Not long after I moved to New York City, in anticipation of some summer-holiday meal, I went out into the city searching for lambchops. The closest butcher shop I found, Harlem Shambles (thank you, Google Maps), was at roughly my latitude but across Morningside Park in a gentrified section of Harlem. I walked over and entered a large area occupied by a refrigerated glass case of the sort common in butcher shops. The case, though, was nearly emptyjust a few cuts of meat, filling perhaps 5% of the available space. Adding to the vibe of neglect was that none of the half-dozen or so skinny young men with spiffy hats and immaculate facial hair (no hairnets on the beards) were greeting customersor customer, since I was the only one. The natty men behind the counter were busy doing butcherly things. One, for example, was demonstrating to another the appropriate technique for scraping a side of beef fresh from the dry cooler.
Eventually, one natty man approached and asked me if he could be of service. I told him what I was looking for and learned that they did indeed have lambchopsthey just hadn’t made it out to the display case yet. (It was early afternoon.) I told him how many I wanted. I learned the price only when it was time to pay: $16.95/lb, not bad if they were boneless, but these were caveman-style chops with bone sticking out 8″ or so past the small morsel of meatmore bone than meat by far.
It was, I concluded, less a butcher shop than a butcher-shop playground, a place for these young men to amuse themselves, playing at being butchers, financed, perhaps, by parents or someone’s trust fund. (Q: How do you end up with a small fortune selling meat? A: Start with a large fortune.) The natty men had not yet caught on to the fact that a crucial skill in any tradepart of what it means to be a tradesmanis the ability to offer a modicum of value, by negotiating, buying well, working quickly and efficiently. Even if you’re selling premium goodsthis store had pretentions, though the lambchops weren’t that goodyou still must offer prices rendered as reasonable as possible by efficient professional practice, not inflated by unconcern or ineptitude. Such economy is an essential element of good craftsmanship. These men were not troubling themselves about that part of the business.
I have written before, more than once, about the issue of value in hi-fispecifically my opinion that value is a value, which is to say, it’s personal and different for each one of us. I do, however, have economic values of my own, even if I’m not inclined to impose them on others.
A boutique producer of hand-built, expensive equipment made one or a few at a time cannot be expected to realize the same economies of scale as a company that makes thousands of a thing on an assembly line (footnote 1). To make the effort worthwhile, the company that makes only a few of something must realize proportionately more profita higher markupthan a company that makes far more. The dealer-distribution model results in additional markup; it’s up to those dealers to prove their worth. It’s legitimate for companies to pursue wealthy customers with products priced at levels only the wealthy can affordhere’s hoping, though, that the company’s investment in making high-dollar products yields technologies that trickle down to products at prices more of us can afford.
But every professional in any field should practice good craftsmanship. Playing at the higher end of the marketof the price scaledoes not excuse sloppiness, wastefulness, or disregard for value. Even at companies that offer luxury-priced equipmentI’m tempted to write especially at such companiesprice discipline must prevail. If a manufacturer sells an amplifier for $50,000, it’s imperativea matter of principleto ensure that it’s worth $50,000, not just because it sounds good in someone’s opinion but because the company has exercised economic discipline in making it and knows its real worth. Disregard for value is bad craftsmanship, simple as that.
One reason some audiophiles resent stratospheric pricing (beyond the fact that it prices products out of their reach) is a sense that the market those companies are selling tothe luxury-goods marketis less discerning about what matters most to us: the best possible sound. If that’s true, companies selling to that market might well be motivated to prioritize other values, a waste of talent and resources.
Many audiophiles appreciate fine mechanical watches, but a digital Timex keeps better time than a Rolex or Patek Philippe. “Best possible sound” is the hi-fi equivalent of “keeps the best possible time.” Any company that prioritizes luxury over hi-fi objectives is no longer playing our game.
Fortunately, of the high-end brands I’ve sampled, I’ve encountered few that have sold out hi-fi goals for luxury and none that are dressing up mediocre hi-fi in fancy jewelry. Rather, the companies I know are taking advantage of freedom from cost constraints to more fully achieve hi-fi goals.
If there’s a brand more closely associated with luxury than Bugatti, maker of $4 million cars, I don’t know what it is. At High-End Munich, I was one of only a few reviewers to audition Tidal’s new Bugatti system, which includes a compact (but luxurious looking) streaming integrated amplifier and two large, heavy loudspeakers that resemble nothing so much as the rear fenders of a Chiron. And cables, probably; I assume cables are included in the price.
This is undeniably a luxury product. Even the screws are custom, with a Bugatti emblem carved into the head of each one, matching screwdriver supplied. It was impossible not to admire the attention to detail, the fit and finish.
The sound? Fast. Beyond full range. Timbrally consistent across frequency bands. Detailed but not bright. Above all, dynamic. Not lush or forgiving, as you might expect in a luxury system; indeed, I heard no ingratiating qualities. Perhaps I’ve grown inured to crazy high-end prices, but considering what was on offer, the 405,000 asking price for the system seemed more than reasonable. But if you want one, get in line.
All hi-fi manufacturers should practice good craftsmanship, which includes economic discipline. That plus our shared objectivepursuit of the best possible soundare key prerequisites for belonging in this world, that of perfectionist audio.
Footnote 1: See John Atkinson’s As We See It on a similar topic here.
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