Published September/October 1997Sound Advice A High-End Retailer Offers His Top Tips on Buying Audio Equipment
by Andrew Singer
What distinguishes high-end audio gear from the "rack systems" sold at your local appliance store? Contrary to popular belief, it is not a matter of volume or bass response or the number of knobs, buttons and lights. Simply stated, the ultimate goal of high-end audio is to come as close as possible to replicating the sound of live music. The extent to which the system creates this illusion, allowing you to suspend your disbelief and imagine yourself in the same room as the musicians, is the final determinant of its sound quality.
As with any investment, the purchase of fine audio components should be given careful consideration. To derive maximum satisfaction from your expenditure, you should begin by fully identifying your audio needs and desires. What do you expect the system to do? While "play music" might seem to be an obvious response, the subject begs further clarification. Do you want audio in a single room, or would you like to hear music throughout the house? Is stereophonic playback your goal, or would you like a multichannel "surround sound" audio/video system that incorporates Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Digital and THX? Try not to define your goals so rigidly that you are unable to accept expert advice: outline your needs, but try to keep an open mind. Consider your listening habits. If you enjoy heavy metal at rock concert volumes, your system requirements might differ from those of a chamber music fan. Pick a handful of CDs or records that you know well and take them shopping with you.
Whatever your budget is, be prepared to double it. In my experience, consumers almost always underestimate what they'll need to spend to achieve the desired results. Flexibility is your strongest ally: if your dealer can offer a logical or demonstrable reason why you should modify your plans, be receptive.
Will aesthetic or ergonomic considerations influence your choice? Although many customers insist on having the gear prominently displayed, people with space limitations may be forced to keep the equipment in cabinets or closets. Determine any space, size or functional requirements relating to the components. You should also understand that, as with any other cutting-edge technology, your system preferences may entail certain unavoidable trade-offs. Just as an auto enthusiast must choose between Mercedes opulence and Ferrari acceleration, your quest to obtain the very last bit of audio performance might force you to sacrifice convenience or particular features. Finally, if the system will be used by individuals other than yourself, will they be comfortable doing so? Remember, you don't need hard and fast answers, just a set of preliminary preferences to discuss with your dealer.
Most important, don't try to micromanage the selection process. Your principal goal is not to buy an amplifier, a CD player or a pair of speakers, because by themselves these things don't make music. Your main concern should be to purchase a complete audio system and as a result, your primary task is to determine the person or persons who are most qualified to design that system for you. In other words, choose your dealer, not your equipment.
How can you identify a good dealer? You should have some guidelines for what to expect from an upscale audio dealer, and know how to tell whether this person deserves the "high end" appellation. One of the simplest ways is to examine the store's merchandise mix. If a dealer carries one or more of the brands in each of the categories listed on page 315, he's probably pretty good. "Top tier" manufacturers expend considerable effort in selecting and training the retailers who will represent their designs to the public, to ensure that they are honest, knowledgeable, creditworthy and, to some extent, artistic. In addition to product lines, the high-end audio dealer always offers hookup, delivery and service of any product he sells. The better dealers are well versed in the intricacies of audio, video and multiroom remote systems, including in-wall wiring and the installation of sophisticated keypad controllers.
For many audio pilgrims, the journey to the high end starts with the recommendation of a friend. Everybody knows someone who has a fancy audio or home theater rig. But while you might be impressed with the sound he has achieved in his home, don't ask him what to buy, because he is not an expert. Do not ask him to come with you when you go shopping for a stereo or home theater, as this makes it difficult for the dealer to properly address your needs and wants. And though it might surprise you, a little rivalry between colleagues is not uncommon.
All things considered, it's best to go shopping by yourself and allow the salesman to transform your ideas into a satisfying system. Remember, you've already defined your needs and given some thought to your budget. Relate these issues candidly. Let him believe that you are placing the decisions in his hands, and then listen to his suggestions. If a salesman is good, he will ask you a series of questions designed to narrow the choices and help you focus on the items that best suit your circumstances.
Evaluate the store. When you first arrive, stop, look and listen. How are the facilities? A good store should have at least four or five showrooms. Make sure there's a wide selection of components and that the music available for demonstration is equally diverse. What brands are carried? If you don't see any of the brands listed on page 315, be concerned. Are the sound rooms set up comfortably so that you can audition the components in a relaxed fashion, or do you have to stand? If all of the rooms route the music signal through component switchers--rather than through direct hook-ups between components--that's a bad sign. This is not simply because switching systems degrade the quality of sound, but because it demonstrates a lack of concern on the dealer's part for maximizing the quality of sound he can obtain--both in his store and in your home--through careful setup. It further emphasizes that he has little understanding of the importance of high-end cables in enhancing the sound quality of all fine components, regardless of price. When listening, trust your own judgment, and share your opinions with the dealer. If you think a system sounds good, tell him so. Initiate a dialogue: the dealer's job is to fulfill your desires, and your job is to communicate your likes and dislikes so that your salesperson can design a system that precisely addresses your needs.
