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How much is too much?

In this month's "Records To Die For" at Stereophile, I was struck by a few things. One, almost no new music pops up in there. Why is that? Two, sound quality rarely takes a back seat to performance quality. I'm not saying 'never', I'm saying 'rarely' -- when there's a mismatch, it's usually worthy of a mention -- but why should it? Shouldn't performance always take precedence? Just sayin'. Unknown-1_1But as all that was kicking around, I noticed some LPs recommended by Art Dudley and Michael Fremer, the Unaccompanied Violin Sonatas by J.S. Bach as performed by Johanna Martzy. The two veteran critics waxed poetic about these three discs, and Dudley was prompted to write that "these are the discs he'd rush back into a burning house to save" or something. My wife is a huge fan of baroque composer, so I figured, with that kind of recommendation they'd be worth checking out. Which took me to The Electronic Recording Company. There's a lot to explore there, so I'll leave that to you. Anyway, what struck me was the price-per-disk: £300 each. That, my friends, is a pricey LP.

And then … I started to think. Occasionally, that happens. Sometimes spontaneously. But here’s what popped into mind.

It was the First Law of IT: “garbage in, garbage out”. It’s trite, true, and almost tautological. Translated here — your system will never sound it’s best if it’s only ever fed crap. There’s also and Audio Corollary: your system will only ever sound as good as the material fed into it.

Which caused a hamster or two to start moving “up there” and I wondered — how much is too much for source material?

Honestly, I don’t know. In an era where new albums are routinely sliced and diced and sold off at $1 per cut, the idea of a $450 album is laughable, shocking, and more than a little outrageous.

But is it?

Sure, I can get the latest from Beyonce or Kanye West for $1. It’ll probably sound just fine on my iPhone with my upgraded $99 urBeats in-ear headphones. But what if I have a pair of $500 Sennheiser HD650? Or, if I went all crazy and got something costing over $1000, like a pair of Audeze headphones? Or my $2,000 hi-fi system? Or my $75,000 hi-fi system? At what point does investing over $1000 in three LPs make sense?

Honestly? I don’t know.

But there is a couple of things to point out. “We” — as in, music consumers — routinely under-pay for music. No, we do. No one expects to pay a plumber or an electrician $1 for anything. Sure, they’re tradesmen, but no one expects to pay a painter or a sculptor $1 for anything, either. No, it really is just musicians that we treat like toilet paper and pretend as if they should be grateful we even bothered to air their work at all.

Coming at this another way is the analog tape movement. I’ve expressed shock and dismay at the pricing of these albums in the past ($250+ per is pretty routine), for pretty much the same reasons I’ve outlined above, with the additional dismay around having to procure a functioning antique player in order to bother. This is something I’ve had to experience myself before I “got it” — and boy-howdy, I do. Analog tape is like nothing else out there in audio’s high-end right now … but I digress.

It’s very possible that the medium is interfering here, that with these astronomically priced albums what we’re paying for mainly is the privilege of scarcity. Maybe that’s so. I tend to think that, especially since time seems to have marched on, analog tape and high-quality vinyl are apparently quite difficult to manage and produce. That will drive cost, most assuredly, and the economics of “small batch manufacture” enter here, too.

Putting aside the issue of “how much an artist should be paid” (it’s a good argument, and one worth having, but that’s one for another day), I was left with the lingering notion that many audiophiles are routinely underestimating their musical investments. Some folks, I know, invest many thousands of dollars in huge musical collections, seeking out the very best performances on the very best mediums. For them, the balance is on the music not on the playback. But I submit that this is not what the hobby is these days. Not with audio shows championing $500k loudspeakers. No, something altogether different is happening there.

Look, I’m not saying a $450 LP is “right” for everyone. But given the investment many have made in their playback systems, $450 is nothing. Or close to it. Which, for me, is about as far from my original sense of shock and awe at this kind of pricing as I’ve managed to come. Perhaps I’m getting jaded.

Anyway, love to hear your thoughts. Is music too expensive? Not expensive enough? Where’s the line? Feel free to jump in on the Comments section, below.













About Scot Hull (983 Articles)
Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional Magazine.

