The term “high-end” is bandied about a great deal – sometimes accurately, many times not. It has been over-used and under-used, exploited and neglected; certainly misunderstood. PSTracks focuses on the high-end and, true to form, you’ll see it peppered throughout the publication. But what does it mean?
As this essay will point out, it’s really an empty descriptor that can be applied to almost any endeavor. Consider: high-end photography, cars, foods, audio, video, clothing, mountaineering equipment and so on. In fact, the term describes an end point on an imaginary relative scale. The low-end, the middle and the high-end.
If the low-end for bread is Wonder Bread, then the middle might be Oroweat and the high-end would be a beautifully hand-crafted loaf of artisan baked craft.
In many cases, the high-end is the more expensive product in a line of goods categorized by manufacturers as the “good, better, best”. But the true definition of “high-end” doesn’t necessarily mean higher cost; certainly it is not a prerequisite. Higher prices are often a natural outcome because the size of the applicable group must be reduced in order to focus the appeal – and this typically means a smaller company is producing it – and economies of scale don’t enter into the equation.
The term “high-end” refers to products or services that are narrowly tailored to appeal to a target audience with a unique interest in those products or services.
It can be suggested that every person wants the better product – but that’s misleading because what is better? Better is in the eye of the beholder and common markers such as low, middle, high are arbitrary and completely relative to the person setting the standard and the category under discussion.
Take food for example. A high-end meal might be something at a fancy restaurant while a low-end meal would be consumed at a fast food establishment. But that’s a relative assessment based strictly on the end product and it can easily be argued that there exists the same scale within each category. When it comes strictly to the end product there are high-end fast food restaurants as exemplified by Chipotle Mexican Grills on the high-end and Taco Bell on the low-end. In and Out burgers on the high-end and McDonald’s on the low-end.
The same logic can be applied to audio and home entertainment products. Bose loudspeaker system on the low-end relative to a Wilson Audio system on the high-end. Bose is not striving to be high-end over the global market, rather they strive to be the high-end of the consumer market. So it could easily be argued that Bose is the high-end of the low-end; that is the essence of scalability of these standards.
When we look closer it becomes apparent that it is necessary to understand and appreciate the specific focus and goals of a product or service to accurately evaluate its position relative to the term high-end. Let me give you some examples.
McDonalds is a great example. If you pay attention to their advertising you might believe their goal is to make the world’s best hamburger; but you’d be wrong. Their mission statement gets it closer to the truth “McDonald’s vision is to be the world’s best quick service restaurant experience. Being the best means providing outstanding quality, service, cleanliness, and value, so that we make every customer in every restaurant smile.“ Remove the marketing speak and you get the real mission statement when it comes to their product McDonald’s vision it is to be the number one provider of consistent average food that appeals to the broadest number of people possible and to deliver that experience better than anyone else. To that goal, they are the undisputed “high-end” kings and they consistently deliver great value to their shareholders by narrowly focusing on this mission. If they tried to make a “better” burger they would have to start narrowing their product focus and, in so doing, reduce their broad appeal – reducing shareholder value.
In our industry, Harman International is yet another example. If you pay attention to the product advertising of Harman brands such as Mark Levinson, JBL and Infinity you’d think they were focused on building great products and services above all else; but again, you’d be wrong. Even their mission statement “HARMAN is dedicated to global excellence in the branded-audio and infotainment markets. We develop and deliver solutions that embrace innovation, superior value and a highly-satisfying customer experience. We achieve this by fostering a culture of employee empowerment and creativity” delicately dances around the product focus issue (mission statements are typically written by PR and marketing folks and have little to do with products – read Seth Godin’s All marketers are liars). In fact, their goal isn’t to make the world’s best consumer electronic products and services, it’s to maximize shareholder value as a public corporation; two very different goals.
Are either of these examples “high-end”? Sure, but they don’t make high-end products.
McDonald’s delivers the high-end in consistent average food and Harman delivers consistent value to their shareholders – neither of them delivers a high-end end-product.
The “soul” or essence of these company’s product offerings have been either reduced to the lowest common denominator and thereby appealing to the broadest possible audience (McDonalds), or stripped and removed from their original goal of great products (Harman brands such as JBL, Infinity, Mark Levinson) to maximize corporate profits. Both have succeeded wildly.
All products and services have a “soul” (essence) and embody some form of art to build that essence. The clarity of that soul depends on the width of the product focus on the end user.
If we think about common examples such as writing implements, a $0.10 wooden pencil has little soul and art to its design because its focus is extremely broad – its success depending on its broad appeal. A Montblanc pen, on the other hand, has a very defined soul embodied by the art of its design and visual aesthetics. Everyone uses a pencil, very few use a Montblanc. A pencil is not high-end, a Montblanc is high-end.
In audio, art is all around us and alive and well. Companies like PS Audio, Ayre, Wilson, Manley, Kimber, Thiel, Linn and many others produce products with art and soul because these are all performance focused products appealing to a rather narrow group of enthusiasts who are willing to give up some of the broad appeal benefits to get better performance.
This newspaper will refer to high-end audio in many articles. Its meaning is focused on those individuals, groups, services and companies whose narrow focus is on the product and services themselves. It is pointed directly at the companies, be they big or small, interested in getting as close as possible to focusing their product efforts on performance and achieving the sound originally recorded onto the storage medium and reproducing that identical sound in their homes. When narrowed in such a manner, it is relatively easy to distinguish the high from the mid to the low.