It’s easy enough to bandy about the term high-end audio. Right? This is high-end, this is mid-fi, this is low-brow stuff. But, as easy as it might be to point and judge, what makes a product high-end?
I think it’s an often asked question and probably one more difficult to answer than most.
If I were to take a stab at it I’d start with aspirations. What does a product purport to do and whom is it intended to appeal to? An Amazon Echo or Dot make no claims of being high-end. A product like the Apple HomePod, on the other hand, does.
Just because a product aspires to high-end audiodom doesn’t qualify it as such, but at least it’s a start—an easy way to sort through the chaff.
The much more difficult challenge would be the judgment phase, a very sticky wicket indeed. One could suggest that it’s all performance-based, but I find that argument far too simplistic. For example, few would argue that a 5 Watt single tube power amplifier isn’t high-end, yet it could easily sound worse than an off-the-shelf mid-fi power amp.
Some products are so specific to the high-end they could be classified as nothing else: femto clock addons to DACS, uber pricey cables, USB re-clockers, power regenerators. Yet, while these could be nothing other than high-end I don’t think they alone embody the true meaning of high-end audio.
I would suggest that a much more telling attribute of a high-end audio product just might be its clear and obvious efforts at recreating the sound of live music in the home. Using that definition might get us closer because it can be fairly applied. For example, as good as some receivers might be, their aims are far too broad to be called high-end. These are targeting the much broader areas of what has become known as simply Home Entertainment. The Apple HomePod is not high-end, but it is a high-performance home entertainment piece.
Distinctions like this may not seem important to everyone. Personally, I want to know who/what a product was designed for so I can decide if they had me in mind.