Most measurements gain special significance when they become relative to another - miles per hour, acceleration to 60 in x-number of seconds. How about money? A dollar by its lonesome not only doesn't purchase a whole lot, it's also rather meaningless as an arbiter of value. In audio, tongue-in-cheek marketeers have long since discovered the pound-for-dollar recipe as a proposed indicator for amplifier value - the more weight your dollar purchases, the better. Bullocks for you if that kind of reasoning makes you happier parting with your dough. The watts-per-dollar brigade of micro-power aficionados would definitely suck like a Princess vac unless we came up with a more meaningful juxtaposition of dollars against... what, exactly?

Satisfaction would be the most meaningful value but that can't be measured by hard science. Or can it? How about hours of usage per dollar? That would be a valid tie-in with satisfaction since it's doubtful that you'd be running your audio rig very much if you didn't enjoy it. On the dollar/hours-usage meter, arguably no single appliance scores higher than a refrigerator. It runs 24/7 without anyone noticing. When it breaks, it requires immediate replacement. With that, audio simply cannot compete. Its daily hours of usage are restricted. When it breaks, it certainly doesn't require instant action to keep your functional life on track (although your emotional well-being might well sing a different tune).

The other most visible and vital American appliance is the automobile unless you work from home and live right next to a supermarket. Let's arbitrarily assign a 2hr/day value to your car and a running time of 10 years. That's 7,300 hours of usage. Let's further assume a new purchase price of $30,000 since we'll compare our figure against an audio system purchased at full retail rather than used. We arrive at a raw cost of $40/hr without accounting for maintenance, insurance, registration fees and gas. This already makes my point. If you use your audio system 2 hours each day for 10 years and nothing breaks to require fixing or replacement, you could justify a $30,000 system to reach the same satisfaction index of value. And because you don't have to sweat speeding tickets, tune-ups, gas bills, fender benders, insurance, new tires and clutches, a $30,000 audio system already trumps a $30,000 car by a large margin in this comparison.

Not everyone can or wants to afford a $30,000 car at full retail. In fact, I'd personally never purchase a new car since driving it the few yards off the lot already amounts to an instantaneous loss of $3,000 to $5,000. Get a 2-year lease return or low mileage rental car for 65 cents on the dollar instead and enjoy another year of full factory warranty. But never mind these details. To come to grips with how high of an expenditure on audio to count as real-world justifiable, it does seem useful to use this car comparison.

If you've got $10,000 in a used car and expect to drive it for 5 years at 2 hours a day, $10,000 for an audio/video system which you listen to/view 2 hours a day (and with every component enjoying a high likelihood of not wigging out on you over this 5-year stretch) doesn't seem at all out of place. If you're factoring in an audience bigger than one (highly likely with a home theater system), the value equation skyrockets and you could easily double the purchase price of your audio/video setup and still remain in lock step with your car.

For someone like me who works from home and listens to music all the time, there likely is no other purchase outside of a house and the olde ice box that hits the value meter as hard and pounding as my audio rig. So next time you're under assault for frivolous audio-foolish spending, apply this hours/usage recipe to your personal situation. See whether your critic has the scoring point or whether you're in fact underspending. Many other hobbies such as skiing, scuba diving and motorcycling clock in at significantly lower values. Most people who love to ski probably can't do it for more than 2 weeks per year at perhaps 6 hours a day to rack up a mere 84 annual usage hours. If you now factor in lift tickets, airline tix, accommodation fees and however the skis, boots and suit amortize over the years, it could seem far more extravagant than a seemingly posh audio rig. By comparison, a smartly put-together audio system -- say something like an Arcam CDP, an Audio Zone Amp-1 integrated and a pair of Gallo Ref3s with bass amp for less than $7,500 including cables -- is a screaming bargain if you actually listen to it on a regular basis.

When you begin to reflect on this subject -- and despite the glossy mags and expensive ads and sexy glam objects du jour with the predictable reactions from outsiders -- audio as a hobby is actually rather benign. That's true both fiscally and how it doesn't pose a risk to your personal health like cigarettes and alcohol and motorsports do. Neither is audio subject to the weather or freaky people outside of your own household. In the end and despite being a pretty weird bunch, audionuts are actually pretty harmless considering the many other options how one could spend time and money. With that out of the way, it's back to my $75,000 stereo rig while I wait for the next rain to wash my two $6,000/ea. used cars on the gravel outside. Rent isn't due for another 10 days. Boy, I feel so much better now. It's vitally important to have one's priorities in order - and a good reason for those priorities in the first place. On that subject, all I have to say is emotional/spiritual nourishment and the kind of satisfaction that precious little else outside of romantic love, meditation and good health provides. Audio is good for you. Should I talk to my health insurance company and get my rates adjusted for proper lifestyle? That reminds me - I don't have health insurance. Better not leave My Room at all then. Now I'm all set for all the justifications I can handle and come up with in one day...