Expensive hi-fi is certainly very audibly different to cheaper hi-fi and in the context of what many people spend on cars is a better investment.
It's not unusual nowadays for many 'ordinary' people to spend say £300 a month on a lease or HP deal for a new car, so that's £3600 a year or £11000 plus lets say a deposit of £2000 just to put a mid level Ford Focus or VW Golf on the drive... The Golf or Focus will be essentially worthless after that period, with a bit of luck you might get out with a bit of a deposit to put towards your next boringly average car.
£11000 in 3x years puts you well into 'expensive hi-fi' but the difference is if you took that £11 000 you could put together something like a Naim streamer/Naim pre/power and a set of ATC loudspeakers which would provide tens of thousands of hours of seriously high quality music listening for the next 20 years.
I don't know about you, but I do know which strikes me as the best value and which will enhance my life the most!
Equally how many people on here spend £50 on Sky and £40 just to have the latest and greatest iphone? That's £1200 a year or £12000 over 10 years. You could buy a £10 a month line only rental deal and a £150 Oppo handset and a Freesat box and again I would argue you would materially enhance your life and every single record you play with the expensive hi-fi system.
I'm a reviewer for Soundstage Ultra and before that for Hi-Fi News so I have had all sorts of expensive gear pass through my system. In general the difference between low/mid-fi and the higher end stuff is:
1. Full bandwidth sound, you simply can't engineer cheap speakers that offer genuine deep tight controlled bass and when you do you will need expensively engineered high current drive amps to control them properly...
2. Presence and scale - higher end products make it sound as if there are live instruments and players in the room on the very best recordings. The attack of a snare, the timbre of a piano or violin, the jolt in the air of tom drums being struck or a bass drum kick - you hear a whole lot more of that on a high end system and things appear more 'life sized'.
3. Transparency - Higher end systems make deconstructing a track so much easier so you can hear how it was put together in the studio. It becomes much easier to follow what the bass player is doing as distinct from the bass synths for example. Low level effects and sounds are much more obvious, you hear more detail but it's not shrill or tonally unbalanced.
4. Dynamics and headroom - High end systems have the ability to play very loud very cleanly. Live music is often loud and very dynamic, on on lesser systems that dynamic range is lost.
5. Pride of ownership - using a gorgeous turntable you have always dreamt of owning or cueing a record with something like an SME tonearm is just a gorgeous thing to do and brings a lot of pleasure you simply don't get from say a budget Project deck.
For me music is the overriding passion of my life so over the course of 35 years I have assembled a system that to an average person is ludicrously expensive. I bought much of it secondhand (Naim NAC82/Hicap/NAP250/Naim NDX streamer/Naim CDi CD player) and some of it new (Michell Gyrodec/SME IV/AT-OC9 - Trichord Dino and ATC SCM40's). In truth with the home cinema stuff included too the book value of the system is probably around £40-50 000 but it probably cost me around £20k due to shopping wisely and secondhand. It's in use every single day/night though for hours at a time either playing music, concerts or movies. I'd say £20k outlay for 35 years of 3-4 hrs/day pleasure is money well spent - others may differ!
The best way to hear a lot of brilliant hi-fi is at shows. All my life I have been going to things like the Bristol hi-fi show and really enjoying hearing for example high end Naim, ATC loudspeakers, beautiful Sonus Faber's and brilliant music. It really is worth the time and effort to go there, book a Premier Inn for the night, turn it into a romantic weekend away with the missus or better still get 3-4 pf your best mates down for it!! Enjoy meeting the designers, the people who work for the companies or bump into some of the reviewers, sink some beers and don't worry about driving back. Take two days out to immerse yourself in great music and systems and you'll gain a real appreciation for just how much joy a great record on a great system can bring to your life... Just be prepared to start dreaming of owning those £4000 ATC SCM40's like I did and then figuring out a way to achieve them!
So often listening to hi-fi and records becomes a solitary pursuit when we are older. One of the best things about the shows is that you're in amongst your tribe of like minded souls and that can be very sociable... Before I became a reviewer I loved meeting and chatting to people like Max Townshend, Julian Vereker, John Michell and Malcolm Steward to name but four who have all passed away now. It's a rare privilege to meet such people and to even have a beer with them, a unique experience in fact! Go - you'll thank me!