News & Opinion

Differences Between Esoteric and Mass-Market AV Gear


When you shop for a car, you don’t buy one from a guy that built one in his garage. You buy one from a reputable manufacturer. But when people start shopping for AV gear and gadgets, they often eschew the mass-market manufacturers for some no-name esoteric brand that promises better quality. Why? Because the marketing is compelling or the form factor is “cooler” or they read some review that gushed all over it. But what are the real differences between that mass-market and esoteric AV gear? And is it worth it?

Author’s Note: I’m going to be poking a little fun here, but the reality is that some of my favorite manufacturers started off as “esoteric” brands. Every business starts somewhere and that somewhere is often somebody’s home. The difference between the brands that “make it” and those that we are talking about here is quality. Those brands almost always presented quality at very low prices (and many still do). Too many esoteric brands are all marketing and no substance.

Form

One thing that esoteric brands have going for them is the form factor. Often, they just look cool. Their marketing is slick and draws you in. And the techno-babble has enough words in it that surely you can find something that sounds reasonable. But those lines! While other AV products are black, boxy, and have blue lights, the esoteric stuff is gold or copper and has some sort of pretty meter on the front and bobs up and down with the music. There are curved edges and shiny trim. Even a couple of wood panels! Surely this is better than that mass-market stuff!

Well, as you probably realize, the form factor for mass-market AV gear is designed for two things – ease of production and greatest appeal. You may love the form factor of the esoteric gear, but not everyone will agree with you. On the other hand, the mass-market AV gear may not be the most unique, but it is expected and inoffensive. People look at it and know what they are looking at. The esoteric stuff? Not so much.

Prestige

Nothing says “hardcore” like buying from a manufacturer that no one has heard of. Having your friends ooh and aah over your gear as you explain how it was handmade by Tibetian monks just reeks of superiority. Just by owning such gear, you are proclaiming that not only are you an expert but you should be relied upon for future advice. Your esoteric gear automatically gives you clout over those that “only” own mass-market AV gear.

The esoteric brands are betting that you’ll value the prestige of having a little-known brand. That’s why you’ll see bullet point lists of features on mass-market AV gear and a master’s thesis of information on esoteric stuff. They are giving you the talking points you’ll need to impress your friends. Plus, they know if you are looking at their gear, you are already interested in buying. They just need to give you the right reason. Since they don’t know what that is, they are going to give you ALL the reasons.

Check out any manufacturer of high-end esoteric AV cables versus mass-market offerings. The mass-market stuff will list price, gauge, and length. The esoteric cable page will talk about how the cable was made, the coating, the flow of electrons, and so much more stuff that absolutely has nothing to do with how a cable actually works. One knows you need cables and the other is trying to help you justify paying way more than anyone would think reasonable for a cable.

Function

Almost universally, esoteric AV gear will tout how they do so much less than mass-market gear. Usually, you’d expect that paying more (we’ll discuss prices next) would mean you’d end up with more functionality. But not in AV gear. No, the thought process is that the more you ask a piece of AV gear to do, the less well it does it. Why? Reasons.

Let’s look at receivers. Esoteric companies would have you believe that having one box that handles switching, decoding, room correction, and amplification means that it does it less well. That somehow having all those functions in one box somehow introduces interference.

This, of course, leads to more and more “boxes” that only do one or two things. Each of these boxes cost more than a piece of mass-market gear that could do everything they do plus lots more. And they require cables to connect them together. Or course, you aren’t going to connect your esoteric gear together with mass-market cables are you?

Price

With few exceptions, esoteric brands are always more expensive than mass-market offerings. They often suggest more boxes to do the same thing that one box can from a mass-market piece of AV gear and suggest esoteric cables to connect everything. You can see where this is going. The prices start off ridiculous and quickly fly into ludicrous levels.

Don’t judge me, I love this movie.

“How can they charge so much if it isn’t better?” you may ask yourself. You can pick up a receiver that can do almost anything you want for around a grand (or less if you buy from Accessories4Less). You can spend many times more than that on an esoteric speaker cable. Processors, amps, DACs, and sources will cost much, much more. Surely, there must be something there.

Well, if you can find an objective review (which isn’t easy because esoteric companies don’t like to have their gear reviewed by people that do measurements), you’ll quickly discover that the mass-market gear is usually as good if not better. So, what’s the deal with the prices?

If your gear costs thousands more than it takes to actually make it, you don’t have to sell many to make a profit. The mass-market gear makes money by selling lots of units at small profit margins. The esoteric gear makes money by selling few pieces at huge markups. They don’t tell you that, of course, but it is the way it works.

Are the Differences between Esoteric and Mass-Market AV Gear Worth It?

You may have read the above (if your rage hasn’t made you run to the comments to call me an idiot) and thought that I’m against esoteric AV gear. That isn’t true. I have no problems with esoteric AV gear. There are real differences in how the gear looks, how “cool” it is to own, and how it makes you feel to buy it. I get that. There are plenty of pieces of esoteric gear out there that I honestly think are just works of art. They are so beautiful, I’d love to own them.

The important part of owning esoteric gear for me is realizing that you are often spending much more for a product that does much less because it is pretty and cool. There is nothing wrong with that. There are people that own two-seater cars out there. For my family of five, they aren’t practical. But if you only ever have two people in your car, they are a perfectly fine purchase. Sure, you could get a car with more seats, better gas mileage, better ride, more amenities, and much more for the same price or less. People realize that. But they just wanted the two-seater car.

Esoteric gear is the same. Buy it because it is what you want. Do you own any esoteric gear (or maybe have something you’ve been wanting to buy)? Let us know on our Facebook page or in the comments below.


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