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We try to explain why the market for super expensive turntables exists.
Before this piece gets underway, let me take a moment to make a prediction relating to this piece about high end audio. In the comments below it- either here or on Facebook or Twitter, a comment will be written that states the whole industry is a scam and that product x (which the poster will coincidentally own) that costs $y offers performance that is "equal or superior to anything available from the high end." For a few people, the very existence of products that cost as much as a well specified car is an affront that they seem to take very personally.
First and foremost, the high end audio market exists because there is a commercial demand for it to exist. In a demand economy, manufacturers will seek to fill a demand however it manifests itself. The wider purpose of the high end is a slightly more nebulous as is defining what a high end product is. If your turntable cost you $200, a $2,000 model is going to seem like a pretty steep jump in pricing but there are a number of manufacturers who's ranges don't begin until some way after this. For the sake of brevity, I won't put a dollar price on what is definitely high end because the arguments contained in this piece apply proportionally almost regardless of the pricing you personally are applying to it.
High end audio equipment is designed to push through the law of diminishing returns. It accepts that after a given point in pricing, the costs of improving performance further will cost a considerably greater amount of money. This means that if we take something like Rega's reasonably new Planar 3 turntable which costs a whisker under $1,000 and that offers extremely high levels of performance, improving on it in a meaningful fashion, will cost a considerable amount. Rega's present flagship, the RP10 can be had in the same specification for $5,500 and it is materially and measurably better than the Planar 3 but not by anything like the five times that the pricing suggests 'ought' to be the case.
To make these incremental gains, high end turntables use technology and materials that are impractical or outright impossible to use at lower price points. Magnetic bearings, direct current motors, rigorous power supply arrangements and greater mass and isolation- including suspension- all serve to push performance beyond what can be achieved with simpler design practices. Using these technologies and materials ramps up the material cost, the build time and the complexity of the end product. In the case of concepts like magnetic bearings, these also have significant development costs associated with them as well.
The good news is that in doing the work for these high end products, manufacturers can sometimes bring this hard work down to lower price points. Pro-Ject, Rega, Clearaudio and Avid have all managed to bring technology originally developed for most expensive models to more accessible price points as well. While some aspects of high end audio can never be employed in more mainstream product, many features in both turntables and the rest of the audio chain first appeared in high end products. Stripped of the need to be immediately cost effective in the mass market, manufacturers can take the time to hone new design concepts.
Having marshaled this technology and engineering in one place, another crucial function of successful high end brands is to ensure that the resulting product is well built and reliable. Put simply, if you're forking out several thousand dollars for something, you want to know that it will last. In the specific case of vinyl replay, we all benefit from the fact that as a playback process, development has ended and that we don't risk a change to standards or media rendering our products obsolete as can be the case in other parts of consumer technology. As a result of this, it is an unspoken requirement of a high end audio product that provided it is looked after, it will last pretty much indefinitely.
This longevity is something that can be a bit of a mental stumbling block when looking at these expensive products. In a world where many items of consumer electronics we buy offer enormous capability at reasonable prices but have a defined lifespan of a few years, the existence of products that perform a single role but can do so for decades requires a different take on the constructs of value and cost effectiveness. Of course, I'm not so mad as to pretend that there aren't some rather expensive pieces of kit on the market that don't deliver on this promise of longevity but they are the exception rather than the rule- and the buyers of these products do not generally tolerate poor performance.
A final aspect of high end audio product is one that doesn't always come across in pictures and reviews. Like other luxury goods, high end audio products are designed to exude a quality and sense of integrity that persuades you to spend out on them. Some of this is a direct result of the playback engineering being used- arms that move with a smoothness and elegance down to the quality of bearings built into them being a good example- but other aspects are purely cosmetic. It is an inarguable aspect of these products that owners want to them to exude a level of quality and finish that is beyond more terrestrially priced models.
It is important to point out though that if you don't want visual ostentation, the market has you covered. Brands like SME will quite happily make you a turntable that is completely free of visual flourishes- absolutely everything on it is there for a reason- but that is still absolutely flawlessly assembled. Like watches, cars and clothes, high end audio breaks down into items with deliberate visual and styling details and other products that simply look like they do in order to best cover their internals. Of course, one design philosophy is to leave the workings on display which is an approach taken by quite a few brands.
Why high end audio products generate the apparent levels of antagonism they do for some people on the internet is a source of debate. Given that the choice of more sensibly priced models is wider than it has been for about 30 years, it can hardly be argued that they are damaging the rest of the market and, as previously noted, some of the features developed for high end models a few years ago have made their way into affordable turntables in recent years. If you think of a category of manufactured products, there will be a premium level of them and yet, few of them even seem to attract any attention outside of the people buying them.
It is unquestionably the case that some categories of high end audio have more than a suggestion of being unable to offer better performance than more sanely priced rivals but the final irony of this is that thanks to their largely mechanical design requirements, this is not generally applicable to analogue audio reproduction. The current revival in vinyl's fortunes should please all of us and the good news is that for very sensible outlays, you can achieve sparkling performance. For the smaller group of people that wish to take performance to a still higher level, there are choices available for them to do so. We should perhaps take some heart that for as long as there is a demand for such devices, the security of the format as a whole is helped and on a simpler level, we should appreciate that in a world of mass produced items, these thoroughly over engineered products exist at all. The audio world would certainly be duller without them.
Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.