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The Absolute Sound
February 2009

A High-End Audio Taxonomy

  We often talk about the "high-end-audio industry" as though it were a monolithic entity whose component companies share the same motives, perspectives, values, and business models. In fact, the companies making up the industry are wildly divergent. Nonetheless, we can broadly group them in several categories.


The Yearning Amateur
This is the guy who spends his evenings and weekends in a basement lab refining a single design with the hopes of becoming The Next Big Thing. He sells a few products to his friends, but dreams of taking his product to the Consumer Electronics Show, getting a review in TAS, and becoming part of the high-end establishment. Most high-end companies started this way, but the ones that didn't make it far outnumber those who did.


The Lone Genius
The Lone Genius is a designer with brilliant solutions to technical problems but limited means of manufacturing or marketing. He sells just enough of his cosmetically crude hand-made gear through word-of-mouth to keep afloat. But he doesn't really care about making and selling products; once he's solved an engineering problem he's ready to move on to the next challenge.


The Small Craft Shop
Many high-end companies fit this category a five-to-fifteen person firm that builds a limited line of often high-quality products that are hand-made in small numbers. The proprietor of The Small Craft Shop might or might not hope to grow into something bigger, but making the leap into larger-scale manufacturing could destroy the special qualities that have made the company successful.


The Founder-Led Establishment
We all know the names of the founders of these companies Thiel, Wilson, Vandersteen, for example who have successfully made the transition from Yearning Amateur through Small Craft Shop to The Establishment of high-end audio. Their stories have inspired countless Yearning Amateurs over the decades. The companies are relatively large, profitable, and stable, with larger-scale manufacturing, a loyal dealer network, and the benefit of a household name.


The Broad-Market Pursuer
This category of company attempts to combine high-end values with mass manufacturing to serve the broader market beyond high-end audiophiles. Sometimes this approach results in a dilution of high-end ideals, but in other cases the Broad-Market Pursuer's economy-of-scale manufacturing allows the company to deliver astonishing value. High-end design combined with efficient manufacturing equals good sound at a low price, unless the company begins to sacrifice performance for profitability.


The Corporate Overlords
Once Yearning Amateurs, Small Craft Shops, the Founder-Led Establishment, or even Broad-Market Pursuers, these are companies that have become a "business unit" of a multinational conglomerate. In some cases, the corporate overlords recognize their brand value and allow the company to pursue its traditional high-end ideals. In other cases, the subject company is forced to trade on its established name and peddle mediocre products.


The Luxury Goods Purveyor
This type of company sees itself as catering to the rich rather than to the music lover clients for whom an extravagant price is a virtue in itself. Some Luxury Goods companies manufacture outstanding-sounding products for those who want and can afford great sound coupled with lavish build and cosmetics; others make pure bling for the status-conscious.


The Over-the-Top Perfectionist
This rare company pursues the state of the art in music reproduction, and wouldn't consider producing anything less than its very best effort. Every new design is an all-out assault on previous standards, with no regard to cost or large-scale manufacture. Anything less than the state of the art is simply of no interest.


I'm sure all of you have thought of a few companies that fit each of these categories. I invite you to share your selections on the Forum at theabsolutesound.com. The thread is called "High-End Audio Taxonomy" under "The Absolute Sound" category.







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