Last September, Futureaudiophile.com featured an article by writer Steven Stone titled “Oligarch Audio Is Not the Same as High-Performance Audio.” Stone opens his article with a humble disclaimer, noting that although the term “oligarch audio” has been ascribed to him by his publisher, he takes no credit for it. This term, insofar as I can find, first appeared as a title of an article Stone wrote for Audiophilereview.com in 2014, so he may well have coined it.
The gist of Stone’s September 2023 article is summed up in its title. The cost of oligarch audio, which Stone defines in his article as “audiophile gear that is priced so stratospherically high that only the absurdly rich could possibly afford it,” does not necessarily reflect its sonic performance.
Stone sets the threshold for any one component to enter the oligarch-audio category somewhat arbitrarily at $100,000. Although I agree with much of what Stone writes, I depart from his view on the overall worthiness of high-priced audio components, which seems quite disdainful, even dismissive.
Stone recounts being sent a $40,000 DAC for a review but deciding to return it after he failed to see how reviewing such a thing would serve “any useful purpose”: if that DAC didn’t better his own, much cheaper, reference DACs, the review would amount to a pan, he felt; and if it did, well, that would be a matter of course—“for that kind of money it had better be better.”
To my mind, the hitch was not the extraordinary price but rather the inability to frame the review in the right context. In a system with components of comparable caliber and with a proper perspective derived from experience with other components covering a wide price range, a thorough review of an “oligarch audio component” could be of much practical utility to some and of great interest to many.
Stone’s article assails the disparity in some audio components between value and price but neglects to take into consideration that perceived value encompasses more than just performance. To many prospective buyers, build quality and styling, for instance, are important aspects of a product’s inherent value. Buyers will often choose a pricier but better-built and better-looking component over a cheaper one even when on par in sonic performance. These, to me, are perfectly legitimate considerations.
A Vitus Audio component under construction
What I found most objectionable in Stone’s article, however, is that it seems to call into question whether expensive components should even exist. He writes that ultra-expensive components have “no final purpose other than furthering the owner’s elite status.” The very title, in dissociating price from performance, implies that performance is not part of oligarch audio’s appeal. But high price and high performance are not by necessity mutually exclusive: the price-appeal of oligarch audio does not necessarily exclude commensurate performance. A better title might have been “Oligarch Audio Is Not Necessarily the Same as High-Performance Audio.” Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.
To drive his point home, Stone cites a quote (likely apocryphal) attributed to Mark Twain, "The rich buy expensive things because they can.” He also references a book by W. David Marx, Status and Culture, which I also read and found to be eye-opening. In it, Marx lays out a compelling case for why status drives most of our purchasing decisions. I encourage you to read this book. It will leave you looking differently at luxury goods.
Stone seems to consider all exorbitantly priced products as nothing more than a means by which the wealthy flaunt their economic status. Such products are often classified as Veblen goods, named after American economist Thorstein Veblen. A Veblen good, according to Wikipedia, is “a type of luxury good . . . for which the demand increases as the price increases, in apparent contradiction of the law of demand.” A prime example of Veblen goods are luxury designer purses: the higher the price of such a purse, the greater its perceived value is and thus its desirability. A rational judgment of quality, cost, and value is not part of the purchase decision.
I, too, take exception to goods whose value is rooted not in their utility, aesthetics, and quality but rather is derived from their price. And, yes, some hi-fi components are among such goods. In some cases, however, in the audio domain and in others, extreme prices are not set artificially: the use of significant amounts of exotic or other high-cost materials, manufacturing processes that are particularly time-consuming or that require specialized equipment or skills, a significant investment in research and development, and a limited production that cannot benefit from the economy of scale—all result in a higher cost of production, which must be factored into the retail price.
A pair of DALI Kore loudspeakers awaiting final testing
I saw clear evidence of this a few months ago while in Denmark, visiting Vitus Audio, DALI, and Lyngdorf Audio (home to Lyngdorf Audio–branded products, as well as the upscale Steinway Lyngdorf brand, a collaboration with the famous piano maker). While Lyngdorf Audio has not released any component to date that exceeded Stone’s $100,000 threshold, Vitus Audio, DALI, and Steinway Lyngdorf have. On my tour of their facilities, I found that the highest-priced products did in fact employ superior materials and high-quality parts, incorporate unique, sophisticated technologies, and take more time to make (which was immediately evident in their higher-quality finish) than their less-expensive offerings.
Most prospective buyers will still balk at the price of such premium components, merited as it may be. And although their performance may be better—at least as measured; I didn’t have the opportunity to listen to any—it is well beyond the point of diminishing returns and is unlikely to sway buyers to make such a purchase. Most can’t.
Steinway Lyngdorf Model D speakers and Head Unit Processor
In my book, an exceptionally high price is either justified or not, a distinction Stone doesn’t make in his article. If a component’s price reflects true worth—the cost of its manufacture and peripheral costs, the performance it promises, its expandability, upgradability, warranty, etc.—then it’s justified; if it reflects only a prevailing perceived worth, then it’s not. Of course, to different people, a perfectly justified price may or may not be worth paying. To an avowed audiophile, paying a large premium for a small improvement in sound may be worth it; to a more casual listener, it may not. At the oligarch-audio level, though, component prices, even when thought to be justified and worth paying, are prohibitive to all but the “absurdly rich,” as Stone puts it.
Steven Stone, as putative originator of the term oligarch audio, is entitled to define it as he sees fit, which he does: gear that is “more about status than sonics.” The term has quickly taken root, but different writers seem to have their own take on it. My own interpretation, let it be known, is that it’s not price per se that is the criterion for an oligarch-audio designation—it’s when the price doesn’t stand for value but rather is the value. If an ultra-expensive component or system is a realistic option for you, you mustn’t dismiss it outright—sometimes, underlying an extraordinary price is extraordinary performance. It would be a shame to dismiss some of these very expensive products before you look more deeply into them to determine exactly why they cost what they do.
. . . Doug Schneider