Hedging Your Bets: Why High End Should Be About More Than High Prices

by Roy Gregory | February 19, 2016

lthough we audiophiles use the term high end to describe what it is we hold dear, it is remarkable to me how little energy we expend on establishing just what justifies our adoption of the term and what needs to be done to maintain its status.

In one sense, the simple answer is that we can claim high-end credentials because we are concerned with the highest possible levels of performance, irrespective of cost or practicality. However, the fact that this industry manufactures products that are in turn offered for sale significantly muddies the purity and conceptual simplicity of that proposition. Unfortunately -- and whether we like it or not -- as soon as products enter the equation, the notion of high-end identity becomes altogether more complex, embracing qualities that go far beyond performance. Perhaps the best example of this is high-end watches, where the most expensive and sought-after products struggle to maintain the timekeeping accuracy that comes as a given with the cheapest Swatch. Of course, the justification for the price of top-end watches lies in the materials, the complexity of their movements and luxury presentation and packaging, but also in such intangibles as style, kudos and associated notions of self-worth.

When it comes to audio equipment, for the most part we can leave the questions of style and fashion firmly to one side. But the issues of presentation, packaging and service are very real and extremely relevant, especially given the astonishing prices demanded for some of the equipment we offer. Let’s not forget that it’s not just a case of a single ruinously expensive component; you need a whole system of this stuff to make it work. When it comes to cost, the sky really is the limit -- just to play music. Factor that into the equation and one thing quickly becomes painfully apparent: increasingly, the only people who can afford our products are those who are already established buyers of other high-end consumables, meaning that our standards of presentation, service and support are going to have to match or better those they receive when shopping for other high-end wares.

Take a long, hard look at the audio industry as a whole and one thing is glaringly obvious: remarkably few of its members, be they manufacturers, journalists or dealers, are themselves high-end consumers. There’s no certification or professional standards, no accepted code of practice and no industry protection for consumers. It is very much a case of anything goes -- and it often does. For many of us, that’s part of the appeal, but it can also be frustrating, embarrassing and incomprehensible. What can you say about a $130,000 loudspeaker that gets shipped to the other side of the world and arrives with four of its five drivers non-functioning? What can you say about a company that then expects the customer to ship it back at his own expense for repair? Sadly, such tales are far from rare, and evidence that for all our claims regarding performance, all too often our supply chain and standards of packaging, service and support don’t match those of competing high-end industries.

We reviewers are beholden to our readers and the rest of the industry to discuss not just the performance but also those other aspects of the products that cross our paths, factors that add to longevity and serviceability and have a profound impact on maintaining their value. Sadly, such discussion is also a rarity. I spoke about "the package" in a recent review of the Vienna Acoustics Liszt loudspeakers -- all those aspects of the product from the carton to the manual, how easy it is to set up the product, how easy it is to actually realize its full performance. The Vandersteen Model Seven Mk II is another excellent example, as are Naim products, with their exceptional record for serviceability being reflected in secondhand values that stand well above the norm. All are points to be taken seriously in assessing a product’s value and its viability as a long-term investment.

When it comes to buying audio equipment, I’m always telling people that who you buy it from is more important than what you actually buy. It’s an adage that is most often applied to dealers, but it is actually just as relevant to manufacturers, especially as you approach the rarified atmosphere of the highest end. It’s all very well having the money to buy a pair of $130,000 loudspeakers, but will the person or company offering them for sale still be around in five year's time, when you need a replacement driver or want to sell them? Either way, if they’re not, then it’s you who will be picking up the tab.

On the other hand, if you buy a product from an established manufacturer that takes service and support, dealer training and their guarantee seriously, then not only will your product remain serviceable but its resale value will be preserved. Of course, maintaining that level of service and support also costs, meaning that products from companies that embrace that ethos can appear more expensive than the immediate competition. It also means that they are seldom discounted, but then sensible buyers should already treat extreme discounts as a very large, bright-red warning flag.

Jadis was one of the original high-end companies. I’ve owned a pair of their JA-30 monoblocks for nearly thirty years. A few months back I fired them up only to discover that one of them was generating no output. A quick trip to see my local service engineer confirmed my worst suspicion: the output transformer had failed. That evening, I sent an e-mail to the company, citing the serial number and inquiring as to the cost and availability of a replacement -- physically wincing as I hit the Send button. It was around 6:30 on a Friday night, so I figured I’d have at least a weekend of dreading the answer. Imagine my surprise when, within half an hour, I received a response, apologizing for the problem and asking for a photograph of the amplifier’s internals so that the company could be 100% certain of winding the correct replacement. When I sent that, along with another request for the estimated cost, the response that came back was, "You have a lifetime guarantee. The replacement will be fitted by our distributor and it will all be free of charge." The transformer duly arrived and was actually mounted by my own engineer (easier and local), although the distributor -- Absolute Sounds, the same distributor I bought the amps from all those years ago -- was only too happy to carry out the task. Instead, Absolute Sounds shipped the transformer to me, also without charge. Now that’s what I call service!

The moral of this story should be clear. There’s a real benefit to dealing with reputable, established manufacturers, distributors and dealers. You may pay more initially, but you will be protecting your investment, and this will pay off in the long run. The more cynical amongst you may well be thinking that I only received this treatment because I’m a reviewer, an industry insider, but that isn’t the case. Although I know the people at Absolute Sounds well, the entire transaction with Jadis occurred before the distributor was even involved, and I can assure you that the people at Jadis don’t know me from Adam -- and certainly not at short notice on a Friday night.

When it comes to high-end thinking and attitudes (as opposed to simply high-priced products), clearly there are some companies that really do get it. That’s something you should consider the next time you are making an audio-buying decision.

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