How Much is Too Much?
So how much is too much to spend on your beloved hifi? This has been debated at club meetings, online forums and at many a shop for a long time. I don’t think there is a definitive answer but more likely a subjective one that depends on a lot of factors, such as the level or performance you are expecting, the other system components you have, available space in your listening room, available funds and of course any other people who have to put up with your hifi interests!
The majority of consumers out there spend under $1000- to buy a so-called hifi setup that could well be a midi or all in one system. Of course these days it is just as likely to be a surround system from a discount store but the consumer is happy. They often see no need to spend any more than that. (Okay, maybe they also bought a $8000- plasma monitor to go with it, but that is subject for another time.) Perhaps that is all they thought they needed, as it is not that easy to actually get to hear a great sounding system these days. If you are reading this magazine you are likely to have spent more, maybe even some of you enough to buy a new car!
So what is the point of all of this pre-amble? Well, the question is at which point does it suddenly become too much to spend? Reading newsgroups and forums, there seem to be two groups of people, those who think that only a certain amount can be spent and those that cost is no object (subject to your income of course.) But where is the boundary? How much should a CD Player cost? $500-? $1000-? What about $10,000-? Well who knows? I certainly don’t. But many are happy to voice their opinion that anything more than they have spent is way too much and the buyer has certainly been ripped off.
Or have they? I don’t think so. Most of the readers of AVL would certainly go into stores well educated as to what to look for. Any brand producing gear that is way out of its league performance wise versus cost usually doesn’t stay around too long. Or if they do stay around they must have huge marketing budgets… Look at it another way, many people will be happy to go out for an expensive dinner every now and again because they enjoy it. Also people will buy household items not because of what they can do but because of what they look like – think stainless steel appliances, expensive dishwashers and the like. Does the device perform any better? Sure it does but the dishes are still clean, the performance improvements are more measured in small increments, perhaps the benefits are more along the lines of environmental in terms of usage of resources and lifespan. Often they look much better as well!
So what has this got to do with hifi? Yes, a lot – maybe we can look at high-end hifi as more of an art form, a pleasure, an investment and a self-indulgence… Is there a difference between various high-end components? I am sure there is but the more you spend the smaller the difference. The law of diminishing returns as it is commonly called. Maybe the difference is in the tonal qualities and appearance only. If the product looks good, will last a long time and performs well, then it is likely a good buy. Don’t take my word for it though, what do you think of it? Does the price match your expectations and do you like it? They are probably the main criteria for buying virtually anything but especially so in hifi.
A surprising number of audiophiles will stand up for the products they have chosen. Why? Probably because they bring great enjoyment. Plus they sound great. Everyone always talks about a great experience or recommends a good restaurant. The great memories or ongoing experiences will last a lot longer than the price will. It doesn’t mean however you will like the same thing. Different equipment may work better or worse with your own system, you may not like the tonal sound qualities, features sets may differ and even appearance comes into it; it is something you have to try first before laying down the hard earned.
Is scientific analysis necessary? Does it have to have a long specification print out with graphs and tables? Many small manufacturers can’t afford to do all the measurements so they let the products do the talking. Proof is in the listening. After all, we don’t have to scientifically analyse a painting, work of art, and bottle of wine or the ride characteristics of a car to enjoy it. Does a painting come with much more information than say “acrylic on canvas”? Yet we buy these with impunity to the specifications. So why not with audio? Why must something measure better to actually be better for the customer? Do we even know what to measure? I am sure when audio reproduction first started they didn’t know how to measure wow and flutter or even THD for example, so maybe there are things we don’t yet know how to measure or even what to measure.
So when you see something you like, sit down and have a good listen. Use your own music you are familiar with but also listen to something new to see if you enjoy that too. If possible take it home and give it a good run with your own system. Don’t let sales people rush you into making a decision on the spot. After all you aren’t being forced to buy it, ultimately it is your decision. Finally, always remember one thing: listen to the music not to the equipment!
Written by Leon Gross, originally published in Audio & Video Lifestyle magazine.