Lipstick and that damned pig

In a recent editorial, Stereophile columnist Art Dudley threw a grenade into the lobby of audio’s high-end. He followed up with a couple of bazooka rounds. After backing his tank over the debris a couple of times and blasting a few stragglers that seemed to have escaped, he then set the whole thing on fire. The only thing missing was a fiddle.

It’s time to call bullshit on five-figure interconnects and four-figure isolation cones. It’s time to call bullshit on $30,000 amplifiers that would be priced to sell for $10,000, tops, if not for their massive, jewelry-like casework. The compulsion to make the best of anything is noble, but the inclination to rely overmuch on the brute force of excess and opulence in doing so is sloppy. And while I understand that the imperilment of the middle-class consumer base forces some start-up companies to aim up-market in order to survive—see JA’s essay on this subject—I feel that the inability of so many present-day high-end audio manufacturers to offer outstanding performance for less than astronomical prices does not speak terribly well of their engineering talents.

Look, I’m not unsympathetic — I just think it’s a little odd coming from Stereophile. The only way this could have been more jarring would have been to see this piece in The Absolute Sound. Not to say that Stereophile doesn’t necessarily cover the “low-end”, but it certainly doesn’t make a particular habit of it — Steven Mejias’ rather recent offering of “The Entry Level” notwithstanding. Sorry, if I’m looking for affordable-but-great, there’s a host of other places I’d turn to first. Just saying.

So, I guess I’m unclear as to what Art’s goal is. Yes, there’s some crazy ass shit going on in audio’s high-end. And yes, there’s a reason for some of it — there’s a shit-ton of disposable income floating around in the offshore accounts of the 1%. If you want to play at that level, you need bragging-rights gear — make it and they will come. But how is this a surprise — to anyone? I mean, seriously. How?

Look, there’s no one in their right mind that truly believes that those $25,000 speaker cables are anything other than insanely overpriced. It almost doesn’t matter if they’re the best that have ever been made — the have to be. It’s not interesting if they’re amazing. In fact, those cables are only interesting if and when (more when than if) they’re bettered by wire that’s cheaper. What I find amazing is that Stereophile is only now finding its outrage. Dude, where have you been?

Personally, I think this race-to-the-top is what’s “killing the hi-fi biz”, another myth that covers many sins. But for a hi-fi company that exclusively chases the very same customers they did 40 years ago, simply tracking them as they move up the economic brackets, this becomes a valid complaint. Heaven forbid those boomers die, because if they do, that company — and a lot of companies in similar straits — are going to implode.

Alright, so aside from the unbelievably late-arrival to the party, you have to give credit where it’s due. I’d like to believe that seeing this slam in a high-end mag, the “screw value — I can charge whatever I want” mentality puts many manufacturers on notice. Interestingly, I’m already starting to see reactionary messaging to Dudley’s warning shot coming from audio companies. Assuming the rally cry is carried forward, it should make the next RMAF and CES a bit more interesting.

Speaking of carrying it forward ….

I just saw John Darko’s response to the editorial on his blog, Digital Audio Review. Darko’s an interesting character, and has published on 6moons, TONEAudio and probably a few others. I like his site — very slick, unlike this one — and I’ve enjoyed watching it develop over the last year or so. Now, as a reviewer who actually seems to specialize in “more affordable” audio, it’s hardly a surprise to read Darko echoing The Julia Rule in his approach to quality and value in the audio market. I admire his stance to review only that which he, personally, can afford to buy. But Darko stops short of outright calling bullshit on the value of the gear hitting the market.

I don’t see why. I say that there must be an accounting. If a vendor wants to sell a pair of speakers for $250,000, my knee-jerk reaction is to call bullshit. How you can possibly justify that pricing? Exotic parts? Insane labor? Fine — but how does any of that impact its performance? Because I’m betting that I could spend that same money on several systems that will sound as good or better — and still leave money left over for that new BMW. I’m unmoved by vintage bits, exotics, or Herculean efforts. It’s all irrelevant if the product isn’t substantively better because of it.

Just because a would-be manufacturer can quantify the costs of parts, labor and “everything else” to bring an idea to market — that by itself doesn’t make it a product. Just because you can build a thing doesn’t mean that it’s worth doing it or, more relevantly, that anyone should give a damn about it. Unless all that “extra crap” can differentiate it on performance from products that cost less (and in some cases, much less), then it is, at best, a distraction and the wise consumer should, rightfully, sneer and take a pass.

I think this is the fine point of Dudley’s sword — bling alone doesn’t add value. Pricing it dearly doesn’t make it valuable. It’s performance that adds value, and performance alone — and excellence in engineering is where that’s going to come from.

Time to get to work.

About Scot Hull 1039 Articles
Scot started all this back in 2009. He is currently the Publisher here at PTA, the Publisher at The Occasional Magazine, and the Executive Producer at The Occasional Podcast. There are way too many words about him over on the Contributors page.


