It has been my contention that while people do not want to spend more than they have to, they are very often willing to spend what they need to spend in order to get a product that serves their needs. The bulk of high end audio products have failed to provide good value for the dollar. With the primary focus of most manufacturers trained on big ticket hype, cajoling writers, attending any one of the over 20 audio shows a year, and spending amazing sums of money on advertising in the myriad of magazines which claim to serve this market, the value for the buyer has been left out. For the most part, high end audio products have turned into the war of the faceplates and hype. Very little knowledgeable attention is paid to the inner workings of the equipment, the design concepts, the long term reliability, or even if the product fills a void. Increasingly more and more unqualified writers are applying less and less critical acuity. In its infancy, high end audio was about making a better sounding product, period. The search for true 'fidelity' in the home. Dreamers and tinkers worked hard at paying attention to all the design details that were glossed over by more mainstream products due to manufacturing constraints or cost issues. Sometimes these products cost much more than the mass produced goods, sometimes they were the same or less. Some of these products were built to be more reliable, repairable, maintainable. Sometimes they were so far on the edge of engineering they were dangerous. The one unifying trait that characterized the early market was the search for sonic truth. High end has grown up a lot since then. Gone is the early tinkering to build a better mousetrap. Gone is the basic love of the invention and search for the unfound. High end has become sophisticated and savvy and, like many other products, has forgotten the substance for the style. This is the power of marketing. While the concept of high end audio is genuine, most of the products only pay lip service to the concept while putting more and more resources into the facades: mass market high end audio, the production of products that I call "fabulously okay," a marketing success that is a sonic dud. The industry has gotten so wrapped up in itself, it has forgotten to provide value to the very people who they need to survive. They are standing on a heap of interested buyers looking for some brass ring and the winning formula. Very few seem willing or able to deal with the mundane sale of a solid product to a music listener. This cavalier attitude is why the last four years have seen the bankruptcy or shutdown of more high end audio companies than even existed 20 years ago.
Manufacturers are forever introducing products to me that they feel will be a sure-fire sale to a particular customer base. The basis for this confidence is on how they perceive that those customers value their money. Suppliers of equipment racks are a good case in point. There are dozens of equipment racks being made out of every conceivable material and in shapes and designs that are supposed to make them seem artistic or stylish. Those are the racks that cost upwards of $1,000.00. Many of them are not terribly sturdy; many are not terribly conducive to the rooms of most customers I know; few of them could not be bettered in most areas by hiring a cabinet maker to design and build something that will work even better for your particular need and cost less. What I hear from the suppliers is how $1,600 is not a lot for a customer to spend, especially if they have spent $20,000 on a stereo system. This tact is used to sell all sorts of add-on goodies. They are failing to take into consideration that a vast majority of buyers will not be that capricious with their spending money. Just because a person appreciates and is willing to pay for a better engineered and performing tool does not mean they are willing to overpay for a case to put it in.
In the next few years there is going to be a further reduction of high audio companies. As these companies try to compete in a niche market with a mass market mentality, they will be beaten by those who can mass market much better than they can. Those that survive in the high end will either be the venerable old names who can just keep going due to market weight and respectability, and those who will be providing much higher value for the dollar than what is commonplace now. The middle area will dry up and high end as exemplified by the excesses of the marketing hype will disappear. When that happens, be sure to look just a little harder and longer because you will find some of the most exciting and innovative products holding their niche, in the underground, amongst all the noise of the mass market.
© Cadence Magazine 1998