Is the Editorial page the right place for a moderately intemperate response to a small sub-segment of our readership? I hope so.
For as long as I can remember as a reader of and writer for The Absolute Sound, a favorite Letter to the Editor topic has been what's perceived by more than a few as the unconscionable pricing of some audio gear. There always seems to be someone canceling his subscription, characterizing his fellow audiophiles as "rich idiots," or calling manufacturers greedy charlatans with the magazine their willing accomplice. The level of ire and outrage has only increased with the capacity for readers to comment online about equipment reviews. These missives tend to be more heavily dosed with self-righteous invective: Without much deliberation, you just sit down at the computer, erupt, and press "post comment" or "send."
Issue 256 arrived in mid-September, sporting a letter complaining about the cost of the gear (allegedly) covered at the most recent AXPONA show in Chicago – cogently defended by Robert Harley, Jonathan Valin, and Julie Mullins. In that same issue was a "Focus on Upper-End Loudspeakers." Other than the Harbeth SuperHL5plus, which runs $6890, the Crystal Cable Arabesque Minissimo that I reviewed, at $12,995 a pair, was the least expensive product considered– which undoubtedly further stirred the pot. Around the same time, Robert's Golden Ear description of the Magico Q7 Mk II, originally published in Issue 255, appeared online. Indignant commentary followed in short order, with correspondents insisting that "our two-channel hobby is dying chiefly due to the ridiculous pricing [manufacturers] are dreaming up" and that "high-end audio isn't fun anymore." Another maintained: "TAS exists primarily as an advertising/promoter venue [for products like the Q7s] – something to keep in mind when reading…what passes for reviews."
There are two aspects of these familiar tropes that disturb me. The first is that there's never any evidence offered, other than the very fact that expensive gear is covered, for the frankly insulting allegation of journalistic dishonesty. Reviewers usually send the pricey stuff back to the manufacturers after a few months – we can't afford it, even at an accommodation price. It is fun to try out the most ambitious products of talented designers in our usual listening environment, but it's also often hard work to extract the best performance from the most technologically advanced designs. And when we do decide to purchase a review sample, discounted or not, I assure you we have the same negotiations with our significant other and undertake the same scrutiny of our financial capabilities and priorities that most of you do.
A second point is more important. And that is that Robert and Jonathan don't need Magicos to enjoy music at home, just as Jacob Heilbrunn and I don't need Wilsons to achieve that end. Being an audiophile, I certainly don't subscribe to the "you can get musical pleasure from a clock radio" school – there is a quality threshold when it comes to a component providing a satisfying musical experience – but we need to learn about the best of the best to know what's possible. What's accomplished with these heroic designs affects us all as listeners. Have the readers deploring the price of Wilsons or Magicos ever been to Provo or Hayward to see what goes into making these loudspeakers? I doubt it.
My own history at TAS is unique in that, for most of my 20 years at the magazine, I wrote exclusively about music, musicians, engineers, and producers. Only recently, with great pleasure and some trepidation, have I moved into the humbling undertaking of assessing equipment as well. But never during those two decades did I think of myself as pursuing goals that were any different than our finest hardware reviewers, including the late, great Harry Pearson, who never considered price to be any sort of indicator of the worth of an audio component.
Believe me, there's nothing that pleases a TAS reviewer more than finding affordable gear to gush over, and all of us – Robert and Jonathan included – have done so. But if the performance of a $5000 speaker comes within 10 percent of that of a $50,000 model, you still need to hear about the pricey one. The edge of the art is always moving away from what's accessible to most of us; it better be, or we won't benefit from innovation. You don't need to buy XLFs or Q7s or Raidho D-5s to be a discriminating audiophile, a full-fledged member of the fraternity. I'd argue that you don't even need to hear them. You just need to hear about them.