Although the allure of a bargain is difficult to resist, don't be a price shopper. A good high-end audio retailer will give you no more than a 5 percent discount on any item when you use a credit card. With cash or a check, you might save 7 to 10 percent, depending upon the item you are buying. If someone offers to sell you high-end equipment at a greater discount, be very cautious. When you hear about a store offering substantial discounts, they are either phony (i.e., "bait and switch") or the discounts are on products that the retailer is trying to unload. Sure, bargains do come along, as when a dealer decides to discontinue a particular manufacturer's brands and needs to sell the remaining inventory. But for the most part, the reasons merchandise is sold at discounts of more than 10 percent are usually more insidious, and it is probably in your best interest to forgo purchasing these items.
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.
True, there is a fresh, invigorating atmosphere surrounding the high-end home theater market. And yet, as in the old Wild West or any other new frontier, excitement is often accompanied by an element of danger. This is an area where misinformation abounds, and where the professionalism of your dealer will be strained to the utmost, because myth and reality are often hard to categorize. For example, many consumers are aware that DVD--digital versatile disc--has made its debut. But how many realize that the player's introduction had been delayed for two years, while the motion picture industry engaged in copyguard squabbles? Furthermore, this new format had the capability to surpass the image quality of laserdisc--the best format available--but an eleventh-hour marketing decision to cram entire movies onto a single, video-impaired disc (action shots don't come out well) made its picture quality significantly inferior to that of the laserdisc. In addition, the new DVD discs are incompatible with many surround sound processors, and only a couple of dozen DVD titles have been made to date. The potential for this technology remains excellent, but until modifications are made to DVD players, anyone looking for audio-video capability during the next year or two might be better off buying a laserdisc player. How could a consumer be expected to know such things? That's simple: ask a dealer.
Andrew Singer is the owner of Sound by Singer in New York City. Glossary Of Audio Terms
Dynamic range: The difference between the softest and the loudest sound, measured in decibels, that a system is capable of reproducing. A distinction should be made between dynamic output, which refers to the maximum volume a system can safely generate, and instantaneous dynamic range, a measure of the speed with which the amplifier and the speakers produce that output.
Frequency response: The range of tones that a system or component can reproduce. Although the "audible spectrum"--the expanse of bass through treble frequencies that the human ear is capable of hearing--runs from a low of 20 Hz (hertz, or cycles per second) to a high of 20,000 Hz, there is little fundamental information of musical significance at either extreme. Judge a component, particularly loudspeakers, by the smoothness and accuracy with which it spans the majority of the frequency range and not by its ability to generate, for example, a 20 Hz test tone.
Imaging: A proper stereo will resolve focused, three-dimensional representations, or "images," of each individual performer--such as a vocalist or instrumental soloist--within the stereophonic soundstage.
Power: The ability of an amplifier to supply the energy necessary to drive a loudspeaker. Speakers make sound by moving air. The louder the sound, the greater the quantity of air that must be moved and the greater the amount of power required. Although a watt is the unit of measurement by which power is commonly defined, an amplifier's current and voltage capabilities are equally important. Remember, too, that while amplifiers are rated in terms of their continuous (RMS) output, peak power--also known as "dynamic headroom"--might be a more relevant measure of performance.
Soundstaging: The totality of spatial information retrieved by the system, including individual images, the airy spaces between these images and the ambience of the concert hall or recording venue.
Transparency: The ability of a component, through its lack of tonal, dynamic or spatial colorations, to disguise its presence in the playback chain. A truly transparent component is one that does not impose its own personality on the signal that passes through it. Such A Dealer!
Due to the excellence of their product mix, service and professionalism, the following dealers meet my stringent standards:
Bel Air, CA
Nuts About Hi Fi
Sound By Singer
New York, NY
Coral Gables, FL
San Francisco Stereo
San Francisco, CA
Santa Monica, CA
Willow Grove, PA
Rick Holzer--AS Strike Up The Brands A Primer of the Best High-End Audio Manufacturers in Each Product Category.
CD Players, Decoders and
California Audio Labs
B & K
Convergent Audio Technology
Mondial Designs (Acurus, Aragon)
B & W
Eggleston Speaker Works
Video and Home Theater
Elite by Pioneer