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Has anybody actually bought stereo speakers costing $50,000 a pair?

Dear Cecil:

I've enclosed an ad for Infinity Reference Standard V speakers, which are described as "the embodiment of Infinity's obsession." These speakers, you will note, cost $50,000 a pair. Cecil, tell me: is there anybody out there so desperate for self-justification that they've actually plunked down $50,000 for a pair of speakers? If so, how many? Are there audiophiles who after listening to a $5,000 pair of speaks and a $50,000 pair can discern a difference? I always thought there was a threshold of sound beyond which the human ear just gives up. Maybe they sell themselves into slavery so their dogs can enjoy the finest in high fidelity entertainment.

Jim G., Cockeysville, Maryland

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Brace yourself, acushla. Not only do people buy these speakers, there’s a three-month waiting list to get them. And they wonder where defense contractors got the idea to charge $600 for a toilet seat. Since the IRS-V was first introduced in late 1987, some 15 to 20 sets have been sold. [This column was written in 1989.] Only two dealers in the country handle them, one in New York, the other in California. (Palo Alto, actually. Must be all those students.)

Why would anybody spend so much? God knows. As one observer has noted, speakers make a terrible status symbol. You can’t wear them, eat them, or park them out front of the house. Then again, you can’t crank up your Rolex and peel the first three layers of skin off your face, either, so I guess it just depends on what you’re into.

As to whether you can hear the difference $45,000 (or in this columnist’s case, $49,780) makes — well, Cecil can, of course. Cecil has ears so sensitive he can hear the clouds scrape. The question is whether it’s worth paying all that money for what is really a trivial improvement.

After a certain point, as you rightly note, quality becomes a pretty ethereal thing. IRS-Vs have a frequency response of 15 to 45,000 cycles per second, far beyond the range of human hearing. This “may seem excessive,” the company’s sales literature notes, “but research indicates that overtones in [the high] region can affect the overtones we hear.” Gotcha. Audio reviewers speak in awed tones of the speakers’ “extension,” “resolution,” and “transparency,” which doesn’t convey much to the layman, but what it boils down to is this: the individual voices and instruments are very distinct, the illusion of live music is excellent, and the bass will rattle your kidneys.

Why do the speakers cost $50,000? Mostly, I suspect, because Infinity management has to keep up the payments on their Beamers, but partly also because the speakers are just so complex. You get four 7-1/4-foot speaker columns, two each for the right and left channels, containing a total of 108 separate speakers — 72 tweeters (treble), 24 midrange, and 12 woofers (bass).

Of these, only the bass speakers are your conventional cones; the others are “electromagnetic induction” speakers, which look something like heating grates. Each bass speaker column contains its own heavy-duty amplifier. You also get servo-controls, accelerometers, and nondiffracting enclosures. Computer-optimized passive crossovers utilizing optimal-Q chokes. Monster cable! Solen caps! All hand-finished in beautiful Brazilian rosewood. Everything is handmade, for that matter; that’s why the three-month wait.

Needless to say, these are not speakers you want to hook up to that cheesy squeakbox you got from Radio Shack. It’s expected you’ll probably spend another 50 to 100 grand for additional amps (two required) and other components, not to mention modifications to your house. You’ll probably want a specially engineered room, for maximum listening pleasure. You may want to reinforce the floor, since these babies weigh 1,500 pounds all told, and you’ll also need to run in heavy wiring, since the bass speakers alone draw 2,000 watts per channel.

Too much trouble? Too much money? No prob. Twelve thou will get you a comparatively lightweight IRS Beta system, and if you’re really caught short this month, you might even settle for the Gamma or Delta systems, $7,000 and $5,500 respectively. Unless you invite me over (and I’m not the kind to make a fuss), probably nobody will be able to tell the difference.

And now, if you’re looking to spend some *real* money

Dear Cecil:

You recently addressed a reader’s question on the Infinity Reference Standard V speakers, priced at $50,000 per pair. The reader seemed to feel that these were the most expensive speakers he had ever heard of, and I thought you might not be aware of the Wilson Audio WAMM speakers, list price $80,000 per pair. These are custom made speakers; they start making them when you place the order (and fork over the cash, I suppose, or at least a substantial deposit). They are supposed to be simply awesome, and I’m sure we are thinking they’d better be. Second, IRS-Vs are handled by Excalibur Audio in Alexandria, Virginia, and until recently you could just walk in off the street and audition a pair with no warning to the store. I did it! I spent 30 minutes alone with those monsters! Yes, it was amazing.

Also, how about that Goldmund Turntable for $15,000, not including phono cartridge, to go with your WAMMs? And some $100 per foot Kimble Kable to hook it all up with?

— Gary Broyhill, Washington, D.C.

Cecil Adams

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