17 Comments on How much is too much?

  1. James David Walley // January 29, 2014 at 8:23 PM //

    So, I’ve heard this set (granted, on CD, not $450-a-pop LPs), and I have to raise the question: “is this some huge practical joke?” A classical music/audiophile version of “Punk’d,” maybe?

    I will grant that Martzy has a lovely, singing, smooth legato tone, allowing her to produce a wonderful cantabile effect when she chooses…which is PRACTICALLY EVERY FLIPPIN’ MOMENT OF EVERY FLIPPIN’ PIECE. If I were to characterize her performance as “monotonous,” it would not be an insult; it would be an objective description: the same tone all the time. That might work nicely in Tchaikovsky or other romantics, especially if the tone is beautiful enough (Martzy’s is), but is NOT a good thing for Bach. As an example: at the heart of each of the sonatas is a second-movement fugue, where a great violinist can manage to make the different voices come alive through different inflections, attacks, bow positions, and so on. Because Martzy uses the same tone throughout, each such movement doesn’t even sound like a fugue, but, rather, like a single-line melody with accompanying chords.

    Not only does Martzy smooth over the micro-architecture of the pieces; she also does the same with the macro-architecture. Each of the partitas, like many suites of the time, is based on a series of dances of different speeds and rhythms, with the contrast between them providing much of the variety and interest of the overall composition. Not here — Martzy takes the same (slow) tempo throughout the work, except for speeding up the final movement of each sonata. Courantes are indistinguishable from Sarabandes, which are indistinguishable from Minuets, which are indistinguishable from Allemandes, which are indistinguishable from Gigues…it goes on and on (as do these performances). By about the second partita, listening to this set becomes a chore rather than a pleasure. Initially, I thought that the main cause of this was Martzy’s slow overall tempi relative to, say the Milstein version that has long been my favorite. However, in the past week, I have discovered the 2000 set of these same pieces by James Ehnes on Analekta. Ehnes actually takes these works with an overall longer timing than Martzy (2:29:39 versus 2:17:52, while Milstein took a brisk 1:54:07), and with the same cantabile tone when appropriate; but he also provides the dramatic contrasts and intricate phrasings that make these works supremely fascinating rather than utterly wearying. (I have to note that Michael Fremer praises Martzy for an approach that is “appropriately precise and austere given Bach’s almost mathematical compositions”; which suggests an almost-complete misunderstanding of these pieces, in which practically the last thing needed is “austerity.” Fremer grants that he doesn’t “claim to be a chamber music or Bach expert.” No sh*t, Sherlock.)

    On the bright side, EMI’s engineers clearly found a way to record Martzy’s violin close enough to get the resonance of the instrument’s body, but without the edge that mars Milstein’s otherwise-superior traversal from about the same period. And, I will grant, this is from a garden-variety CD transfer from the late ’90s, not carefully-transferred and painstakingly-reproduced replicas of the original LP set. Still, it should be noted that the effect of even a solo instrument in mono is inherently unrealistic in the sense of “unamplified music in a real hall.” In the real world, you get sound waves not only emanating from the instrument, but radiating out to the side walls and reflecting back again, providing a whole atmosphere of resonance. Stereo captures this well; but even the best mono compresses this to a narrow halo of resonance tightly surrounding the centered image, and not extending very far beyond it. Ironically, I wonder if this might make such a presentation more appealing to certain varieties of audiophiles; by shrinking the resonance to a tight bubble around the performer, it gives more of an illusion of the “pinpoint imaging” so beloved of the audio magazines. “Pinpoint” it is, realistic it is not.

    So, to return to the question at the top of this article, “how much is ‘too much’?” Is $450 per LP, or $1350 for the entire set, too much for these performances? If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you can guess my answer. Considering that the thrilling Ehnes set, in excellent Redbook stereo, can be had for under $24 at Amazon, and Milstein’s famed mono set is likewise available at under $20, with classic sets from Menuhin, Grumiaux, and Heifetz going for around the same prices, I would say “forget $1350…$13.50 would be too much for this set.” The only reason I could see for spending the asking price for these LPs is for the bragging rights to have something rare and unobtainable for the ordinary audiophile, not to mention something obscure enough that most such usually-credulous audio lovers will simply assume it must be as special as its price-tag would indicate. In other words, it’s The Emperor’s New Bach.

