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Of HiFi, Watches, and Do-It-Yourself Craziness

03-22-2014 | By Roger Skoff | Issue 72

Roger Skoff looks at whether saving money is always worth doing!

"Breathes there a man with soul so dead, Who never to himself hath said" (from HERE) "They want HOW much? For that? No way! I could build one for myself a lot cheaper – maybe even better, too!" 

Do-it-yourself has been a part of HiFi as long as there's been HiFi! In the beginning, in the early post WWII years, do-it-yourself was often the only way to enjoy higher quality music reproduction, and even after pioneers like Avery Fisher and Herman Hosmer (Now you know why he used his initials!) Scott invented the term "High Fidelity" and started making higher quality sound equipment available to the consumer market, the do-it-yourselfers continued strong and have remained an active, and even growing, audiophile community even to this day.

In the beginning, one reason to do it yourself was simply that much of what an audiophile might have wanted was available in no other way—it was build it yourself or forget it. Over time, though, that has changed radically: Nowadays, practically anything can be found if you're willing to do the search or pay the price, and do-it-yourself ("DIY") has split into at least three major groups: Those who build stuff ("build" in every case meaning all or any part of the whole spectrum of conceiving, designing and actually constructing a piece of gear) simply because they like building stuff; those who build stuff either because everybody else is doing it "wrong" or nobody else is doing it "right", and those who build stuff because, the stuff that's available for sale is altogether too #%@*! expensive!

Of those three groups, the most common seems to be the last. When there are products like the "25thAnniversary Edition" Goldmund Apologue speaker system, at a cool half million [US $500,000] and US $50,000 speaker cables to hook them up with, it's not surprising that one question that seems immediately to pop into the mind of a great many people is: "How can they possibly charge (that much) for that product, when there's no way in the world that it could ever cost them any more than (this much) to build?", followed, inevitably, by something like: "What a rip-off! I could build that exact same thing for myself for a whole lot less money!"

You know what? Maybe some of those people actually could do it. Maybe you could, too; but do you know how? Do you have the parts and the tools and the skills and the knowledge to do it? If not, how long would it take you and how much would it cost you to get them? Could you even get them at all? And even if you could, would you be any better off doing it yourself than just paying the money and buying whatever it is for whatever it costs?

Back in 1972, when Audemars Piguet came out with their, now famous, "Royal Oak" watch (You know, the one with the exposed hexagonal screw- heads on its octagonal case) the US prices were (as I recall) $1995 in stainless steel, with a matching stainless steel bracelet (much more than for a Rolex of the same era) or $5800 for the same thing in 18K gold. My response was that I loved the looks of it, but that stainless steel was not cool and that, at nearly Six Grand, the gold version was almost half again the price of the average car, and altogether too much money.

So what to do? In true HiFi Crazy form, I hatched a plan: I would buy the stainless steel version of the Royal Oak and throw away the case and bracelet, keeping only the genuine Audemars Piguet movement ($1995). Then I would buy a half pound of 24K gold (8 ounces at the peak 1972 market price for gold would have cost me $536.24 ($67.03 per ounce X 8 ounces = $536.24). If I had then hired a local jeweler or artisan to fashion me a custom case and bracelet out of my gold and paid him $1500 plus a tip of whatever gold might be left over for doing it, I would have wound up with a one-of-a-kind PURE (instead of just 18K) solid gold genuine Audemars Piguet Royal Oak watch and still had $1768.76 left in my pocket ($1995 + $536.24 + $1500 = $4031.24, $5800 -$4031.24 = $1768.76) to spend on wine, women, and song.

I never got around to actually doing it, but if I had, would I have been better off? Frankly, I don't know. I certainly would have saved some money, and I certainly would have had a unique watch, but how would it compare in value to a "real" Royal Oak of comparable vintage on the current market? I would guess not as well, just as I would guess that an owner-customized vintage or classic car might be worth less to collectors than one that had been built to a customer's order by the factory.

The fact of it is that even if what you build for yourself is better than that other item that you didn't buy because you thought it was overpriced, unless you are as famous or as well-regarded among your fellow HiFi Crazies as the manufacturer of that other thing, you should probably plan on just enjoying what you've built in your own System forever, because it's unlikely ever to be worth as much as a brand-name product on the second-hand market.

One of the reasons that companies are able to charge as much as they do for their products is precisely the fact that they a have a recognizable brand name and that brand name, just in itself, tells or implies a great deal about both the product and the person who buys or owns it. 

In the case of Audemars Piguet, that brand-name has been around since 1875; Goldmund was founded in 1978, and just the fact of the companies' longevity is proof to many people of the excellence of their products and of their continuing value—even to a second or third owner. How much "brand equity" can you claim for the things you've built yourself?

I remember a perfectly ordinary Mini-Cooper selling used for many times the price of a new one, but that was not because of the car, but because it had been owned by Steve McQueen. If you're not Steve McQueen; not a recognized HiFi designer; and not planning on keeping the stuff you build, maybe you'd be better off (just as I might have been with my half-pound solid gold Audemars Piguet watch) just paying the money and buying the real thing.