Last May in Munich, walking the halls of High End 2019, I happened on perhaps the most physically imposing digital-to-analog converter I’ve ever seen: the Wadax Atlantis Reference DAC. I quickly learned that its over-the-top visual design is matched by its price: €110,000. For a DAC. One DAC.
I remember, 20 years ago, whenever I ran across a super-expensive, outrageous-looking audio component, what ran through my mind was “I want to hear that” Now, under my breath, I mutter, “I wonder if it’s any good.” By that I don’t mean that I wonder if, say, the Wadax is worth six figures. To me, it almost certainly won’t be. What I mean is: Is it any better than the $4800 Hegel Music Systems HD30 DAC sitting in my listening room?
We live in a time that is arguably unprecedented in the history of this hobby. High-performance audio and luxury audio inhabit the same market space at audio shows and in dealer showrooms, not to mention in Web advertisements and YouTube videos. Distinguishing between the two types of products is damn near impossible for the average audiophile -- apparently, even some reviewers can’t do it -- a fact that has inspired the impulsive writing of many six-figure checks.
This article is intended to help you understand the difference between high-performance and luxury audio gear; here are my definitions of those terms. High-performance audio is designed to reproduce a recording of an original musical event with as much fidelity -- i.e., faithfulness -- as possible to that original recorded signal. It’s engineered -- a key point -- to come as close as possible to reproducing the recorded signal perfectly in your room, so that you can hear a close facsimile of the original musical event, limited only by whatever shortcomings are contained on the recording itself.
Luxury audio might also be designed as high-performance -- though often the engineering is questionable -- but is primarily designed to appeal to super-rich buyers of expensive goods. It purports to be high-performance, but whatever such qualities it has take a back seat to more superficial qualities to justify its high price -- design flourishes that may seem amazing to those who are not discerning enough to see through them.
It is easy to confuse the two. In fact, often luxury audio components will appear to be the more serious products, at least to those who are convinced by superficial design features claimed to be included in the name of high fidelity but are in fact anything but. Humbler-looking but better-sounding, genuine high-performance products can be easily overlooked, their plain-Jane looks failing to attract buyer’s initial attention.
And some of the best high-performance audio products can look very humble indeed -- they don’t have to look fancy to sound good. But because looking fancy might help these products sell more units, savvy CEOs know that a model’s cosmetics budget must scale with its target retail price.
The questions I have are these:
How long can the ever-growing numbers of questionably performing luxury audio products be profitable endeavors in an industry that’s already feeling market pressures from other goods competing for the rich customer’s dollar? In short, will the high-end audio industry eventually collapse under the weight of more and more luxury audio, and dwindling numbers of rich, aging customers willing to buy it? When that happens, does it take down high-performance audio along with it? Is the Audiophile Apocalypse coming?
I haven’t heard the Wadax Atlantis Reference DAC, or Andrea Pivetta’s Opera Only 4000-pound power amplifier ($2,200,000), or Moon Audio’s Dark Star Opulence loudspeakers ($1,111,000/pair). They may be super products. But I don’t know if they’re any good. As a reviewer or a consumer, I’d want to know some things before I even set up an appointment to hear them: What engineering team is behind these products, and what do their credentials look like? Are there measurements available that support the notion that, at least on a computer screen, high fidelity to the source signal has been attained through technical superiority? Are there non-owners who have heard these products side by side with solid industry references that indicate that these products are superior? Can we see videos of the quality-control testing and construction processes of these products so that we can be assured that they’ve been manufactured under strict QC techniques, and are verified to be what they’re claimed to be?
Too often these days, I can find nothing of substance written about many luxury products. Instead, I find owners who write reviews of their own purchases and publish them on some audio forum. With none of the checks and balances practiced by responsible audio journalists and publications, such descriptions of such products seldom warrant the server space devoted to them. In fact, I often wonder, when I see such posts, whether there is an actual owner at all, or if we’re hearing from a company shill trying to drum up another sale or two -- of the total of five sales that will be made before the company goes under.
For me, the answer is easy: verified reviews of these products from real reviewers, accompanied by credible measurements of them. For that to happen, manufacturers need to submit review samples to publications like the SoundStage! family of websites or Stereophile. The companies can’t be afraid of comparisons to industry standards and a look under the hood. And the reviewer can’t have bought the product beforehand. (We have a policy at SoundStage!: Our guys can’t write reviews of products they’ve purchased. This is why I haven’t reviewed the Vimberg Tonda speakers I own.)
I don’t mind expensive products whose high prices are accompanied by high performance. I’d rather the two categories be high-performance, value-oriented audio and high-performance, luxury audio. Many currently available products fit these descriptions. They’re our only protection against the Audiophile Apocalypse that may be looming on the horizon.
. . . Jeff Fritz