"The Price is the Product"

Written by Bill Leebens

Way back in 1999, the late Brian Cheney of VMPS loudspeakers wrote a piece called “The Price is the Product”. I was a little shocked to find it online on Audiophile Audition; frankly, I was shocked to find that Audiophile Audition was still online following the death of founder John Sunier. But I digress.

Just back from Munich and mulling over what I’d seen there, Brian’s piece came to mind. The article’s premise is that there are a number of products in high-end audio that have prices that don’t reflect build cost, but are set to lend validation, allure, or appeal: the price is very high, therefore it must be worthwhile. I can’t say I have Brian’s expertise in costing and manufacturing, but I’ve been around enough to be able to roughly guesstimate a product’s COGS (cost of goods sold), and I know what standard multiples are required in order for a product to work with multi-level distribution.

There were more products with six-figure price-tags displayed at Munich than I had ever seen at a show, in a dealer’s showroom, or even in a manufacturer’s facility. There was a time in my life when that would’ve excited me, but that time is not now. Instead, I felt a bit of despair, mingled with disgust.

The late English speaker designer Ted Jordan—seems like an awful lot of talented speaker designers have died in the past few years, no?—once said that an engineer is someone who can do something for a pound, that a layman couldn’t do for a tenner. That viewpoint reflects the derivation of the word engineer from the Latin ingenium (meaning skill, or native talent), also believed to be the root of ingenious and ingenuity. To literal Leebs, that means being able to pack in a surprising level of bang for the buck—which is why I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy to promoting high-performance low-cost products which many dismiss with the label “entry level”.

That’s a long way around of saying that if an audio product costs more than an S-Class Mercedes, I’d better be able to see evidence of where the money is going, well beyond, “parts costs are high due to low production”. Uh huh. Sounds like some poor design choices, if that’s the only justification of the price.

—And, oh: it better not sound okay. Or pretty good.  Or even just good. It had better be freaking amazingly, gobsmackingly, life-changingly FANTASTIC. Jaw hits the floor, veils are lifted,  stay up all night rediscovering record collection, yadda yadda.

I heard some big-boy systems that sounded pretty remarkable. Their prices were also remarkable, several being over a million dollars. Did I hear anything that I thought justified 7 figures? No. To be fair, the Atrium demo rooms range from problematic to awful, and it’s possible that a skilled set-up person could create magic with these systems in properly-designed residential settings.

Having said that: really? A million bucks?

I’m usually on the flip-side of this discussion, arguing that the years of enjoyment provided by a quality audio system make it a reasonable purchase, offering lasting value. But I’m sorry: the upper-Midwestern pragmatist in me has a hard time thinking that a $350,000 amplifier provides good value. No matter how extraordinary it sounds.

I guess I’m not a real audiophile, huh?

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