The Occupy Audio Movement

High-end isn't about cost. It's about performance.


One of the most fascinating industry events I attend is the annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, held outside Denver in October. This isn’t like the standard industry conventions technology writers regularly frequent. There are no massive booths, crowded press conferences, or trained product specialists who recite practiced bullet points and specs.

RMAF is both more relaxed and more obsessive than that. Held at a hotel, attendees roam from room to room where the beds have been shoved out of the way and replaced by speakers, amps, processors, turntables and chairs set up for the listening audience. Sometimes there’s a small table with product literature, though often you need to ask for it. While the hardware is technically what’s on display, most discussions are about the content—the music being spun off records, CDs or *gasp* hard drives.

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Also, the attendees are not typically electronics industry people (though audio engineers, product designers and musicians will stalk darker corners of the hallways). Instead you get people. Just people who like music and want to hear it on the best delivery systems they can find and afford. Of course “afford” is a key word here, because audio system exceeding $50,000 are not unusual at events like this. However, this year I noticed an interesting trend—high-performance gear is getting cheaper.

Well, maybe it’s not getting cheaper, but less-expensive products are getting better represented (and better accepted) by the audiophile community. I heard more sub-$5,000 systems that sounded fantastic than I have in the last few audiophile shows I’ve attended. In the suites for Polk, Monitor Audio, Emotiva, Aperion and SVS, to name a few, very reasonably priced systems (maybe nice speaker pairs were priced under $2,000) were getting head nods and looks of approval from discriminating attendees who had just heard similar tracks played on lofty Wilson or MBL systems in other suites.

Speaking of affordable—a few weeks before RMAF I heard the SP-FS52 speakers by Pioneer. These speakers, designed by Andrew Jones (who’s a bit of a legend in audio circles), showed detail and depth that made me do a double take when I heard the $260 price tag for the pair. Jones stood beaming nearby, apparently quite proud of similar reactions he’d been receiving all day.

Why am I telling you all this? For years high-performance audio has been looked at as something just for the wealthy or those who didn’t mind sacrificing things like food or mortgage payments for great speakers. We expect TVs to get cheaper every year, but so-called “high-performance” audio systems have retained their luxury mystique. And in many cases there’s still a reason for it, but efficiencies in manufacturing and distribution are making better-performing gear available at prices more people can afford. Yes, you can do much better than a speaker dock and not miss any meals. “The vital thing is the music. A system is good if you connect with it, and you can sit down and listen and listen and you forget it’s there. You don’t have to spend a fortune to get that,” said Mike Picanza of British speaker company PMC, as I listened to the sweet-sounding twenty.21 bookshelf speakers ($2,600/pr).

One thing hasn’t changed though. Over and over again I head manufacturers tell me that finding a good dealer is more important than looking for particular brands. Greg Beron, owner of United Home Audio in Washington, D.C., put it best: “A good dealer will work with you, learn what you like and help you select the products you need rather than push things on you.”


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