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.
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.
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.
Any discussion on strategies for accumulating and spending wealth tends to spark popular interest. This one is a very pleasant read.
My 2c on the topic:
Cent 1. Julia’s rule provides a framework for strategy on purchases: value should increase with cost. When plotted on an XY reference graph, all points are “in” as long as the nearest neighboring point (left and right) have lower and higher value, respectively. The method proposed to calculate value is “how much went into making the object” or “the whole is equal to the sum of its parts” plus a little bit for the effort to put the parts together, which should be similar for all products of the same ilk. There is certainly merit to this way of thinking, The building and maintaining of a brand to provide perceived benefits of ranking the owner on a social hierarchy are zero for Julia (no value added). Julia is not to be judged by the labels she owns. This is a fair request but a tall request nonetheless – given that this is not how society functions (and even Julia might at times judge other people based on their choice of purchases). Sadly the “branding” might always factor in without realizing it.
Cent 2. I propose (without claiming originality) that an easier method to calculate value is based on the resale value (how much can I sell it back for if I don’t like it). This method is even better at eliminating the branding issue: no more searching for the “truth” (am I lured by the brand or impartial judge of performance). If I made a choice that turns out to be wrong for me – I don’t necessarily have to live with it because it will be the right choice for someone else. With that scale in mind – if I can purchase something that I want for an equal or lesser cost than I think I can resell it then it has good value. If I can only resell it for less – then the difference better be equal or less than the anticipated pleasure (physical or intellectual) of trying the product out minus the pain of trying it out.
You sir, are a jackass. To say that “What right minded person would pay $40k for a battery-powered Chevy? I mean, seriously!”, is asinine on its face. The reverse would be “Because this particular car model is made by BMW, then it must be good? Really? Isnt that going against exactly what you’re trying disprove? Anyway, I will just say that I have owned a 2013 Volt for 8 months now, and it is by far the best car Ive ever owned. Ive have them all; BMWs, Mercedes, etc. etc. and this Chevy, pees on them all. Yes, it would be nice in a perfect world that one can get 100+mph, and only pay, say 25k for the car, but in the real world, it doesn’t work that way. I save close to $200 a month on gasoline, and lease the car for $320 per month… translation, I pay about $150.00 per month in lease payments. Want to tell me what kind of junk wagon one would normally get for that amount? Starting off you’re diatribe with that sort of bass-ackward logic made whatever you had to say afterward irrelevent.
😉 You sir, are quite correct. I am a jackass.
My point about the Chevy is, I’ll admit, a bit tenuous. But that said, even Chevy thinks it’s too expensive — they just dropped the price by $5k. And that’s all well and good — but still, the brand itself, Chevy, is simply not known for “high-end” manufacture. It’s just isn’t Corvette or Cadillac. It’s Chevy. And so, yes, I’ll stand by the comment — the Volt was, and still is, too expensive for the brand. And while you may love your car, and it may well be wonderful, my observations are hardly out of line with buyers or with “the pundits“.
And for the record, I’ve driven a Volt. It’s fun. But any of those German cars you mentioned … well, it’s not really fair to compare them on anything other than price. THe hell of it is that I think Chevy easily could have taken over the “battery car” segment and wiped the aging Prius off the market, but instead of building a car for a budget, they went and priced it out of reach. I mean, seriously, was no one watching? Or were they simply expecting consumers to go for it “just because” we’re idiots? The fact that they’re not making any money on the car is hardly surprising. They needed volume to keep costs in line. And since they decided to price it squarely in competition with German cars, well, competition is a bitch. If they’d priced it at $30k, they’d have sold 5x as many and they’d be in the green and not just trying to sell it. They got greedy. And now the division is brokey. Too bad for the Volt. I hope some bean counters got fired over that original pricing decision.
And for the record, $35k for that car (or the Prius for that matter) is still too much.
