Point of View: If I were a rich man...

Would spending a million quid on a cinema system be worth it in performance terms?

I have been pondering the high-end of AV recently, mostly why I can’t afford it, of course. But events have made me wonder at precisely what price reality ends and opulent lunacy begins. I have a horrible feeling it is about a tenner.

For most of us the question of how much to spend on a system is a simple balance between the relative merits of the entertainment it delivers compared to, say, taking the kids on holiday, buying a new car or fixing the roof. As I don’t have kids, the car is fine and I spent all last weekend up a ladder with three tubes of sealant, I recently purchased a pair of Primare’s outstanding A32 power amps... purely to bi-amp my Dolby/DSX Height channels. My bank manager intimated I had strayed into lunatic territory, opulent or otherwise.

The following week I realised that wasn’t the case at all. With my consulting hat on, I sat in a room debating a new finish on some already extremely expensive high-end loudspeakers. Should it be the Ferrari red and carbon weave wrap or the yacht-inspired pearlescent white with polished hardwood veneer and chrome trim? Either one would add the price of a decent family saloon to a pair of speakers that already cost a Porsche Boxster-S. They were not going to sound one jot different from the wood- and dark grey-finished originals, making this a £20,000 non-upgrade. That makes my height-channel set-up look sensible!

With AV kit there is a fairly finite point of peak performance. Beyond this point the extra work, extra materials and extra engineering of ultra-high-end products tends to deliver subtle changes in performance rather than authoritative improvements. I’ll stick my neck out here and say the peak performance point for a system comprising processor, power amps and a 5.1 channel speaker system is about £30,000.

So why do people around the world spend more than that on their system? In some cases twice that on just a single pair of red and carbon-black speakers. It comes down to pride of ownership. Either one’s own intrinsic pride or, rather more shallow, the pride one feels showing off one’s material goodies to friends and colleagues. Either way, the high-end of AV and Hi-Fi has to deliver that sense of pride of ownership in equal, or even greater, measure to delivering performance. This is why amps and speakers in this category are huge, heavy, outrageous-looking and finished with veneers hand-rolled on a maiden’s thigh.

But I love it. Should those six little numbers come up on a Saturday night I would be first in line for 22 Krell 900e monoblocks to bi-amp an 11-channel array of Focal Grand Utopias. And just how many Paradigm SUB2s would be considered ‘too many’? I don’t know but I would have a damn good go at finding out. Add in lots of exotic cabling made from rare-earth metals mined by lost Inca tribesman, and I would be a proverbial pig in poop.

So having binned my first million before the following week’s lottery draw, in absolute performance terms how much better would movies sound through this system than the current set up? Er, a bit, but not exactly life-changingly dramatic. Certainly nothing like a million quid’s worth, which I could otherwise use to save a local school, set up a hospice for AV-holics or, most likely, buy a yacht.

So all this pondering brings me back to the beginning and finding that magic figure where the cinematic performance-to-cost ratio is at its absolute maximum. I toyed with many different systems and configurations before concluding that the answer is an adult ticket for one at CineWorld: £8.80 plus a cheeky coke. Hey-ho.

How much would you spend on your home cinema habit?
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The column first appeared in the March 2012 issue of Home Cinema Choice