    Ashton Kutcher, is that you behind that record press?

  2. My experience reading Stereophile (or most audio sites/zines) is that the most expensive of product X is always the best they’ve ever heard. So an overpriced LP is obviously better than a reasonably priced one, economics tells me so.

  3. Perry Wharfedale // January 20, 2014 at 4:41 AM //

    “No one expects to pay a plumber or an electrician $1 for anything. Sure, they’re tradesmen, but no one expects to pay a painter or a sculptor $1 for anything, either. ”

    Not good examples, if you don’t mind me saying. For over a hundred years, musicians have been fortunate in that technology could multiply their ‘product’ a million fold for no extra effort on their part, so $1 for a download could be more than a reasonable deal for them, assuming they have a good arrangement with the record company.

    “Sure, I can get the latest from Beyonce or Kanye West for $1. It’ll probably sound just fine on my iPhone… But what if I have a pair of $500 Sennheiser HD650?”

    I am bemused by your idea that the price paid for a recording should be in any way related to whether it is worthy to play on your system. This, if you don’t mind me saying, is a common thread throughout the audio world: an ignorance (I can’t think of a better word) of the abstract nature of electrical signals, never mind digits. Thus, in the mind of the audiophile, the quality of reproduced music is always related to the ‘quality’ of the hardware materials that have gone into it, with price as a simple proxy for this. If the world of audio reproduction had been designed by audiophiles rather than pragmatic engineers, we would now be using Edison phonographs made of gold, platinum and diamond. (I can just imagine the arguments: “Music is made of mechanical vibrations, and at every conversion between the mechanical and the electrical, something is lost. Oh, you can ‘prove’ that electrical audio systems measure better, but measurements are primitive compared to our ears.”) As it is, the engineers forge ahead anyway, and the audiophiles increasingly lose the plot, literally incapable of understanding how digital audio works and believing that music sounds better if the CD is made of gold or glass rather than cheap plastic! (This is not a joke). So your suggestion that a $1 download is not worthy of your $500 headphones sums up this attitude in a nutshell.

    Finally, I have to say that I cannot believe that people with the demeanour of certain well known hifi critics could possibly really feel anything upon hearing Bach violin Sonatas. I can believe they can persuade themselves that their admiration for their own taste or audio hardware, or their expectation bias of what a really expensive recording sounds like, is really an admiration for the music, but that’s not the same thing.

  4. What’s being missed here is the difference between fixed and variable costs. The costs involved in the “herculean” efforts to get the artwork, mastering, etc. are all fixed – they don’t depend on the number of LPs created. The variable costs, the actual costs of creating the 301st set, are probably in the low single digits. The fact that the supply is artificially limited and the results of the fixed investment destroyed after a set number have been produced suggest that a major part of the value proposition is being able to have something that others cannot have. And that’s troubling to me….

  5. My thoughts are that there has long been a perception of “big bucks =best quality” inherent in audiophila, and that there will always be a market for super high end “anything”, whether it be components or software, so there will be a market for the $450 album. And there’s the “look at my billion dollar system and my super expensive $450 LP’s” mentality at play for some as well.
    And that’s all fine I guess.
    Where I would be concerned would be if there were a trend towards certain titles ONLY being made available in some elite package at an elite price – if someone wants to buy the premium $450 LP that’s great, as long as I can buy a hirez download, or 180g LP at typical pricing, if I wish.
    I have an extremely modest system, around $5kish, that I enjoy immensely, and like many others would be unlikely in the extreme to spend big bucks on an LP or any other single unit purchase, but would hate to be excluded by a price barrier.
    Also, not sure I agree with the live performance price comparison, that’s an “event” with an entirely different perception of value and emotion IMHO.
    Very thought provoking article Scot, cheers !

  6. Peter Barach // January 19, 2014 at 4:25 PM //

    You can hear this performance of the Bach on Youtube. The playing isn’t so outstanding that I would even consider buying it over other versions that sell for normal prices and have very good sound (e.g., Milstein, Lara St. John’s single-disc version of some of these pieces (not her SACD), Gregory Fulkerson).
    The review in Stereophile is by the same Art Dudley who spent a dozen pages explaining how he drilled holes to make a base for a 50-year-old Garrard turntable with a tonearm like a sledge hammer…

  7. You should ask yourself: “Was that performance worth $450?” instead of “Was that disc worth $450?”. Music is ALWAYS more important than the medium or playback system. Those people who are willing to pay half a million dollars for a set of speakers are CRAZY / IDIOTS / BUFFOONS / etc.

