I own the EAR HP4 and a one of a kind Melos, both amps said to be at the top of the heep in terms of synergy with Grados...yet I use the RA-1 every day with my RS-1's. The synergy is remarkable and honestly...with those other two amps there, it's not as if I have to suffer through using the RA-1.
What is ironic about the other two amps I own is that they are both known to have mediocre parts in them (pre-mods, though my EAR is stock) and yet are continually branded as the best of the best. Most "big time" manufacturers cut corners on parts but tweak the sound at least until one jumps up into the stratosphere in price but then notice that what one can plunk in an amp (black gates, auricaps, silver wire etc) come out with multiple 5 figure price tag. What is the reason?
As already stated, R&D, cost of office space, cost of work space, cost of wages, cost of employee benefits, cost of warehouse space, then comes profit, profit for manufacturer, profit for distributor and finally...profit for dealer. Many many variables, so those $30 black gates end up costing the customer $300+. This is one of the driving forces behind 3rd party modification. Outfits like Parts Connexion, Modwright, Empirical Audio etc...they can do things on the relative cheap to cheaper players and often times, transform them into beasts that compete with the top tier. The reason? The circuits are often very much the same in the units but the parts are not and/or the benefits of the tweaked super circuits of the top tier are no longer far outweighing the lesser circuits of the cheaper models when those models have uber parts.
Grado is certainly not the only manufacturer pricing their amps in the 300-500 category and using only about $50 worth of parts. Yet he is the only one with a massive network where everyone not only wants but demands a cut.
Still, all this aside, it comes down to the sound...if the RA-1 has something special about it when paired with Grados....and the Reference series in particular...then is it worth paying $500+ for an amp that has more under the hood but does not sound as good? Therein lies the rub, what do you want? Boutique parts? Or the sound? Some will argue that Grado could have boutique parts too...but then the price jumps. For someone like Grado the situation is FAR different than the Head-fi-only manufactures or predominantly Head-fi manufacturers. That is, most of the guys who sell direct to Head-fiers and/or have Head-fiers as the vast majority of their clientele sure don't rely on the intricate network that Grado, Musical Fidelity, EAR, RKV etc...depend on.
For any of these companies to make a profit not only do you have to consider all I wrote regarding expenses above...but you have to consider the cost of employees/benefits + store space/utilities THEN profit for each level!
For folks working outta their home and/or with 0-few employees selling direct via the web...their costs are vastly less than the bigger companies. They can afford to undercut and or outbuild, the choice is left up to the customer. No one forces their hand. The reason the amps from these bigger companies continue to sell are:
1) they sound good!
2) they sound good!
3) the company has built up a reputation around reliability
4) they have demonstrated staying power in this very volatile niche market we call hi-fi.
Not to knock the smaller guys, because everyone has to start somewhere, but when dealing with a company like Grado who has last more than half a century, has tackled the hard times, succeeded and then pulled themselves up by their socks and become more successful than any other point in their history...it says something. There is a perceived safety net when purchasing a product from a company that has demonstrated longevity.
How many have purchased the latest hot item and then found that 6, 12...18 months down the line the place has closed up? It happens all the time in the bigger world of Hi-Fi and it has happened numerous times here in our own sub-sub-niche at Head-fi.