I love audio, but have been perplexed by the consumer community around it. I also love computers, and this is exactly the way good reviewers write: a clear distinction between the best product (period), and the best product (value). Everything is compared against the reference (performance, value). When something beats it, it becomes the new reference. Such an ecosystem has no tolerance for a $1,000 cable that has the same properties as a $1 cable.
I understand that a lot of reviews are highly subjective and such make it hard to establish reference points. Computer equipment, by contrast, is highly measurable – gigaflops, energy consumed, heat and noise emissions, etc. There certainly are measurable aspects to audio (distortion, noise, frequency response, spectral decay, latency), and not enough of that factors into the audio consumer community for my tastes, but YMMV. Apparently some people think that subjective listening is all that is required, but it’s hard to get around cognitive biases:
I agree — we all have our biases. The trick is to figure out what yours are (Know Thyself!) and find a “reviewer” that lines up in a way that makes sense to your predilections. As for “best”, well, that’s a qualitative word, so almost by definition, you’re starting from a point of personal opinion. I think that the problem with reviews — whether professional or scholastic — is that there is far too much emphasis placed on “objectivity”. The problem is that ‘objectivity’ is a goal and never a starting point. The philosopher Karl Popper has a lot of very interesting writings along these lines.
So, what to do in the face of a distinct lack of true, knowable and attainable, objectivity? Well, comparisons are a pretty good way to go. “X is better than Y, where ‘better’ is defined as [superior scoring on some set of agreed upon criteria]”. The trick of this equation isn’t the criteria, but the scoring, which is going to be subjective and subject to biases unless you add significant levels of rigor, where ‘rigor’ = “severe limitations on what is relevant”. This is precisely where “The Scientific Method” comes in. But note that there is zero consensus about what “The Scientific Method” actually consists of! Very interestingly, and completely contrary to what we’re taught in school, this varies wildly from discipline to discipline. Which brings us back to the original problem of subjectivity.
If this feels familiar, this is an entirely modern version of Descartes’ “Evil Demon” argument, but unfortunately for us modern day empiricists, claiming God as a “first principle” isn’t permitted — hello, Occam’s Razor.
Anyway, all this is to say that the reader really ought to take commentary of high end audio performance as something much more akin to an exercise in aesthetics (on par with, say, “literary criticism”), not epistemology. There is no “knowing” here, just appreciation. Or not, as the case may be.
Sure. Subjectivity can’t be avoided – and I do appreciate the subjective approach for what it is, but compare (for example) TAS to Stereophile. Stereophile doesn’t believe in objectivist reductionism (I think we’re going full Karl Popper here), but they at least provide charts. You’ll never see TAS reference a single number; they are 100% subjective. A TAS reviewer said that either the Magnepan 3.7s or Magico Q5s would be his speaker choice. If these speakers perform similarly, then the Julia Rule states that the Magico Q5s are quite unimpressive at 10x the cost of the Maggies. But I couldn’t tell you how the Q5s and 3.7s compare just by looking at their charts. There is a clear and present need for subjectivity.
Interestingly, Atkinson (Stereophile) wrote an article (quite damaging, in my opinion) against blind testing because he didn’t get the result he expected (couldn’t tell the difference between two amps where he expected to be able to hear the difference – hopefully I’m summarizing correctly). Both the fact that the difference was inaudible when he couldn’t see what he was listening to, and his reaction to unwanted test results (claiming the procedure to be invalid), are both very telling of the state of the high-end audio market. As you say about price and quality correlations: buyer beware. (And I do note: absence of hearing a difference doesn’t mean the more expensive product isn’t better… but it does raise the issue of whether _you_ should care about, or even purchase, it.)
Regarding objectivism and measurement… I think the other problem is that “it depends.” For speakers, it’s tough. After (or maybe before) room acoustics, they affect the sound more than just about any component besides the amp. What pleases you will always be subjective to you, and hence the advice of finding a reviewer that lines up is excellent. For other products like interconnects, DA converters, cabling, etc. – a great method is ABX comparison, preferably blind, double blind if possible. You don’t have to assign any quantitative measurement to the sound, you just have to be able to reliably identify which single variable/tweak is different. For the sake of not opening up reams of debate, I won’t discuss possible results. 🙂
Anyway, your injection of the concept of value and competition into high end audio is much needed in my opinion, so thanks for writing The Julia Rule. (And right on with the Maggies – amazing speaker. One doesn’t even need to add “for the money.”)
