Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Hans WetzelIt’s natural to assume that, the more money one spends on a product, the higher the build quality and/or performance one can expect. Although I think it’s generally fair to make this assumption, there are situations to which it doesn’t apply. Traditional notions of supply and demand, the fodder of entry-level textbooks in economics, aren’t as neatly applicable to high-end audio as they are to more conventional markets. Part of this has to do with the associations that go along with the adjectival phrase high-end.

To some, high-end may connote fine craftsmanship. The care taken in industrial design, materials, and appearance lavished on the finest consumer goods, such as Horacio Pagani’s Zonda and Huayra supercars, or Greubel Forsey’s extraordinary and terrifically expensive timepieces, earns the affection of many deep-pocketed buyers. In the audio scene, the flagship loudspeakers from companies like Focal and Sonus Faber possess much intrinsic beauty due to their superior craftsmanship. To those who can afford to buy them, their sound, while also excellent, is perhaps of only equal importance to their appearance.

Other consumers understand high-end more as a measure of maximum performance. For them, form unquestionably follows function. The Ariel Atom 500, or Nissan’s vaunted GT-R, will outperform Pagani’s beauties, and one could buy both cars for a fraction of the price of one hand-built Zonda. With timepieces, the proposition becomes even more ludicrous. If the purpose of a watch is to deliver to its wearer the accurate time, well, a 2008 study indicated that even the humblest wristwatch with a quartz-crystal oscillator maintains excellent accuracy over time. Vivid Audio’s Giya speakers were designed to extend the boundaries of sound reproduction, and their distinctive designs are, somewhat counterintuitively, reflective of decisions predicated on engineering rather than aesthetic grounds.

The reality is that almost every consumer seeks a product that is both a sound performer and is relatively attractive. Such is the quality of manufacturing and engineering knowhow these days that there are relatively few poor products on offer that deceive buyers into mistakenly parting with their money.

So what of the Holy Grail: a reasonably priced, good-looking product with superlative performance and excellent build quality? Most manufacturers make copious use of hyperbole in marketing their products. Such hype is part and parcel of not only audio but of every industry, and must be taken with a grain of salt. But some companies go to the effort to design reasonably priced products that are objectively excellent. Note the qualifier: objectively excellent. Not excellent for the money, but excellent by any measure.

Speakers from companies such as GoldenEar Technology, KEF, Paradigm, and PSB measure damn near flat, and on a test bench might not measure much differently from the Focal and Sonus Faber floorstanding behemoths mentioned earlier, which cost at least an order of magnitude more. In fact, designing a reference-level loudspeaker with a frequency response of 60Hz-20kHz is these days neither terribly complicated nor expensive. In Doug Schneider’s recent review of the KEF R500 loudspeaker ($2600 USD per pair), he compared them to his reference Revel Ultima Salon2s ($22,000/pair). Doug is not one to easily heap fulsome praise on a product, and is more often critical than complimentary, so to see a sub-$3000/pair speaker earn from him such high praise is remarkable. Those looking for speakers that offer equally compelling bass will have to pay more to get it. Deep bass requires bigger drivers and bigger and better cabinets, all of which make a speaker more expensive.

Such maximization of value is becoming increasingly common among audio companies, who recognize that it makes far more sense to charge less for a product, and thus earn a smaller profit on each unit sold, in order to sell a ton of them. There’s that damn economics textbook again. Although some complain about manufacturing jobs leaving North America for China, product quality has actually gone up and now costs less. It’s a very good time to be an audiophile.

TEAC UD-H01While thus far I’ve focused on speakers, even better value is now available in electronics. Digital-to-analog converters are now ridiculously inexpensive. Almost all rely on chipsets bought for $5 to $60 apiece from such third-party suppliers as Burr-Brown, ESS Technologies (makers of the highly reputable Sabre chips), and Texas Instruments. A mere $55 gets you the Sabre 9018 Reference chip, used, to great effect, in Simaudio’s Moon Evolution 750D DAC-transport ($13,000). When Peachtree Audio makes use of the same chipset in their GrandPre preamplifier-DAC ($2999), it makes you wonder, and rightly so. My few-year-old Benchmark DAC1 USB DAC gives very good digital performance for its retail price of $1295. But now it’s possible to get a DAC that sounds almost as good for less than $500. Look for a review of TEAC’s overachieving UD-H01 DAC in the months to come.

The point of all this isn’t that some high-end audio companies charging $10,000 or more for their products are swindling you. KEF LS50The best of anything will almost always cost a goodly amount of money. Rather, it’s to illustrate that some companies are ahead of the curve in how they design and price their products.

GoodSound! is appropriately named. Although the products we cover are affordable, many hint at the performance of the far more expensive components covered on our sister sites SoundStage! Hi-Fi and Ultra Audio. The best of the best reviewed on GoodSound!, however, can be considered high-end regardless of price. Products such as the KEF LS50 minimonitor ($1499/pair) portend good things for value-obsessed listeners. Cutting-edge technology trickling its way down into sub-$2000 products is uncommon, and companies that focus a great deal of effort on making excellence affordable should be commended. GoodSound!’s commitment is still, as always, to review high-performance equipment that just happens to be affordable.

. . . Hans Wetzel