Is high-end audio too expensive? Compared to what?

High-end audio is expensive, but so are high-end cars, watches, wines, and other pricey indulgences.

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Martin Logan speakers Martin Logan

High-end audio prices have never been higher, but that's true for high-end everything these days. So maybe a better way to look at high-end audio is to consider the value high-end audio offers compared with other high-end products and services. I'm not talking about diamond encrusted Beats or iPhones -- the prices of the best gear from established high-end audio brands is commensurate with the rising prices of Bentleys, Porsches, Lamborghinis, private jets, yachts, and so forth. We occasionally cover this level of exotica here at CNET, and next week I'll report on the $27,500 Ayre Acoustics KX-R Twenty stereo preamp -- it's a honey!

That's a lot of dough, but there are guys who'll happily spend $2,000 for a pair of Super Bowl tickets, and at last year's Boston Red Sox-St. Louis Cardinals World Series games, someone reportedly paid $24,000 on StubHub for a pair of tickets in the first row in a dugout box between home plate and one of the on-deck circles. That Ayre preamp's price doesn't seems so crazy out-of-line now, does it?

What about high-end watches? A Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar in Yellow Gold runs $38,900, or perhaps a Breguet 5327 BR Perpetual Calendar is more your speed -- it's just $45,000, but it won't keep time as accurately as your phone. No matter, uber watches are a far more lucrative market than high-end audio.

Look at wines: not counting rare, impossible-to-find specimens, you can expect to spend over a $100 for a bottle, for something that's enjoyed in an hour. The highly rated Domaine du Pégaü is $120 a bottle; wine connoisseurs can easily spend many thousands of dollars a year on wine.

First-class plane tickets are wildly expensive, yet deliver the passengers to their destinations at exactly the same time as the cheap seats. True, the first-class passengers board first, get a lot more space, eat better food, drink champagne, and deplane first. When I checked on Friday for round-trip United Airlines first-class tickets from New York City to San Francisco, they were $3,950; economy seats on the same flight were going for $564.

I'm putting high-end audio prices in perspective: yes, they're expensive, but there's inherent value to the best gear. How so? Once you've selected the right components, you can expect them to last a long, long time. How long? With turntables, amps, and speakers, 10 years minimum but 20 or more years is very possible. One of my audiophile pals uses Quad ESL speakers that were manufactured in the late 1970s in his system. So while the best high-end audio is expensive to buy, it sticks around for the long haul.

High-end prices may never dip as low as mainstream audio gear, but very decent system prices start around $3,000. I will assemble a few examples in that price range in June.

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