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The Glory Days of Hi-Fi

You'll often hear audiophiles wax nostalgic about the glory days of hi-fi. There was the golden 50s when radio and tube amps ruled, the 70s when everybody had a "stack" of hifi in their rec room, the 80s when luxury Japanese and esoteric spread widely and the CD brought perfect sound to every home, car and portable system on the planet. But all these phases were unique for a particular new technology or an advancement in quality and often price was an afterthought. In fact, if you did the inflation math on most of that stuff, nobody would even consider buying them today.

Let's take a look at this ad from around 1970 proudly advertising a complete stereo for $299. Now, today as audiophiles we know that this thing is a piece of crap, but plug in $299 to the inflation calculator online and it turns out this state of the art system would cost $2000 today. A Denon DM41 mini system for $649-- 1/3 less money-- would handily destroy that Sears stereo.

The first CD player from Sony cost $730 in 1980. That would be $1937 today. Certainly you can get CD players for that much money today, but the comparable performance of that early CD player could be easily bettered from a $500 Marantz CD5005 CD player. That's 1/4 the price.

In 1975, the Dual 1249 turntable was one of the biggest selling tables of all time and it cost $280. With the magic of inflation, that table would cost $1350 today. Looking at it, it isn't hard to see how far we've come in that time. A Pro-Ject Debut Carbon at $649, less than half the price is easily twice as good. In fact, compared to just about any megabucks table from 1975, the Carbon is competitive. This is truly a spectacular value which can be had today.

Speakers are perhaps the biggest difference over the past 20-30 years. Take the original Proac Tablette which were universally acclaimed and in many ways started the trend towards mini monitors. In 1980 they cost $550. Calculate that out and it's $1700 today. By comparison, the same sized Castle Knight 1 will positively annihilate the original Tablette for $499 in today's money. That's 1/4 the cost for better performance.

What's the reason for all this sound quality improvement and cost reduction? Of course, technology does march forward. The tweeter in a Knight 1 couldn't be made at any price in 1980 so it's simply better in every way than what was possible before. This is partly due to scientific improvements, but it's not predominantly because of this. The general configuration of amps, speakers and even CD players pretty much plateaued in the late 90s and there haven't been any meaningful performance improvements since then.

The overwhelming difference in cost-performance ratio is due to Chinese manufacturing. That Knight 1 tweeter is made in a factory that makes hundreds of thousands of speakers a year on a machine so accurate and precise that only a factory that scale could afford to own and maintain it. The reason that factory exists is part of the Chinese miracle development plan and could not exist in any western country. Also, there's the huge disparity in labour costs. Just about every speaker under $2000 is made in China - even the ones that say they aren't. They circumvent the labeling laws by making all the parts in China and then stick one little badge on them in Italy or the UK and call them Italian or British. The fact is, labour is about 1/10th the cost in China as it is in the western world. This is the reason that you can get a speaker that clobbers the best of the 80s for 1/4 the cost.

To put this all in perspective, China labour costs started dramatically risingĀ a few years ago while technology and manufacturing also hit highs about the same time. What this means is that there just isn't anywhere for hi-fi to meaningfully go. We are at the absolute peak of sound-price ratio in the history of the world.

And, it's going down from here as labour costs rise. On top of that, there just aren't any more technological leaps to happen and the rise of appliance audio from Sonos, Apple and Samsung mean that the market itself doesn't want to put any more effort into developing traditional stereos. We ain't getting more tuners, or CD players EVER.

What does this mean for the audio lover? This is absolutely the best time in history to be buying hi-fi and every month or year you wait, the more you will be paying for the same or LOWER quality gear. Stereos will never get better for the money than in 2019.

Buy the best you can today and keep it for the rest of your life and never look at audio again.

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