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Buying High-End Audio Equipment

A High-End Retailer Offers His Top Tips on Buying Audio Equipment
Andrew Singer
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

(continued from page 1)

One of the leading sources of consumer misinformation is the high-end audio journals. Unfortunately, it has become commonplace for individuals to place their faith in the product evaluations that populate these magazines. A popular saying among audio dealers is "Those who live by the review, die by the review." A manufacturer who touts positive press today might well repudiate the same process tomorrow, when another critic formulates a less favorable opinion. These reviews perform a disservice, because they tend to convince music lovers that good sound is somehow subjective. If we conducted a controlled experiment and set up a specific system for a group of reviewers, consumers or dealers, there would most likely be a clear consensus on the component's attributes. This is because good sound is not subjective; it is far more objective than most people realize.

Why is there no consensus among critics as to what products are truly great, or what qualities make them so, you ask? Well, for one thing, few audio reviewers have worked in high-end retailing or manufacturing, and even fewer have the technical and musical acumen to properly judge a state-of-the-art product. Second, the conditions under which they conduct their evaluations are rarely ideal and, since the test parameters are not fully disclosed, they fail to honor the empirical requirement of repeatability. Finally, the equipment is normally installed in a "reference" system and judged in that context. This approach lacks the rigor necessary to reach a meaningful conclusion; all a reader could possibly learn is how a given component reacts or interacts with the other components in that particular system. At best, the review will be correct by chance. In any event, it will be idiosyncratic.

Although hobbyists often try to distill the basics of audio purchasing down to a few simple platitudes, the answers to complex questions are rarely that simple. Let's take a moment to debunk some of the most common misconceptions about high-end audio:

If I buy good equipment, I'll get good sound. Well, maybe, but only if a variety of other factors have been addressed. Sound quality is determined not only by the equipment but by room acoustics and the care with which the equipment is chosen and set up. You need to start with a space that offers good acoustics. In your preliminary discussions with the salesman, he should ask you about the room in which the system will reside. Day-to-day objects normally found in the home, such as plants, wall hangings and furniture, can be used effectively to re-create an acceptable acoustical environment. By providing this sort of setup and fine-tuning advice, the high-end audio dealer distinguishes himself from a mere "order taker."

Product specifications are a good predictor of performance. Absolutely wrong. Most manufacturers' specifications tell you nothing about how a component will sound. For example, frequency response is rated from a low of 20 cycles per second, or Hz, to a high of 20,000 Hz. The clarity and definition of the bass you hear is much more important than the lowest frequency that a system will reproduce. Power ratings are another example of misleading measurements. Federal Trade Commission testing procedures--which have been unduly influenced by the Japanese consumer electronics lobby--consider only continuous, or "steady state," output. But a musical signal is anything but steady. It may surprise you, but your amplifier normally produces fewer than two watts of power. On the other hand, a loud passage, such as an orchestral crescendo, can require from several hundred to a thousand watts. A high-end amplifier, which is designed to reproduce such peaks, might have a lower continuous power rating than an inexpensive mass-market receiver yet produce substantially greater volume.

The only difference between cables is the thickness of their con-ductors. Wrong again. Wire gauge has little to do with the performance or price of high-end audio cable. Although this complex subject is beyond the scope of this article, such factors as the choice of insulation materials, the purity and construction of the conductors, winding geometry and even the use of passive electrical networks define a cable's ability to positively influence sound quality.

Half of your budget should be spent on the loudspeakers. Sorry, but the quality of the sound that reaches your speakers is largely determined by the other components in the playback chain. You might do better to spend about 25 to 30 percent of your budget on speakers and upgrade the rest of your system.

High-end audio speakers won't work for surround sound. Completely untrue. Voices, gunshots and special effects are much easier to reproduce than the delicate overtones of an acoustic bass or violin. If your system reproduces music well with a CD or record, it will provide an excellent foundation for home theater performance.

Unlike music playback which, in one form or another, has been around for a century, audio-for-video, or surround sound, has been in existence for only 15 years, while state-of-the-art front projection technology is less than five years old. Since the aesthetic and performance criteria for this new medium are just being established, the purpose of high-end audio/video--commonly referred to as home theater--remains somewhat ambiguous. To understand home theater, you must first understand stereo. While this is the perfect time to add surround sound capability to an existing stereo, I would advise all but the most affluent customers to ignore the trend of purchasing one system for audio and another for home theater--it is better to have a single, no-holds-barred system than two compromised ones.

From a sonic standpoint, the best high-end audio-for-video has already surpassed what's available in the best commercial movie theaters. On the other hand, the standard that the video display device has to match is that of film. With all the advances made to date--and they are many--it has yet to achieve that goal. An $8 movie ticket still offers a higher-quality viewing experience than most home video hardware. The problem is that existing video display devices must take a picture intended, according to the original National Television Scientific Committee standard, to be broadcast on a 10- to 15-inch television tube and make it palatable on an enormous screen. Certainly, image production of this type is possible, but it is very expensive. Unlike high-end audio systems, which can yield near-perfect audio quality for less than $50,000, an eight-foot-wide screen, a top-notch video projector and a state-of-the-art surround sound system will cost you in the six figures.

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