Over the decades, readers have never ceased to remind me that hi-fi reviewers—like automotive journalists, theatre/film/restaurant critics, and others of that ilk—are spoiled thanks to the perks of the job. Become a respected car magazine contributor, and you’ll probably never need to buy a vehicle because you’ll always be testing one or another. Restaurant critic? Your main worry will be your waistline.
Every job has perks, and hi-fi writing is no different, so get over it: even some of the most poorly treated of workers in the modern era—catering crew?—usually get a staff meal. And what lawyer ever went broke paying legal fees? What dentist has bad teeth?
If there’s any upside-cum-downside to reviewing hi-fi, it’s being spoiled by a steady flow of high-end products you probably cannot afford. I stopped counting all the treasures I’ve reviewed which I wish I could have afforded. But I am not unhappy: at my age, and with over 50 years in audio, I have assembled my own self-purchased high-end system.
There is a caveat, though: at any given time, at least one or two extremely costly products are there on a temporary basis. Many reviewers borrow gear for their review systems, with the understanding that the items have to be returned at a moment’s notice. What you need to accept is that they wouldn’t borrow Product X if they didn’t think it was the bee’s knees.
What £99 would buy you 40 years ago
Being short of an amp or a CD player or speakers is not, then, an issue for me, especially as I started collecting vintage hi-fi equipment long before it became fashionable. I bought my first used tube amp in 1977 (a well-worn Rogers Cadet III) and since have amassed a mini-museum. Much has been sold off, but I can still put together a system straight out of the Hi-Fi Yearbook from 1968 or 1973 or 1981. Unfortunately, reviewing with vintage gear is not an option because readers must be able to try the same setup in a shop: e.g., if I review a pair of the latest KEF LS50 Metas, I am not going to drive them with a 1960s Leak tube amp. Instead, I would use the current PMC Cor integrated.
Back to being spoiled rotten: I will never forget my roots, beginning with the system I purchased at the age of 16, the loan for it taking two years to pay off. It was 1968, and I was working two jobs, but I just had to have a decent sound system. I went into hock for $700—equivalent now, I was horrified to learn, to $5378. What 16-year-old wants that kind of debt? But—unlike the whining bitches who reek of envy because someone else has a costly MC which they claim they can’t afford—I prioritised my finances, decided music was more important than a car, food, a steady supply of pot, or saving for college, so I paid it off from a paper route and slaving over a vat of hot fat at KFC.
Now I am not for a moment suggesting that any 16-year-old circa 2021 (or even a 45-year-old) should borrow such a sum to feed the hi-fi habit. My decision was mine alone. It was painful, but I bought a Dual 1019 turntable with a Pickering cartridge, a Scott 344C receiver, and a pair of small Scott speakers. I know, I know: I should have bought Dynaco or AR or whatever, but I was green and the salesman was slime.
Of late, as high-end prices grow increasingly more obscene (e.g., speakers costing over $1,000,000/pr. can no longer be counted on one hand), I’m experiencing my own backlash. I have a need to reacquaint myself with what we would call “entry level” systems, but for serious listeners. By that, I do not mean the cheapest stuff on the market.
This little experiment of mine could address the rock-bottom audiophile-in-training purchase which dominated the UK for more than a decade, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s; I don’t know if there was a US equivalent of such ubiquity, so the UK situation might have been unique. A vast network of independent retailers, united as a buying group under the Hi-Fi Markets banner, sold for £279 to £299 (depending on the vendor and the choice of speakers) an entry-level package which shifted, literally, in the hundreds of thousands, and which started countless university students on their way to audio bliss. It consisted of a Dual CS505 turntable; an NAD 3020 amp; and KEF’s, Celestion’s, or Wharfedale’s least-expensive two-way bookshelf speakers. To surprise you about the list price of this once-most-popular system, which the magazines almost coerced novices into buying 40 years back, its price today is equal to a serious $1957 USD in 2021 money (including exorbitant UK sales taxes).
1982 news item for the update to the million-selling NAD 3020 integrated amplifier
And that £299 today in 2021 British pounds? £1397, which would still pay for the following: a mid-level Pro-Ject turntable; one of any number of premium Japanese-branded integrated amplifiers, e.g., from Denon or Marantz; and a wide selection of British two-way speakers like Quad’s delightful S1.
Here’s where it gets nasty, though—and why audiophiles are considered to be the meanest, most tight-fisted pricks on the planet: back in ’81, precious few “normal” people, as opposed to pre-conditioned hi-fi enthusiasts, balked at scraping together £299. Today? They’d expect to pay the same! Tell a civilian that an equivalent hi-fi system should cost £1400, and they’ll call you a rip-off artist.
Now comes the irony: you can, in the UK as of May 2021, put together a brand-name system with an entry-level Pro-Ject deck (£179), Cambridge integrated amp (£219), and Wharfedale Diamond 9 speakers (£59) from online-and-high-street supplier Richer Sounds. That’s a third of the cost of the similar system of 40 years ago in real terms.
It’s a fact of hi-fi life that audio consumers refuse to accept a certain reality called “inflation.” If you chart the prices of watches, trainers, a loaf of bread, or condoms, all have gone up in price in real terms. Given the above examples—and whatever anyone tells you, there is more disposable income floating around now than 50 years ago—who dares to say inflation is what murdered hi-fi? If anything, inflation has bypassed it, just as it has a certain fast-food brand: I recently saw a 1957 McDonald’s menu showing a hamburger for 15¢. That’s $1.35 in today’s money, adjusted. And yet in 2021, the costlier cheeseburger (19¢ in 1960!) is only $1. So, like hi-fi, that’s actually deflation.
As belts tighten post-pandemic and the hunger for music in the home increases, my concerns have moved from dreamware-like $10k moving-coil cartridges and $12k tonearms to the stuff real people can afford. As much as my utopia would mean high-end systems for all, the reality is that most of the crazy stuff remains aspirational for all but the wealthiest of individuals. Any reviewer of high-end gear should be forced to undergo such a reality check, and I submit to it voluntarily.
Digging into my own pocket, I have spent the past year or two assembling a system far closer to what people would actually buy. But first I must put this into context, lest you think I’m still out of touch with reality. I needed a target price, so I looked back to my own hi-fi history and decided that the system would cost the same as the one I purchased in 1968: $5378 for turntable, amp, and speakers. To allow some wiggle room, I rounded it up to $6000.
Sneak preview of next month’s KK-selected bargain components
If that’s still too high a package price for most of you for a decent analogue system, send the hate-mail to the usual address.
To be continued . . .
. . . Ken Kessler