Having a delayed 11-hour flight home, followed up by jet-laggy awake at 3am hours spent wondering when my body clock would restore to overcast Greenwich Mean Time, gives one a unique ability to reflect upon the wider implications of what’s seen at CES. Here’s a perfect example:
Pick two loudspeakers, both similarly priced and both making some of the best sounds at the show. In this case, compare the Kiso Acoustic HB1 (at THE Show) with the Marten Heritage Getz (in the EAR room on the 29th floor of the Venetian Towers). Both speakers cost around $20,000 per pair. Both fed by very different amplifiers (Krell FBI in the Kiso room, and 912 and 509 powering the Marten) in very different rooms, but both turned in an excellent performance. The Kiso gave more of an electrostatic-like delivery, while the Marten turned in a more dynamic but still very open sound. The Marten had the better bass, but the Kiso delivered one of the most open-sounding mid and treble of the show. Given that differential, it would not be beyond the bounds of possibility that if these were the only two speakers on offer, for every five pairs of $20k speakers sold, three would be Martens and two would be Kiso.
Sadly, I doubt that.
You see, for your $20k, you can buy a tall, weighty, piano gloss floorstander with multiple drive units, or you can buy something that stands just over a foot tall and sporting just woofer and tweeter. You can buy a loudspeaker that weighs as much as a car engine, or you can buy one that is not much heavier than a hubcap. In other words, in terms of the sheer physical nature of both loudspeakers, you are buying more when you buy the Marten. And that will hugely influence the buying decision.
We should buy on sound quality and sound quality alone, but my time spent in the Kiso room saw many people waking in and quickly walking out with that ‘you have got to be kidding’ look. The few people who got past that initial impression instead had that ‘this might be my next loudspeaker’ look. I know – I’m one of those few.
I really don’t think price gauging happens in either case; the Kiso’s cabinet is artisan built, and a design impossible to replicate without involving a luthier and a lengthy construction process (anyone who’s purchased a truly hand-made acoustic guitar will attest to how long and how expensive – but how worthwhile – that process is). All the while the Getz is a beautifully made, extremely heavy (albeit more conventional) box shipping from Sweden. You get what you pay for in both loudspeakers; you are just paying for different things.
The fact remains the Kiso speaker challenges perceptions in a way so few products do at this level. We are used to occasional small, expensive loudspeakers – the Magico Mini II being the most obvious model – but even those are not really that small and are built like a tank. This is a tiny, light and good sounding speaker that costs big money; in ‘sound per dollar’ terms, it more than justifies its existence, but not everyone will ever see it that way. So, is a loudspeaker’s worth is tied into its performance, or its dimensions? Is audio really ready for high-value items that deliver the goods, but in a very small package, or are we so locked into ‘bigger is better’ value judgements that we can’t see the worth of the smaller speaker?