I rather like seeing the measurements, myself, even if I think of them more as a “checksum” on the validity of the article. I mean, if the measurements show something truly amiss, yet the reviewer fails to mention something similar, you have to wonder what’s going on there. Which is why I’m not going to be doing measurements. I don’t want you monkeys throwing bananas at me. 😉
As for blind testing, I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand, I think it’s truly interesting to see how all this gets sorted out in any given test. You know, I’m a curious guy and I like data. But in another, I think that what you’re actually testing isn’t the gear but the tester. That is, what you’re truly administering is a hearing test, and not a tone-test/can-you-hear-it test, but more of a “how well trained are you” sort of professional competency exam. Nothing wrong with that, but as someone who apes what reviewers do, I have to say that unless I’m using everything else that I’m familiar with, something will probably get missed. That is, if the rig in question is a reviewer’s actual reference rig that they purport to be very familiar with and they’re also using the exact same musical tracks that they’ve overused in the past to discriminate differences, the chances of them “getting it right” with any serious degree of accuracy are pretty low. It’s not enough to have “system one”, which is all-new to the reviewer, play something also new to the reviewer (or not in their testing repertoire), make some hidden change (or not, depending on the protocol), and expect a reviewer to “detect it”. They’re not bomb sniffers, they’re people, and people suck at teasing apart subtle changes in novel sensory inputs. But here’s the interesting thing — it can still be done. Not by everyone, mind you, or even by a majority — but most of these tests do report at least some (or perhaps, even only one) outliers who are able to “do the test” with better than average performance. That mere fact alone proves that differences exist — the theory of “no differences” is refuted by the existence of a single contrary counter example. Ditto for the person who “always gets it wrong” — the result must be within the window of statistical equivalency, or something else is going on. Now, whether or not those differences will matter to the average Joe is another question. But it could be the case that those differences might simply be too subtle to be determined/discerned at first blush (bright speakers might sound great at first) or simply lost in the mix of novelty, but with familiarity, preferences become clear.
Anyway, I understand the hubbub about ABX testing and the like, and nothing else I know of excites the passions in high end audio quite as much as this topic.
But getting back to the post. Value has to be a factor, but I’ve never been fond of the idea of “audio review by income bracket”. It’s either good or its something else. It’s price oughtn’t to matter — unless that price is “out of whack” with a value metric set by a reference. When they conflict, we’ve got problems, hence The Rule.
Anyway, thanks for playing along — and thanks for reading!
I agree in the main with your points on lots of over-priced/questionable value crap in the world of high-end audio and the “banker’s wallet” thing. However using your speaker cable analogy, many would say that anything costing over $10.00 would trigger the Julia Rule as lamp cord qualifies as an established reference standard.
An excellent point, even if I happen to disagree about cables. In my experience, not only do cables matter but they can matter quite a bit — and their impact can vary as well. Unfortunately, this appears to be an unreliable thing and does rather vary system by system.
But again, that’s a bit different from saying “I can afford more, therefore, my threshold is different”. Instead, you’re saying (here), “I found this particular Pinot Noir — which happens to cost $10 — to be so very, very good that every other could be judged by it, and most would be found wanting.” That’s more a matter of taste — your references may be different from mine. Perhaps it’s something like Wine Spectator vs Wine Advocate. Choose your reference and go, says I.
I’m in complete agreement with The Julia Rule…well, almost complete agreement. What’s missing is a complementary maxim that captures the almost exclusively male DNA of high-end audio. I call it the BEE maxim…which posits that The Julia Rule is frequently neutralized (or at least the dollar value exponentially compromised) in the presence of:
B .eautifully E .ngineered E .quipment.
Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and so this maxim varies by individual. But then, I suppose The Julia Rule does as well in that a hedge fund manager’s Julia Rule is likely to be way different (higher threshold) than mine. But still, I believe the BEE principle is compelling.
How many times have we all been tempted to set aside rationality in the face of a finely engineered piece of modern audio art? Let me answer on your behalf…when you bought your last turntable! I offer this admittedly in rapt jealously.
I rest my case.
For me, where The Rule succeeds (or fails) best is in the presence of a clearly established reference standard that can be had for much, much less. So, if you’re looking at an exotically priced piece of audio gear, the question you have to ask is, “what is this extra dough, above and beyond the references-standard, actually buying me?” and then you’re free to ask: “Is that worth the cost?” And if that equation doesn’t balance? Violation!
And I want to rule out the “banker’s wallet” as a invalid slip in the scope. This isn’t subjective. If there is a clear reference at a lower price point, the higher priced items are automatically suspect, regardless of your buying power. And when pricing really skyrockets, well, that’s when we start throwing flags.
The Mont Blanc ballpoint is a perfect example. Why the hell would anyone in their right mind buy one? The cartridge is (or was, when I was pricing them) $2 — and that’s the thing that does the writing! Is the feel of the barrel that much better? No. It’s insanity.
Bose and Rolex have similar problems. Any number of speaker manufacturers actually make “lifestyle speakers” that are cheaper, measure better and sound better than Bose speakers — and are cheaper to boot. When you buy Bose, you buy a name, not any value. Clear violation. Ditto Rolex. Omega, by way of example, makes better complications and charges less for them. Buy a Rolex, therefore, and you bought a brand, not anything of actual value. Clear violation, throw the flag.
By the way, I’m all about “brand loyalty”. But there has to be clear value there, otherwise, you’re selling (or buying) air. Which is just stupid — for the consumer. Flag!
Getting back to the “banker’s wallet”. There’s a little not-so-hidden trend in high end audio to create product for the banker. It goes like this:
You have a $10k speaker cable already? Ha. Well, here’s one for $40k! It’s better, Mr Banker, feel free to buy it and brag! Wait — no, here’s a speaker cable for $75k that was woven together by naked virgin nuns in the Himalayas! It’s much better! Buy this and be the envy of all your peers!
I’m only exaggerating slightly here. This is one of the two segments in high end audio that are actually growing (the other being “the entry level”). Some manufacturers have been told be resellers that they will only carry their products if their pricing — and the apparent value — can meet what their highest-of-the-high-end buyers want and expect. It no longer has anything to do with sound quality or parts cost — pricing at that level is totally arbitrary and set for one reason: to sell to the most well-heeled. There is no value there. No actually proven performance gains. It’s just crap with a high end price. If it’s actually better (for the average person in their average system), it’s a miracle.
This is the crap that The Rule filters out automatically. If there is a lower-cost reference, any higher priced products of reasonable similarity are automatically put on notice. And the SOTA pushes the best (actual) innovations down market continually and with extreme rapidity. Which means that the stratosphere is a terrible place to find anything interesting.
Corollary to The Rule: If a thing still costs an arm and a leg a year or two after being a “breakthrough technology”, it’s pure BS.
Here in Granby,Quebec, we have a great wine importer who sell wines a big discount at Costco only,,,it is highly rated by all the wine experts in Quebec……and the wine sells for half the price of the Liquor store…and it’s named ‘Julia WINE’ WHAT A COINCIDENCE….
CHECK LINK: http://www.juliawine.com/pages%20eng/home.html
I own a hand-made JWN Tube amplifier, push-pull, rated at around 100 watts per channel, using 8 el34 output tubes. It sounds absolutely amazing, like listening to a hologram. Set me back $1,500.00.
It’s just stunning the number of truly incredible sounding products that are out there for “real world” prices, isn’t it? Pays to shop — and skip some of the “tried and true” stops on the audiophile highway. Congrats on finding a great piece!