    Even if I could afford anything that expensive, I would rather listen to MP-3s of an exciting music performed at the top of the artist’s ability than to a mediocre performance of a mediocre music recorded with the state-of-the art technology and played through a million dollar playback system.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // January 19, 2014 at 2:19 PM //

      I don’t think anyone would disagree with this: ” I would rather listen to MP-3s of an exciting music performed at the top of the artist’s ability than to a mediocre performance of a mediocre music recorded with the state-of-the art technology and played through a million dollar playback system.”

      The question then, is, if you have that half-mil system, do you still listen to MP3 when you don’t have to? Or if you have a $50k system? Or a $5k system? Is there a line at which $450 for a performance makes sense?

      Think of it this way — concert tickets can be $100 each (or more). Tickets for you and your other, then, could reasonably be $200. What if that concert was awesome? Would you go again? What if you could go as many times as you wanted?

      That’s when this kind of outlay is fairly simple to get, I’d think.

      • I do listen to MP-3 versions of my music collection – but only in the car. At home, I never listen to anything less than CD-quality. But my main listening is done with hi-rez files on the Oppo player and through my NAD amp and Athena speakers. Total cost (excluding a computer): around $3600. I plan to spend yet another $2000 – and that’s it. If I had half a million bucks, I would probably go a bit higher, but the bulk of the money would be spent on CDs and hi-rez files instead of equipment.

  8. I guess it makes kind of sense if you have those uber expensive systems, probably 450 is nothing. On the opposite end of the spectrum, something that I dont hear discussing much this day is the “file sharing”, torrent practice. I know it is a touchy subject, but thats something worth discussing in the future. Still not sure about the legality of the issue and why the websites that do this dont get shotdown if thats the case. And we are not talking just about crappy downloads, this days you can probably find hires high quality stuff out there.

  9. Panagiotis Karavitis // January 19, 2014 at 12:20 PM //

    Johanna Martzy was no-one until the ERC decided to reprint these records and this was done because of the rarity of the original pressings. You cannot pretend this kind of money for a hugely successful record of the time (commercially speaking) simply because there are tons of it all over the net at decent normal prices. Still ERC makes an amazing job in the reprint process by using all original cutting and mastering equipment including EMI, Lyrec and Ortofon hardware of the ’50’s.

    For those interested: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Bio/Martzy-Johanna.htm

    As for the price payed for a recorded performance, the artist gets a very, very small fraction of the sales, if any, in classic music. That is for living artists. The records serve mostly as concert promos. Only a bunch of very well known names actually makes serious money out of the record itself and we are talking about major labels here. Nowhere close to pop music anyway.

    As for the “right” price, consider this. An original A&M “God Save the Queen” by punk legends Sex Pistols sold for 20.000 $ back in 2012. So, the group that was all about fighting the system ended up being a cult item for rich collectors..

    http://www.nme.com/news/sex-pistols/64239

    It ends up being an offer and demand equilibrium

  10. Honestly, it didn’t take me to long– about a nanosecond– to think that such pricing is ridiculous and a bit insane. It only reinforces the stereotype of audiophiles as being people with too much money and too little sense. It also reinforces the stereotype that audiophiles are all about the gear, and not what the gear is for : music! Unless you’re Jeff Bezos, or someone in his bracket, buying music at these price levels will leave you with a collection of, oh say, 10 or 15 records. Plus, if you insisted on these nutty productions, you would be missing all the great original albums that were issued, the fine reissues (like Mosaic), the stuff from Music Matter and APO, etc etc. It’s really almost embarrassing to read something like this, or to witness the questionable fawning of Art Dudley and cohort.

    • Creating a record is no different from making a work of art. Regardless of the final piece, the process is what makes the work special. Ask any artist, master or not. They will all say the process is what drives the outcome.

