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With my dad a professional soldier in the German navy prior to his retirement, my blue-collar upbringing reflects how I view very pricey hifi. Thus I mostly shun it. Of course all is relative. A blue-collar worker today would have to ridicule my investment in this hobby. That said I'd always wondered about Jeff Fritz and the UltraAudio website he mans. Since ultra-expensive gear does make up a fair share of the high end, dedicating a publication to this sector of the market made perfect sense as long as there's enough to go around to keep one busy. I was simply curious how long he could plow these fields without exhaustion or eventual disillusionment. This month's editorial entitled Why most ultra audio gear no longer excites me suggests that his time has come. Check it out.
In a parallel universe one URL over, SoundStage! UK contributor Ken Kessler professed to similar weakness this month. Headlined as Luxo Kit to Bargain Hi-Fi, the veteran audio writer who nowadays gets more excited about watches and cameras acknowledges brilliant life forms at the shallow end of the audio pool.
In either case we have two high-profile writers with decades of experience in the trenches. They've long ago worked their way up the audiophile food chain to cost-no-object goods. Now they openly acknowledge an important fact. The most interesting action these days is in the affordable sector. Here manufacturers were always forced to get more creative. Current economics simply apply more pressure still to separate yourself from out of the pack and lead the glut with demonstrable performance advances.
The amount of engineering KEF's LS50 packs for $1.500/pr is a perfect example that was rightly singled out by Jeff. The ongoing influx of budget DACs taking sonic chunks out of far pricier decks just a few years old is another. Or as Jeff admitted whilst simultaneously reminding us how relative all of it remains, "...I know what you’re thinking: This from the guy who put The World’s Best Audio System events together? Yeah, I know. I must sound hypocritical here. But I think my current attitude has been at least partially forged by my experience with those events and their aftermath. For instance the Gryphon Mephisto stereo amplifier ($57.000) is the best match I’ve heard for Magico’s awesome Q7 speakers ($185.000/pair). While reviewing the Gryphon—with the Magicos and a source comprising my MacBook computer and a Calyx Femto DAC ($6850)—I got better sound in my room than from the megabuck gear at TWBAS 2012. The Mephisto costs two-thirds less than Vitus Audio’s flagship MP-M201 monoblocks ($160.000/pair) which were part of TWBAS."
To get us back into less rarefied realms, here's how another industry insider put it to me just the other day:
"I received the $549 AMI Musik DDH-1 you reviewed this morning. I am running it with a Squeeze-Upgrade power supply. Out of the box the sound is big and sadly better than my Northstar Design Dac 32 DAC." Cheers!
Finding the right balance of coverage—between the exotic reaching-for-the-stars gear and everyman kit—is a struggle all publishers in hifi face when deciding just what to accept and go after for reviews. Unless it was nothing but fashionable lip service to momentarily appease the bluer collars, it's good to see Fritz and Kessler reset their sights. Just because Jeff's magazine remains focused on the higher of the high end or else he'd have to rename the mag, being told that a $57.000 stereo amp sounded better than $160.000 monos is still relevant to those who shop there. And in the end relevance is what separates the good useful publications from those which aren't...