Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Some years back, my dad and I found ourselves in a bit of a street race: our C7 Corvette versus a Ferrari F12berlinetta. $83,000 of automated-factory-line American plastic against $320,000 of hand-crafted Italian swank. V8 versus V12. Two of the finest front-engine GT cars ever developed going head-to-head. And we won. The F12berlinetta simply couldn’t keep up in the corners.

Afterward, my dad privately scoffed, “All that money, and for what?” And I figured that would be the last we’d ever see of that fella. Ferraris don’t exactly grow on trees here in Alabama. But some months later, Pop and I were getting settled into our spot at a monthly cruise-in when that same F12berlinetta backed into the spot beside us. As we ogled the interior—the gorgeous red stitching on the seats and the leather belts on the luggage shelf, the swanky cross-drilled pedals—and the artistry of engine bay—especially those iconic red cam covers—I ribbed my dad and whispered, “All that money for that.” He begrudgingly grunted affirmatively.

Corvette and Ferrari

Why bring any of this up? Because I think there’s an interesting contrast to be made between the grand-touring automobile landscape and the high-performance audio market, and I think this little anecdote illustrates it quite well. Say what you will about the cost of that F12berlinetta, but its $300K-plus price tag gets you something that you can’t get for less money: the Italian styling, the immaculate craftsmanship, the fit-and-finish, the finer details, the heritage, the story, the mystique. Far too often, though, spending more in the domain of audio just gets you a bigger bill and—I dunno—bragging rights, maybe? Exclusivity? The feeling that you’re better than somebody else because they can’t afford what you just bought?

Right up front, I should point out some exceptions to this rule. One of the best speakers I’ve heard in the past ten years was the Wisdom Audio LS4, a nearly seven-foot-tall, 550-pound, planar-magnetic line source capable of cranking out more than 130dB of gut-slamming audio from 12 feet away, with dynamics to die for, imaging that almost seemed magical to my ears, and a soundstage that felt like I could crawl around inside. It sold for $80,000 per pair when I reviewed it, and some part of my brain remembers an employee of the company telling me the profit margin on that speaker wasn’t much better than that of the much smaller Insight Series P2i, an in-wall speaker with a price tag of less than $2000.

It seems to me, though, that the Wisdom LS4s of the world are getting rarer and rarer, and far too many of the high-priced audio products hitting the market are expensive just to be expensive. To be sure, they all come with some sort of alibi (a term whose usage in this case I shamelessly stole from W. David Marx’s brilliant Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change, a book that comes up a lot around these parts when discussing value and luxury). In other words, the manufacturer always gives some plausible-sounding excuse for the exorbitant price tag.

The truth is, I can’t tell you the number of actual product engineers who’ve admitted to me in confidence that the real justification for a newer, pricier product was dealers or distributors demanding something with a higher price tag. Simple as that. The bourgeoisie wanted something the proletariat couldn’t have, and they got it. But what they were actually paying for was marketing spin, or at most a switch from one excellent-performing driver material to something more exotic-sounding. And that’s simply putting the cart before the horse. Just as form-following-function is a mantra of good design, price should, in principle, be a result of materials, design, effort, R&D, labor, and ultimately performance—not a target that’s justified with talk of unobtanium and questionable science.

Cart before the horse

Of course, nothing I’ve said in the above screed is fundamentally different from what SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider wrote in his recent editorial “How I Define ‘Oligarch Audio.’” I agree with him completely that sometimes an expensive product is expensive for valid reasons that have nothing to do with pure performance—just like that F12berlinetta. But although we’re starting from the same position, I wanted to venture off in a different direction to talk about perceptions about price and performance.

The assumption that higher price equals better performance is so baked into the coverage of hi-fi that it feels almost heretical to claim otherwise. But I wanted to point out just one of the many absurdities that arise from this framing: price categories in “best of” roundups.

If you haven’t seen this phenomenon, head on over to The Absolute Sound’s website and do a search for, say, “the best DAC.” What you’ll find is not one page, but several, with D-to-A converters broken down by best under $1000, best from $1000 to $3000, best from $3000 to $10,000, and best over $10,000. What’s funny is, there’s no real explanation about what sets a $10,000 or $50,000 DAC apart from an under-$1000 one. It’s just assumed that the pricier ones are better.

When in reality, two DACs relying on the same type of reconstruction filter will almost certainly sound identical irrespective of price. In a blind ABX test between a $30 FiiO and a $3000 Forssell conducted a few years back, none of the participants could tell the difference when levels were matched. Is there any reason to believe that wouldn’t also apply to a $30,000 DAC? Nope.

