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Positive Feedback ISSUE 3
october/november 2002


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Auroville, 6
by Srajan Ebaen

A high-society dame’s in distress. Her hair’s a mess, a major public function is afoot. She calls on her trusted hairdresser-to-the-famous. He promptly appears at her hilltop manse a half hour later. He courteously listens to her high-strung grievance. He silently acknowledges the state of her hair with one professional glance. He bids her relax and sit down. Then he pulls out his silver-plated comb. He expertly and rapidly fixes the wayward locks, then ties the proverbial knot with a violet ribbon. It finishes off his impromptu masterwork like a cherry crowns a mound of whipped cream. The lady and present onlookers break into applause. She looks splendid. Absolutely perfect. She turns to her hairdresser with an appreciative smile and sincere blush. "How much do I owe you, dahling?"

"$120," replies the expert.

"$120? For three minutes and one dainty ribbon?" The dame’s in shock and visibly appalled.

"Would you rather I took an hour of your already pressed-for-time afternoon, Madame? Surely not," replies the expert, suave and unruffled. Then he adds: "And you’re wrong. The ribbon’s free. You’ll pay me because I knew how to tie it."

That, my friends, is the coup de grace, the one that kills all arguments about outrageous pricing in high end audio as swiftly as a seasoned fisherman guts his catch.

But let’s backtrack to gain perspective. Take the subject of cables. One company sells a one-meter interconnect cable for $2000. Its conductors are plated with 24-carat gold. Its construction is forebodingly complex. Only one firm specializing in medical and military custom wiring could build it. It requires fabricating custom extensions of esoteric machinery to make. Proprietary and patented conductor geometry measurably bears out the claims affixed to this wire. The cable is obviously expensive, and looks it, too. You may not be able to afford it. Still, you can appreciate fair pricing when it stares you in the eye. You know what went into it, in materials, documented R&D, engineering, and fabrication machinery. Of course, unless it performs, all is for naught, but you intrinsically don’t have a problem with this cable.

Now take a different one. It’s from a small, niche maker. His one-meter interconnect cable demands $10,000. Gasp! As much as your prized tube monoblocks. More than your CD player, preamp, and sundry accessories together. What’s in it, for Criminy’s sake? You aren’t sure. You reason stoutly. Whatever’s in it couldn’t possibly come close to its asking price. This is highway robbery of the most blatant sort. You’re stalled at 2 o’clock in the morning on some forgotten desert highway, with only a lone cowboy and his tow truck to rescue you. Wanna sleep in the car? Wanna get towed? Your choice, mista. Where’s your gun? Then you remember you don’t have one. A gun, that is. But you have a system. What the hell, let’s put this cable in.

You do. The first track cues up. The laser drops. Your heart stops. Mighty Klingons. This goes so far beyond what mere cable should do that... that what? You’re not sure. You pinch yourself. Are you hallucinating? No. You’re bleeding. A sleepless night follows. Records spin until dawn. Then you bring over friends. They hear it too–a wholesale transformation. What did you do, they want to know? Nothing you’ve done before has ever amounted to such a quantum leap. You wistfully glance at your amps. 160 pounds each. Lots of parts. Transformers with persnickety, secret windings. Exotic premium caps. Gleaming chrome. Automotive lacquer. NOS tubes from Siberia, the ones with the rare blue Husky label and air bubbles in the glass. A lot of "stuff" for your money. It makes you feel good. You look back at the cable. This just shouldn’t be. It’s bloody wire, after all. But there it is. That masterfully applied violet ribbon. Perfection. Magic. The crowning touch of glory, seemingly so lightweight, so simple, so innocuous, daring you to mock its weightiness. That performance is clearly worth whatever money is asked. It’s not even an issue. Your heart’s in complete agreement. Right?

You glance in the mirror. That silly smile between your ears. Damn. All that applause. So what’s eating ya? What are you silently complaining about? Are you vexed? As vexed as Commodus, whose sister wouldn’t sleep with him? I know exactly what’s troubling you, friend. You’re trying to build a bridge from the first cable to the second. Good luck. You can’t. They exist on two different planes of existence. Here’s why. The first company operates as a business. It sells to the masses, through a nationwide dealer network. It caters to folks who view acquisitions like appliances. Like a washing machine, you purchase the features you need, from a company known for reliability and a good warranty. You want performance, sure. But–admit it or not–there’s also something a bit pedestrian about the experience. Something calculated, something that haggles, diminishes, pulls it down into the realm of the bazaar.

Now take the second firm. It’s less a company and more an artist’s loft. The resident maestro–self-styled or acknowledged, it doesn’t matter as long as his art speaks to you—caters to the few, the rare few for whom acquisitions are like gathering pieces of their soul. He provides unique, one-of-a-kind objects that fulfill a creative and emotional need, perhaps—let’s be skeptical students of human nature, shall we?–a need to feel exclusive and special, for owning something that only the elect few can afford.

If you’ve ever tried to sell a piece of art post-coitus—ahem, acquisition—you’ll know the chasm between the bill of goods (say the raw metal value in a gold ring, or the price of the canvas and oil of a painting), what you paid in the boutique, and what you’ll get if you sell it. These truly are two different concepts. They have little common ground, save that you may, at times, encounter a seemingly overpriced piece of art that so gets under your skin that the money issue seems like a leftover, hoi polloi reflex.

In audio terms, such a nearly compulsive reaction would, of course, be prompted by performance so stunning, so unreplicable by other means, that you feel forced to consider the making of something as mundane as a piece of interconnect cable to be within the domain of Art. As we’ve established in Art, price is not a fixed or limited object. It is fixed merely by desire, limited only by the imagination. The relative rarity with which an artist’s unique vision might appeal to prospective buyers means he must charge a lot for the occasional sales, whereas his commodity broker neighbor burns through volumes at discounted prices. Both make happy customers. Neither earns a living in conflict with ethics or common sense. Nobody is forced to buy anything. We don’t make acquisitions at gunpoint. The trouble with calling one a con man, the other a Robin Hood comes from comparing what, truly, cannot be compared.

You may disagree, of course. But apply this principle of Art, which relied on the generosity of the courts in much of the era that birthed what is now referred to as Classical music, and certain makers of steeply exclusive high end audio goods are nothing more–or less–than throwbacks to a time when a pauper artist could live like a king, in the king’s quarters, for the mere grace of his presence and an occasional harpsichord prelude. Should you be one of those who happen to achieve multiple orgasms while listening to harpsichord music, especially when it is dedicated to you, why begrudge the giver of such pleasures his or her extravagant livelihood?

This is just something to think about the next time you come across a truly outrageously priced audio something that does things it rightfully shouldn’t. Is it a priceless piece of Art or a mere commodity? Understand that this brief essay is merely arguing this conundrum one way. There are others equally valid. Why I’ve chosen this particular one shall become clear in the not-too-distant future.