"Trickle Down" is a disreputable idea because of its notorious use in politics, but a lot of formerly hard-to-reach or out-of-reach goodness is, in fact, trickling. Whether "upwards" or "downwards" probably depends on your definitions.
Consider: Porsche recently celebrated 50 years of its fabled 911. Cognoscenti consider the high water mark of this long run to be the 1973 911 Carrera RS 2.7 (a picture here). "RS" stood for Rennsport, meaning "racing sport." That car, now beloved of collectors, developed 210 horsepower, ran 0-60 in 5.8 seconds, and did the quarter mile in 14.5 seconds (specs according to Autocar).
So, consider: today you can buy an off-the-shelf, nuthin' special Volkswagen Golf GTI that will do...hmm, zero to sixty in 5.8 seconds and the quarter mile in 14.4 seconds. And it will stop faster than the '73 Carrera RS, and gets much better gas mileage, not to mention that it pollutes a lot less. And it is much safer and stands less chance of killing you if things do go wrong. You might counter that the GTI drives the wrong wheels, which is true, but c'mon, at least it has its engine in the right place. Horsepower for the base GTI? I probably don't need to tell you. Two hundred and ten.
The GTI costs $25,000 and the Porsche only cost $14,000, but $14,000 in 1973 dollars adjusted for inflation is nearly $75,000. So we can say the '16 GTI costs a third as much as the '73 Carrera RS and get away with it.
Or consider the Parasound Halo P5 (above). Parasound is a brand with a talented designer (John Curl) working on the statement products, but it's considered to straddle the divide between mid-fi consumer products and the lower reaches of the high end. The P5 is a remote control stereo preamp with defeatable tone controls, bass management, a very fine motorized Alps pot volume control, a phono section with both moving-coil and moving-magnet inputs, and it provides a headphone amp, and it's got an excellent Burr-Brown DAC for computer audio, built-in. In the 1990s you'd pay $5,000 for a preamp that sounded as good—one that was almost certainly noisier, did not have a balance control much less a remote, and offered far less functionality ("minimalist" was the justification then). The Parasound costs less than a good standalone DAC from the '90s (which would have been sold as half of a CD player and would have performed much worse than the DAC in the Parasound). The P5 costs $1,095.
Of course, you could argue that the meaning of these products is fundamentally different, because what people are interested in is relative status, not absolute performance. You can't buy cutting edge performance in a GTI and you can't buy prestige or bragging rights in a second-tier Parasound. Granted.
Part of the problem of such products is that trickle-down, carried to its logical conclusion, effectively destroys whole market segments. Bugatti, a premium brand of the same company that built the aforementioned VW and Porsche (and taking over an old but unrelated name, like Cosina did with Voigtländer), just introduced a new "halo" car, the Chiron. The Chiron has a top speed of 261 MPH and will do 0-60 in less than 2.5 seconds. It has 1,500 horsepower and will cost $2.7 million. In other words, it's totally pointless. It's just for showing off...nothing else. There are probably only a few places in the whole United States where you can get out of first gear legally, and, most likely, few buyers will accelerate at maximum speed more than a few times during their ownership of the car. It doesn't do anything practical that people need a car to do, which doesn't matter because almost no one can afford one anyway. The only practical thing it offers is status. In the new "two-tier" Western world—one society for the super-rich and one for everyone else—car aficionados now take their toys to private racetracks to exercise them. It's the only place they can be driven where the cars aren't loafing. Status is really all that's left—that has any real meaning, anyway—for a high-end car to offer.
Today's top-end preamps are analogous to the Bugatti, costing approximately as much as the down payment on a middle-class house and requiring many times that much investment in associated equipment. The average person can't play anyway, but finds that plenty enough sonic goodness has trickled down to much more pedestrian devices.
I have to say I don't know how this is going to play out in the camera market. Trickle-down is happening so fast it's more like a cascade—no less a personage than Thom Hogan recently intimated right here on TOP that the new 1"-sensor Nikons are not consumer cameras!* There are still a lot of things that big, serious, expensive cameras will do that little one's won't or can't, but the window of relevance for them seems to be constricting noticeably, and fast.
What's undeniable is that almost week by week, smaller, cheaper cameras do more and more of what once required more of everything—expense, engineering, weight—to do. I admit I've become fascinated lately in trying to figure out comparisons across time, and I don't have the stockpile of cameras on hand to really figure that out. But the questions are almost as interesting as the answers. How long, for instance, until a Micro 4/3 camera equals medium-format film from, say, 1991? (Maybe Ctein can speak usefully to that one.) How long before a 1"-sensor camera equals the first consumer FF in easily-achievable quality?
And, in that hothouse of development, how long will the market for high-end cameras hold out?
*His comment, on the "New Canikons!" post, was "Yes, Nikon has had a spotty (and poor) record in consumer cameras. These [i.e., the new Nikon DL compacts] are not consumer cameras ;~)."
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Featured Comments from:
Carl: "My Micro 4/3 cameras can make captures that I can print at 15x20 inches that are better in almost everything (subject brightness range is the exception) than 15-inch square prints from color negative film shot in a Hasselblad in the late '80s. It doesn't seem possible, but it is."
Andy Kochanowski: "Mike, not at all sure what all of the post means, possibly because I am seven hours ahead of you working in Israel for the week. But I do know a few things, and those are as follows: the VW GTI is possibly the world's best car for the money. My family owns/drives three of them. But it ain't no Porsche. The best Porsche now is the Cayman GTS, which is much faster than the '73 RS and more engaging than any current 911. Yes, there will be those who disagree, but they are ignorant fools and their opinion is not worth the pixels it's written on. Because I have a Cayman GTS and it's the bees knees. I've also owned and driven early '70's 911's, and no, the GTI can't hold a candle except on paper. All my typing is occasioned by your mention of Parasound, which I also happen to possess. What the heck can't I do anything original?"