The other frustrating thing about this ranking of components by price—and this is something Doug harps on frequently when he and I chat about the subject—is that TAS never even considers the fact that one of its under-$1000 DACs might outperform one of its favorite $10,000 models. And in fact, we’ve seen examples of $44,950 monoblock amplifiers performing objectively worse than a lot of the under-$2500 stuff I review here on SoundStage! Access.

Personally, I think the biggest reason for this insanity is that far too few high-end audio journalists have a freaking clue how audio reproduction actually works. As such, they’re prone to making ridiculous pronouncements such as “it takes a six-figure-priced audiophile system around these DACs to begin resolving the extremely subtle differences in sound.” Utter codswallop.

They couldn’t explain at gunpoint why throwing money at a DAC design isn’t going to really improve its audible performance once you reach the level of competency, whereas there are all manner of legitimate reasons that a more-expensive amp might be more expensive for legitimate performance reasons (although you reach the point of diminishing returns really quickly these days), and why you can’t cheap out on transducers—which, most knowledgeable people will agree, make the most difference in terms of the performance of your system.

In other words, I don’t automatically assume that a $20,000 or $50,000 or even $100,000 speaker is stupid. But nor do I assume it’s that pricy for a legitimate reason. Nor do I automatically assume it’s better.

A $10,000 DAC, though? Eh, you’d better show me some truly impressive jewelry to make that price tag valid. I’m talking inch-thick milled aluminum and an industrial design that would impress Dieter Rams. And so it goes with most electronics. Show me your list of best whatevers under $500 or $1000 or $10,000, and I’ll give it a serious read and perhaps even strike up a discussion about our agreements and disagreements. Make a list of the best gear at a very specific price point and up, though, without acknowledging that something cheaper might be better, and I’ll assume with reasonable confidence that you’re selling me something or doing the bidding of your ad sales guy.

Money to burn

None of this is purely academic. I’m constantly getting emails from readers asking for very specific, budget-oriented buying advice. The thing is, though, “What integrated amp would you buy for $2500?” is a question that can be read in two different ways. If the reader is setting that as their upper limit, we can have a conversation about their needs and desires, and I’m almost certain I can find something within their budget that’ll rock their worlds.

If that’s their lower limit, though—if they’ve been brainwashed into believing that “more expensive” always equals “better sound”—we almost certainly have nothing to discuss, and they probably should not be reading my stuff anyway. Not that there aren’t plenty of amps selling for way more than $2500 that I adore and would like to own myself. It’s simply that setting a minimum price for the gear you want without considering your actual needs or aesthetic preferences is like . . .

Well, I was about to say that it would be like deciding that you need a $300,000 car and working backwards from there to figure out which model you want specifically, but there’s actually some legitimacy to that, assuming you live in a nouveau riche neighborhood and a sensible crossover SUV on the curb would get you kicked out of the country club. If you’ve got something similar going on with your hi-fi system, well, first please do let me know so I can write about your neighborhood. But secondly, at that point your hi-fi system isn’t about high-fidelity music playback; it’s about status.

Again, if I sound judgmental here, that’s not my intent. If what you’re after is audiophile gear as a signal of wealth, then do you. There are far worse status symbols you could adopt. I’m merely pointing out that this is the only justification for “Best X over $____” articles that don’t even entertain the notion that something cheaper might be better.

The reason I care about any of this—the reason I think it matters for the health of our hobby and the industry that feeds it—is that we have a perception problem. I recently did some writing for a mainstream magazine that I think I’m going to dig into here sometime soon. The long and short of it is, the editor of this publication—knowing nothing about me except that several people had recommended me as a good writer about hi-fi—just assumed that I was rocking a $100,000 sound system and, more importantly, that I couldn’t appreciate the value of anything that cost a penny less.

The problem is, hi-fi has—in the eyes of the general public—become nothing more than a luxury pursuit, which is what worries me the most. Again, I’m fine with luxury audio. I sort of pine for a handful of specific luxury audio goods. But a luxury audio market without a good, solid, thriving working-class audio market is a surefire recipe for a shrinking audio market—one that may never grow again. It’s simply not sustainable.

If we don’t do more to promote the attainable, and honestly report when it performs every bit as well as the oligarch-level stuff, we’re just pushing more and more potential hi-fi hobbyists toward Sonos systems and the like as their only meaningful avenue to their music beside headphones.

And I say that because Sonos knows how to market the benefits of its systems to normies. Meanwhile, those of us who write about proper stereo systems more often than not act as if the only gear that matters is the super expensive stuff. It would be like a car enthusiast claiming anything less than a Ferrari is simply “good enough for the price.”

And Pop and I already proved how silly that is.

. . . Dennis Burger