  1. I have a couple of copies of Stereophile, from the last two years, on my coffee table. I have them so that I can pick them up occasionally for a good laugh. The same old brands getting the same old class A ratings…..a rigged game, oh surely not. That is just my opinion. I am so thankful that there are so many fantastic small and micro audio companies for those of us with ‘realistic’ incomes. I am also thankful that I tried enough of the ‘big boys’ and their class A status products in the beginning to know where the value lays. Excellent editorial as usual PTA.

  2. Hi PtA. The link used for us (Affordable$$Audio) doesn’t work, so here’s one that does: .The link is “host” in the line ” a host of other places” near the top of the page.

    Regarding the basic premise of this blog entry including the paragraph by Art Dudley, I must agree. We at Affordable$$Audio have seen our readership grow (slowly). A note: we’ve concentrated on very affordable and used gear as a means of folks getting started and making (perhaps a couple of steps up the ladder to higher performing gear, but based on their experiences, not ours). The pdf review magazine continues to grow (s;ow;y), at a natural rate. This is much similar in respect to Tone Audio ( an on-line mag that I think might be one of the best of any ilk out there),, and . One of the first audio pages that I “discovered” on the Interweb (and which is still ongoing) is . Available in Italian and English. It doesn’t seem to grow, but I suspect that it must, as it has been online since 1995.

    I’ve been very lucky to have had a good friend put me on the right path early on in my audiophile life, and so haven’t really made too many mistakes (well none, considering the time I was starting out over 25 years ago). I am also a pretty pragmatic thinker and had been able to cut through the BS in most of the “hypes” out there. Look at the claims of some devices, look or guess at the mechanisms and thought processes used to attain the claims (if at all), and then I come to my own conclusions. For the longest time I have pushed the idea to friends and relatives who might listen that good audio gear need not be expensive. Some of what I consider to be very good systems can be had for very little money (see my last “From the Pulpit” in the latest issue, September 2012, and my challenge to reader and writers to come up with real-life affordable systems). It’s one of the few places where a dramatic drop in pricing (compared to 20 years ago) has resulted in good audio systems being available to the public at what I consider to be ridiculously low prices. But remember that at extremely low pricing something must give, and in the case of many products what suffers is inconsistent manufacturing, parts sourcing, and the finer details like good casing and hardware items. The items that instill what is called “pride of ownership” are expensive on the manufacturing levels, but to me (personally are well worth it. I like things that stay together and that work in the way there were meant to be. I am also a “tactile” kind of guy: I like the way things feel, so personally if component “X” sound great and has a very nice fit and finish to the cabinet, controls and output hardware, I’d choose it over an exactly made, specified and sounding component “A” with less good hardware details. That’s just me though and at some point the cost of these extra quality items gets out of hand.

    • I am also a “tactile” kind of guy: I like the way things feel, so personally if component “X” sound great and has a very nice fit and finish to the cabinet, controls and output hardware, I’d choose it over an exactly made, specified and sounding component “A” with less good hardware details. That’s just me though and at some point the cost of these extra quality items gets out of hand.

      Stew, I think most of us would identify with this statement — at least, the first half. The second half is where things get nutty. Look, everyone wants stuff to look (and feel) nice — but that’s not a valid excuse to hit the “arbitrary price” button. Amps that cost better than $50k had better be able to walk the runway at Bryant Park and include enough rare and/or exotic parts to qualify for inclusion on the Endangered Species Act. And even then, I will still need to be convinced to give a shit — even if it sounds like the best thing ever built. Why? Because it’s sloppy engineering. It’s like a $500 bottle of wine. On the one hand, if you need it to cost that much in order to make great wine, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re charging that much anyway, you’re an asshole. On the other hand, if you think that a $500 wine will necessarily taste better than a $25 wine, you’re misguided, uneducated, and simply wrong.

      I get the whole “market-driven economics” thing — but I also understand that this invocation doubles as a common excuse for lazy business practices. It’s also an excellent marker to identify those with a poor grasp of business principles, economics generally, much less capitalist philosophy. I think what Dudley is attempting to say is: “enough is enough”. I’d like to add: “If you can’t justify your prices with something other than ‘what the market will bear’, then you deserve to be ignored.”

  3. Great editorial. There’s one big difference between Stereophile and TAS – JA’s measurements. There are a lot of products thrown around the various blog that focus more on affordable products that are touted as “the next big thing” – “this takes down (category) at 10X the price!!!” Then JA gets the product in to actually measure and lo and behold, FR is lumpy, the cabinet resonates, or the THD shoots to the moon if the speaker load drops below 8 Ohm.

    You can BS reviewers that cover affordable products, and you can BS reviewers that cover expensive products. You can’t BS an Audio Precision analyzer. That’s not to say that measurements are the be all end all. That kind of thinking leads you to “all amps sound the same” or “digital is digital” lunacy. Measurements can tell you though if somebody cut corners in cabinet or crossover design, or built a glorified chip amp.

    Some of the companies making affordable audio products, particularly the ones that sell direct like Channel Islands, Herbies, Modwright, Odyssey, Omega, PI Audio, Selah, Vapor Sound, Tyler, Fritz, and Tekton are doing great work.

    Many others are not. Just because you’re product costs $2,000 rather than $200,000 doesn’t automatically mean it’s any kind of a value.

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