      Having never heard a $450 record before, I can only image what it may sound like in the presence of audio research equipment, and for a single person to work through his process for his vision to share with is a remarkable journey, and gesture.

      I imagine – my fine friend, you have no passion for much of anything.

  11. Random thoughts…

    Re. analog tape: I worked for a while at the Record Plant in Sausalito in the early 70s. One album on which I programmed an ancient pure analog EML-100 synthesizer and performed assistant engineer duties was Roy Buchanan’s last album In The Beginning. Words can barely describe how much worse the LP sounds vs. the 2″ 24-track analog master tape and 1/2″ 2-track analog master mix. At Different Fur Trading Company Recording Studio in San Francisco’s Mission District (Chief Engineer John Viera), Dr. Patrick Gleeson tutored me in synthesizer programming. Gleeson introduced the synthesizer to Herbie Hancock, who recorded Headhunters at toI also had the rare opportunity to work with their 1/2″ 30 IPS German Studer 2-track.

    Last week my friend mentioned he missed, by only a few hours, purchasing Kavi Alexander’s (Water Lily Acoustics) Strain Gauge phono demodulator and cartridge by John Iverson (not Stereophile reviewer Jon Iverson). He said Kavi apparently has switched his recording medium from pure analog to DSD, for reasons of cost.

    I would certainly love to hear Art Dudley’s recommended mono vinyl. As Art explained in an earlier article, the high vinyl cost properly reflects the producers complete over haul, to OEM specs, of the original playback analog master tape deck and the original cutting lathe. Amazingly, they even accurately reproduced all original jacket art work. It was a Herculean effort, with huge financial cost. Few people have skill, knowledge, patience, and fortitude for the task. IIRC the producer assigned maximum number of copies in the low 1000 range, after which they destroy the cutting master. Lastly, IIRC, the new selling price is similar to original copy value on the used market.

  12. I’m not in the industry but I don’t think the artists make their money from selling their music.

    Don’t they make it from touring, endorsement deals and various forms of marketing?

    I mean if you sold say 1M copies of a $10 CD that’s $10M gross and when you divide that by all the parties that have their hands in it, from the retailers to the lawyers to the producers, to the tax man, it’s not going to make you rich.

    Poor musicians have to go back to vinyl, but even then, people would rip it to hi res digital and continue to steal it.

    A live concert is about the only thing that can’t be stolen anymore, unfortunately.

  13. Scot,

    Just read your latest post this morning and thought I would add another perspective that I think you missed.

    I recently had the privilege of meeting Pete on a visit to London. I had been introduced to him via email through a mutual friend. While I had known the story beforehand hearing from Pete and seeing his operation was an eye opener. You may want to try and see if you could interview Pete or even better visit him. he is one of the most genuine guys I have met in audio and that is with only a few hours of time with him.

    If anything Pete is an obsessive perfectionist. He has recreated all of the equipment that is period correct for the recordings he has reissued. He went so far as to obtain an EMI console from purgatory in Nigeria. He has painstakingly recreated the recording chain to be an all tube and all original restoration of the equipment he uses to record the original master tapes, which he has also managed to obtain. Even more impressive from my view is that work he puts in getting the original artwork for the reissues. I also know that his perfectionism has led him to destroy several runs of pressings that weren’t up to his standards. He literally shredded all of them instead of selling what he considered an inferior product.

    Yes, $450 is a lot of money for an LP (for me it equals about 30 other LPs/CDs I could buy) but considering he only sells about 300 per series you could actually make the statement it’s a good value considering what goes into it’s creation. Personally I hope to be able to splurge on one or more of his reissues, especially several in the pipeline that he gave me a preview of when I visited. Maybe when my wife get’s her bonus in a month. 🙂

    Thanks again for the site you and your elves do a great job!

    • James David Walley // January 21, 2014 at 5:42 AM //

      $450 is a lot of money for a single LP — but, of course, the full set is of three LPs (sold separately, of course), so the full total is a cool $1,350.

      Or, if you’re not a digiphobe and don’t require a meticulously reproduced album jacket, you can get the same recordings on Testament CD from Amazon for under $29. Maybe not with the final degree of audio perfection, but I know which one won’t leave most middle-class audiophiles sleeping on the listening room sofa for the foreseeable future!

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