What If Collecting Audiophile Gear Was Actually a Thing?August 12, 2019
“One of the biggest problems with the audiophile business is that it is a hobby of “or” not “and.” What I mean by that is that in other affluent hobbies, one collects and collects and collects until one runs out space or money (or both). Think about a watch collector: does he get rid of his starter Rolex to buy his first Patek Phillipe? Not a chance. He saves, scrimps, and borrows enough money to add another gem to his growing timepiece collection. The wine enthusiast is perhaps an even better example. For every gorgeous bottle of Super Tuscan that goes into the cellar to marinade for a decade or so, there are all of those bottles that go down the hatch when friends come over or on a random Tuesday night when you are feeling a little thirsty. There’s no resale value on an empty bottle of 1996 Sassacia, and as such, being a wine collector is a very consumable hobby that gets the enthusiast back into the store more often that in high end audio.
Building a high-performance audio system is rarely like the scenarios that I describe above. Yes, there is a journey from your starter system through mid-fi audio and into a place where the air is pretty rare and the dollars flow pretty freely. The problem is: the current audiophile culture promotes selling off components at each and every stop along the way. Audiogon.com loves this reality, as gear that holds its value over time can change hands over and over again while they make their ad fees and commissions on the sale. High-end audio manufacturers pretty much have turned a blind eye to the reality of the resale market, as it is something of a necessary evil. One might argue that the pressure is on the companies to make compelling, high-value new audiophile gear that grossly outperforms the gear of the past at a very fair price and the consumers will buy new. Then again, why am I shopping for used Mercedes GLE 350 for my wife when we’ve always been a buy-new or on an ongoing lease pattern with the Star and the Laurel? It is because with the amount that we drive (very little). a 25,000 mile, $30,000, one-owner, certified pre-owned car for us delivers nearly exactly the same experience as the $60,000 new car. For us, the value is better, and like most audiophiles, we aren’t in the game of hoarding used SUVs. At least not yet (we’ve got two of them now).
Terry London recently told me about a rare opportunity that came up for him: the chance to buy a vintage Threshold amp that he once owned. It was one of the last, biggest, and most fantastic designs of the legendary Nelson Pass before he left the company. One of our readers reached out to Mr. London and offered him access to his collection of classic Threshold products and Terry, who has the benefit of the room and some expendable budget, decided to take a trip down memory lane. This amp, which has been fully restored and buffed up for another 30 years of use, really lived up to the memory of its past performance. And that is saying something, as Terry has Nelson Pass’ latest XA60.8 amps, First Watt SIT II amps, and other gems from Nelson’s more recent past. The cost of the older amp wasn’t insignificant, but Terry suggested that if an amp like this was made today, it could easily cost $20,000 or more. That’s not chump change.
I asked Terry if it was a dangerous path to try to relive the past in your audiophile system, and he pretty much agreed. Not every component takes a quantum leap forward with each revision, but each update does have its advantages, even if the performance delta isn’t that high from Version 5 to Version 6. If you’re comparing Version 6 of a product with the original product, though, the delta in performance can be huge. We went on to discuss the idea of glorifying gear in your mind as sound (or tastes or smells) are hard to be anything but subjective within one’s memory. I can still vividly remember the joy that owning and buying games for my Intellivision game system brought me in my youth. It was unlike any material item that I own today (sorry, 911 Turbo). So, in the early days of eBay.com, I bought myself another Intellivision and each and every game (including the voice ones, which seemed so futuristic at the time) at a pretty hefty price. The box was huge when it arrived in my old office in Beverly Hills. I lugged the sucker home and couldn’t wait to plug it into my Faroudja LD-100 line-doubler linked to an older, Sony 7-inch CRT video projector. Games like Micro Surgeon seems so cool back in the day, but they proved to be about as lame as you could imagine years later. By no means am I the type of advanced gamer that say HomeTheaterReview.com Senior Editor Dennis Burger is. He never stopped playing the latest and greatest video games, whereas my gaming career peaked out at around EA Sports NHL ’94 (the best video game ever, if you ask me). Those more modern, 16 button controllers are just too complicated for me, but then again, entering a virtual patient’s ear and looking for maladies all over his or her body and treating them with aspirin and/or antibiotics didn’t really hold up in terms of a game plot years later.
Back during the absolutely needless format war between SACD and DVD-Audio, I argued that DVD-Video should have won out. A format war in consumer electronics is a rite of passage, and we got one that left us with both formats lying dead on the floor at the end. Imagine if DVD-Video won out over Compact Disc and your $13 for a silver disc got you stereo, plus surround sound and video extras? Not only would the music industry would have been able to stay more relevant longer, but the audiophile hobbyists would have been given a real world reason to buy more amps, more speakers, buy subwoofers, more cables–more everything. By definition, that outcome would have given audio enthusiasts a reason to collect more audio in their systems–not just swap one component out for another as many of us do today as we seek ultimate audio enlightenment from our audiophile rigs.
There are certain products that I would like to have bought along the way and kept. A Cello Audio Palette (analog EQ) would likely make me do something stupid financially as they are rarer than hen’s teeth these days. A Cello Duet 350 amp is also pretty cool bit of Tom Colangelo design, and Tom is no longer with us, nor is Cello. A Nakamichi Dragon tape deck would catch my attention, as it would many in Japan who enthusiastically collect Nak gear. I once bought and restored a 1964 McIntosh 25-watt tube amp thanks to Audio Classics in Vestal, New York. The amp, once refurbished, didn’t really tickle my fancy, but it sure made a collector happy in Japan who sniped it from Audiogon.com for full asking price, plus a hefty shipping fee. So, I guess there are places in the world where people collect audio more so than the North American market.
Will an Oppo UDP-205 audiophile universal Blu-ray disc player become collectable some day? It is possible, as there are billions of different kinds of silver discs and the Oppo plays nearly all of them and very well. And you are never going to be able to buy another one new. What if audiophile companies made limited edition runs of their components more often than they do now? What if Audio Research (just using them as an example) introduced a 50th Anniversary stereo preamp that you have to be invited to buy at a price that the company dictates, just as Ferrari does with the F60 “Enzo”? Do you think they would have trouble selling a healthy but limited batch of these deep-five-figure (and fictitious at this point) stereo preamps? Not a chance. They all would sell and fast. The value of said preamp would remain well over retail value if ARC didn’t come right out with another preamp that performed at the same level but with a different name. It speaks to human nature, as people want what they can’t have, yet audiophile companies take more of the Doritos model of “crunch all you want; we’ll make more,” which doesn’t help build as much value into the gear over time.
What audiophile gear would you collect if you had the opportunity, money, and space to invest? Are there any components that you’ve owned that have been so good that you just can’t justify getting rid of them no matter what? Let us know what products are on your list and how you collect audio in the comments below.”