February 1, 2009

How Close Can I Get for Half the Price or Less?

Audiophiles who are committed to spending a set amount of money on a stereo component -- for this article, I’ll use loudspeakers -- would be wise to ask themselves this: How close can I get for half the price or less? Might the answer make a potentially expensive purchase seem foolhardy?

I often see audiophiles decide how much they’re going to spend on a stereo component before they’ve even considered what they need to spend to meet their goals. The problem with this predetermined approach is one of a lack of context: The shopper simply can’t determine relative value without a more informed knowledge of what’s available.

For instance, there seem to be a surprising number of loudspeakers offered in the price range of $15,000 to $25,000/pair. Many of the more popular high-end speaker brands set the sweet spots in their lines squarely within that market segment. It’s not uncommon for someone to shortlist five or so models within that range, audition them at a few local dealers, and ultimately make a purchase based solely on those auditions and a few positive reviews. That’s a legitimate approach -- some great loudspeakers can be had for that kind of money -- if the audiophile also has a good handle on the best speakers available for $8000 to $15,000/pair. And, perhaps, even what a wisely spent $50,000 might buy.

Bottom line: Each speaker on the shortlist had better be demonstrably better than the less-expensive speakers to even warrant consideration. As well, its performance needs to be considered in the context of that of the more expensive speakers.

Audiophiles will sometimes spend what they feel they must spend because they assume that, in high-end audio, the ratio of price to performance is a linear one. (Some of these audiophiles also assume that their favorite speakers are truly linear, but that’s another "Opinion" for another time.) But if your breadth of experience is broad enough, you’ll surely have learned that spending more doesn’t always buy more performance. Sonically, you can sometimes do as well, or even better, by spending less. The fact of the matter is that some ultra-expensive speakers aren’t as good as some of the cheaper models marketed by brands considered "mass market." For some, that pill can be a hard one to swallow.

Some more pointed questions: Just what type of loudspeaker performance can you get for, say, $10,000/pair? For that amount, how close can you come to the state of the art? Can you buy the state of the art for $10k? Are there reasons to spend more? If so, what are they?

In my many years of reviewing audio products in many price ranges, I’ve pondered these questions long and hard, and have mostly answered them in my mind. But because so much about the technology and manufacturing of loudspeakers has changed in recent years -- good materials such as beryllium are now available to many companies, and Chinese-based manufacturing has made considerable inroads into the high end -- I decided to take a fresh look at those old questions.

Here’s the exercise: Choose a loudspeaker system that, for $10,000, comes as close to the state of the art as possible. (Of course, we also have to define "state of the art.") Minimize the tradeoffs, maximize the amount of value your dollar buys, and don’t be afraid to slay some sacred cows.

The speakers I chose for this exercise are now set up in my Music Vault, and I’m currently dialing in their performance. The next installment of "The World’s Best Audio System," coming in one month’s time, will answer the question How close can I get for half the price or less? Then, we’ll at least have a current baseline from which to further discuss the ratio of price to performance.

. . . Jeff Fritz


footer.jpg (5527 bytes)