When most people talk about the causes of the high-end audio industry's contraction, they usually cite a number of valid forces like the economic downturn and the destructive power of the low end. How many potential customers for serious audio equipment didn't purchase them because they bought into the myth that the latest iPod docks can replace proper separates?
There is, however, a more insidious force at play, one that -- it must be said -- shows up high-end equipment with devastating efficacy. And it comes from within. It is the Robin Hood School of Audio. Simply put, great sound is available for so little outlay that one has to question the need for buying expensive equipment. Traditional brands with their feet firmly in the specialty audio camp are producing truly amazing components with embarrassingly low price tags, primarily to keep the cash flowing.
Entry-level hardware has long represented great value, from best-sellers like KEF's original Coda, the Wharfedale Diamond, and NAD's 3020 to now-forgotten goodies like Audio Alchemy digital products. But the Law of Diminishing Returns was usually in check, so every extra 50 or 100 dollars brought audible gains. Then things would taper off above $1000, finally ending up with exponential increases in the amount needed to acquire even minuscule sonic improvements.
Before anyone thinks I've suddenly become a tofu-eating, tree-hugging, sandal-wearing, socialist hypocrite, I hasten to state that the high-end has never been more rewarding than it is now. In the past year alone, I've savored the spectacular Audio Research Reference 10 preamp and the Reference 75 power amp, the D'Agostino Momentum stereo amp, Wilson's mind-blowing Alexia, a brace of new SME turntables, and a handful of other products that justify prices that would pay for a decent car.
So, yes, excellence still costs real money, and only an idiot would say that he's found a $10 wine that delivers "99 percent of a bottle of La Tâche" or a $2 cigar to rival a Cohiba. But subjectivity is always the Great Leveler, and if some schmuck wants to believe that his Peruvian red can take on the best of Burgundy, so be it. However, the latest budget audio gear is so good that the manufacturers battling in the lower reaches of the mid-price sector must be deeply concerned.
If there's a "poster child" for this genre of killer "beer budget" buys, it has to be AudioQuest's astonishing DragonFly, much praised on this site. I picked one up at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, hooked it up to my MacBook Air and my Soundmatters FoxL mini-speaker, and sat back in amazement. Silkier, smoother, more detailed than iTunes deserves to sound. The damned thing is housed in a thumb-sized USB stick, so even the nastiest of hi-fi-hating wives can't complain. Price? $249. As for the FoxL, it never leaves my travel "kit," nor do B&W's latest headphones, the P3s at $259.
On my desk are JBL's phenomenal 4312M II mini-speakers, designed -- I believe -- for the Japanese market. They're sized like LS3/5As, yet they look like scale models of massive JBL three-way studio monitors of the 1960s. Price? £900 in the UK. They're efficient, they rock hard, and they work wonderfully with small tube amps -- including the hybrid tube/class-D Carat One from Italy, for under €300!
Music Hall will sell you a Technics-lookalike turntable with USB for $249. A colleague with an ear for bargains has been raving about Musical Fidelity's V-Link USB-to-S/PDIF converters ($125 to $250) as the best upgrade he's ever applied to a computer. Another bombshell is the new Pioneer SP-BS22-LR, a small two-way system designed by Andrew Jones. Price? $129 per pair. Yes, that's right: $129.
There's more than enough ammo to keep friends from buying plastic swill. But while you're at it, please don't dissuade the wealthy ones from savoring the best.
. . . Ken Kessler