) … and if that’s true, then we suddenly have another very flat scale.

But there’s more.

Great wine can cost whatever it costs, but if it’s too expensive, Julia’s pretty hardcore: “Screw that — next!” It can be the best wine in the world, it could have earned a lofty 99 or 100 on the RP scale, but if it costs $100 a bottle (or more), she’s uninterested. Of course, she’ll happily drink a glass or two, she may even mumble appreciatively, but that praise will never be more than muted.

“At $100+ a bottle, it had damn well better be fantastic. And if it’s not, well, that’s outrageous. Because if the same taste can be had for a fraction of that high-dollar bottle’s cost, that expensive bottle is offensive.”

At that price, she says, it’s as if the vintner could hardly have failed to make a great bottle. It can (and ought to) be great, but even if it is, who cares? It’s no longer interesting. Any idiot could (and should be able to) make a great bottle of wine — at that price level. What would be compelling is if that vintner could have made that bottle for $10. Then, we’d have a real story. That would be exciting. That would be a new reference! And everything thereafter would be held up to that standard.

Impossible, you say? Hardly.

In the last 20 years, I can remember half a dozen stellar California growing years where there were bumper crops of grapes pulled in from the very best vineyards. This isn’t necessarily great for any given vineyard, as they usually sell a volume of their crop at a predetermined price in order to protect themselves against bad harvests (and to free up cash earlier in the whole process). The way it works, oversimplifying, is that the highest payer/top bidder gets the “best part” of the crop, up to the contracted amount/limit, and pays/pre-pays some or all of it at that pre-set price. The next highest bidder gets a crack at the next-best part of the crop, and so on. But in these special years, the vineyards had so many awesome grapes that they were not only able to fill their top-tier orders with their top-tier grapes, they had enough of those exact same grapes to fill their second-tier orders — and for their third-tier orders, too. Obviously, this is something of a coup for the second- and third-tier vintner buying up those first-tier grapes at third-tier prices. We’re talking bargain pricing on the best (component) products available. As the wines were made in the years that followed, it was quite possible — and even likely — that a given $100 bottle of wine was made with the exact same grapes as ones found in a $40 bottle. Perhaps even a $10 bottle. Digging under the covers a bit more — it turns out that a lot of those first-tier grapes being made by what you might think of as third-tier producers are actually made by the exact same vintners, and just released under their mass-market brand. So, yes — a $10 bottle may well have all the hallmarks of a $100 bottle — same grapes from the same vineyards handled and made into wine by the same vintners at the same bottlers, but released at different price points. So, the next time someone says to you that a $100 bottle is always better than the $10 bottle, you can safely smirk into your hand and let them continue to spend too much for their wine. After all, I’m sure they’re enjoying it far more than you are.

And that’s just one example, targeting California wine, some of the priciest in the world. Want to go another way around? Try wandering farther afield. New Zealand, Australia, South America — all are producing top flight wine, but few vineyards “out there” are charging an arm and a leg for it (yet). But they’re getting the same ratings from the same critics, leveraging the same varietals (and in some cases, are also overseen by the same vintners — the top guys travel a lot) as those in more celebrated regions, but are offered for a fraction of the cost of the California or French wine. And in some cases, a tiny fraction of the cost. Again, $100 wine for $10 a bottle — oh yes indeed.

As I mentioned, this poses serious problems for the wine brand managers. I mean, who in their right mind would volunteer to pay $100 (or $1,000, or more) for a bottle wine when great (and in some cases, the exact same) wine can be had for a mere $10? Is the design or name on the label ever worth a 90% mark-up (sorry, Mont Blanc). Well, let’s just say that the answer is “never” in my book. No, a new standard has been set — that taste can be had for $10 and paying anything beyond that is now foolish.

High Value

How does The Rule translate to high end audio? Pretty simply. If the price floats to such an extent that we’re talking about UFOs circling in the stratosphere from space, the result must be superlative, and if it isn’t, it’s offensive. The more expensive, the more extreme the reaction. Take a $500k loudspeaker. If it isn’t the absolute best-sounding speaker ever produced, it’s utter crap. How can you make a $500k speaker and present it to the market with a straight face and not have it sound like the very Voice of God? If it somehow falls in any way short, that designer is an utter dolt. Especially if that same sound, or something near enough — or worse, even better — can be had for $50k? Or $5k? Or less? Dolts.

Take a $25k speaker cable. WTF in the world would cause a speaker cable to cost that much money? Even if it “sounds great”, that’d still be boring. And if it is utterly magical and completely transforms your system’s overall sound, well, who really cares? At that price, such magically transformative performance is expected. But it had better be freakin’ untouchably perfect. And if it is, great, all may be well … that is, right up until someone offers a speaker cable that sounds as good or better at 1/10th the cost. And then that $25k cable becomes not just idiotic but sheer lunacy — a clear violator. Ditto for a $100k amplifier. Are you seriously telling me that this level of performance cannot be had for less? Rule violation! … And so on. Look, the exact levels here are not important, though I suppose we could probably set some expectations with a reasonable degree of accuracy — and far lower than those I’ve set out here. The point is that when price greatly outstrips expectations — and if reference-quality is easily, readily and commonly available at radically lower prices — then stratospheric pricing is, at best, gouging, and therefore offensive. At worst, it’s a display of gross incompetence on the part of the designer and his marketing team. Either way, it’s worthy of ridicule, not praise. Violation!

And that’s The Julia Rule. Absurd pricing, beware.

The Award

Which brings me to the award itself. It’s really pretty simple. When performance meets price in such a way that produces unexpected levels of value, that’s a winner. A $300 pair of speakers that sound like a pair 10x their cost? Winner. A $1,000 DAC that hangs with a $20,000 DAC? Winner! You get the picture. Think: “$8 bottle of truly excellent wine” and you’ll be on the right track.

Now, I don’t want to get too hasty, so lemme throw in a caveat by way of an example: an amplifier that costs $20,000 may well be a “value” if it’s performance cannot be (or has not been, at least in our experience) bettered by anything less expensive. That’s a good buy, maybe even a bargain, but we’re never going to hang a Julia on that. That’s a lot of dough. That may be an Editor’s Choice, but we’re going to reserve Julias for gear that falls into the far more affordable bracket.