I regularly get taken to task by hi-fi distributors who, after reading one of my reviews of a product they distribute, want to know why I had not mentioned that their product was ‘value for money’. And when I was on duty behind the counter at Australian Hi-Fi’s stand at last year’s Australian AV and Audio show, the same subject was raised regularly by the audiophiles who dropped by, with many asking if I thought one or other of the products they’d heard in the demonstration rooms on the floors above was ‘value for money’. But although ‘value for money’ is obviously a real concern for both sellers and buyers, it’s actually a very real problem for me!

You might be surprised to learn that I have real difficulty coming to terms with the concept of what the term ‘value for money’ might mean. The problem is that although the concept seems obvious, the reality is that it is not at all easy to determine what it constitutes. For some people, ‘value for money’ means paying a sum of money that reflects the real cost of supplying a product while for others it means paying a sum of money that reflects the average cost of providing a product that does a specific job.

By way of example, let me bring up the famous Blenheim motor car, a vehicle you may not have heard of because it was made, by hand, by a small British company called Bristol. There were various models of the Blenheim, all of which were expensive (starting price $A250,000) yet all of which, if UK motoring writer Robert Farago is to be believed, ‘offered insufferable build quality, questionable reliability and appalling aesthetics.’ Indeed even the owner of the Bristol who had loaned Farago a car for review (the company didn’t allow reviewers to drive its cars) asked Farago: “What are the two things that can be seen from outer space?”, then answered the question himself, “The Great Wall of China and the panel gaps of a Bristol.” Could such a car represent value for money?

I could answer that it does, because Bristol built its vehicles by hand…no production lines, no automated machinery, no robots, no assembly of pre-fab parts. The former factory director had worked for the company for 62 years and had test-driven every car the company had ever built. Building a car this way was incredibly expensive, not least because the British workers building the cars (22 of them, apparently) were all paid at the standard industry rates. So for some people the cost of buying a Bristol Blenheim was truly ‘value for money’ because the price they paid for it, high though it was, reflected the true cost of building it. The money wasn’t going on advertising, excessive profits, or even for the cachet of a ‘brand name’… since few people had ever heard of Bristol.

But if you’re the type of person who views the Bristol as a product that performs a specific job, such as conveying one or more people from A to B, you would not regard it as ‘value for money’, because it’s possible to purchase a mass-produced vehicle that does exactly the same job… and probably better, in Mr Farago’s eyes, for one twentieth of the price of a Bristol. But even on a simplistic ‘A to B’ evaluation it is still not easy to quantify value for money. I have learned that it is possible for two brands of similar motorbikes to perform almost equally well for a certain period of time… say five years.

But after five years, one brand’s reliability and cosmetic appearance will go downhill while the other will continue running and looking almost as if it were brand new. You will not be surprised to learn that the motorcycles that deteriorate the fastest are those that are the least expensive! So for five years the cheaper motorcycle will seem to be better ‘value for money’ but after that, the more expensive motorcycle will become the best value for money by far, so ‘value’ might depend on when you sell it!

The result of all this is that I don’t really know what ‘value for money’ means. If you have a definitive answer, I’d love to read it.
Email me at  greg borrowman