The first time I really noticed it was at T.H.E. Show Newport a few years ago, when I found that I was more impressed by the hundred dollar (or thereabouts, depending on where you buy them) speakers designed by Andrew Jones for Pioneer than I was by the big TAD (a division of Pioneer) speakers in the very next room that had also been designed by Andrew Jones and were priced to sell in the very high five figure range. And it wasn't just me; I brought any number of people to hear both rooms, and most of them agreed with me that in a goodly number of respects other than deep bass and sheer "scale" the little Pioneers were actually more musically satisfying than the big TADs! Andrew now designs the multi-award winning ELAC speakers, more on that later, and we know they sound great for very reasonable money.
Then, last year, I heard another David vs. Goliath triumph, although at a much higher price point: The ACA Seraphims the then-brand-new and mightily impressive product of a near-unknown company curled my toes sufficiently that I wrote that, at under ten thousand dollars, they were the best things that I had yet heard for less than forty thousand, and I ultimately gave them the highest compliment any of us can bestow by actually buying a pair.
That same sort of thing price point and performance being apparently unrelated happened to me again, a couple of times at this year's Newport Show, when the new ELAC "Debut" speakers (also by Andrew Jones) impressed me far more than other speakers far more expensive, and, in another adjoining-room comparison, I found Kevin Voecks' $2000 "Concerta2" floorstanders to knock my socks off, whereas the $50,000-plus JBLs next door were only wonderful.
It's not just speakers, either: At that same T.H.E. Show Newport event I also heard (and again bought) the triple driver 1More (brand) earbuds that, for just $100, offer performance surprisingly close to other headphones at as much as dozens of times their price (even including my Stax Lambda Pro electrostatics, which I regard to be among the very best audio transducers ever built, regardless of price or kind). It works for electronics, too, and for turntables and tonearms and for phono cartridges and for just about everything else in the whole audio field.
It's getting to where you can buy surprisingly good sound for surprisingly little money.
That poses an interesting question, though: Is it simply that, as most of us have long known, "diminishing returns to price point" applies particularly strongly to consumer audio goods, and at least after some certain level you always get proportionally less additional benefit for each additional dollar you spend? Or is there something really wonderful going on at the lower end of the pricing scale that's bringing us better stuff at better prices, and doing it at an accelerating rate?
As a former high-end audio manufacturer (XLO cables, which I sold in 2002, well more than a dozen years ago) I can truthfully tell you that it's always been possible, if you try hard and know what you're doing, to get far more performance (and even quality) from just a small investment of time, money, and resources than most people would ever think possible. One good example of that from years ago was the original Audio Alchemy brand CD player, which offered something approaching real high-end performance for just (if I remember correctly) $249. And even today, the new Audio Alchemy brand electronics, revitalized and designed by Peter Madnick (who also designs hugely expensive toys and goodies for Constellation), follow the original philosophy of "more-for-less", and offer performance far-beyond anything you'd expect at their (by modern standards) very modest pricing.
I can also tell you again as a former manufacturer that to get beyond the point of "surprisingly good" or even "excellent", and strive for "world class" performance or anything even close to it can get very difficult and very expensive very quickly, with the cost, even at the manufacturing level, always increasing much faster and much more obviously than the corresponding increase in sonic performance.
For one thing, high-end audio performance has always worked something like the "Inverse Square Law", only backwards, with every doubling of perceived performance costing (at least) four times as much as did performance at the starting level. And this has been complicated all along the line by the fact that what constitutes a genuine "doubling" has been and continues to be nearly impossible to define.
A shirt-pocket portable radio and the world's greatest high-end audio system playing the same song will always play exactly the same words, so where could there be a "doubling"? And any kind of even competent mid-fi system will allow you to hear the bass rhythm and to know if it's a man or a woman singing; what kind of an instrument is playing; and whether the performer is to the right, the left, or the center of the soundstage. So, again, where's the doubling? What about depth and imaging? Instead of doubling anything doing it better isn't the High-End feature of being able to produce believable soundstage depth and specific instrumental or artist location a whole different kind of information, instead of simply a doubling of some prior level of performance where it didn't exist at all?
Even if you could define a specific level of performance thus
and such range of frequency response,
The fact of it is that just about the only standard by which audio performance can reasonably be judged is by how much enjoyment it produces to its listener, and that's where the good news is. Whether it's because of breakthrough technologies, or new materials, or old materials or technologies getting relatively cheaper with the passage of time. It could be the result of the famous "trickle-down" effect, as patents expire and otherwise proprietary knowledge and technology becomes available to an ever broader base of manufacturers who, by their competition bring retail prices down, more real sonic progress seems to be happening at the lower and middle price points than at the very top. Certainly the ultra-expensive and the ultra-exotic still tend to forge the way, but considering the effects of inflation it's not nearly as proportionally expensive to get good sound today as it was to get the same quality of sound just a few years ago.
Good for us! All the more reason to buy a system, set it up, turn it on, sit back, and...
Enjoy the music!