How Much Money Should You Invest In Digital Audio?

Not all audio/video components and component categories are valued the same. I was doing some recent research for a story on HomeTheaterReview.com with Andrew Robinson about 4K UHD TVs versus the pending influx of 8K UHD TVs, which are without question coming our way, and Andrew pointed out to me that the 85 inch Samsung 4K UHD-TV that I have in my living room that was $10,000 retail about four years ago is selling at Super Bowl prices of around $2,695 at a local retail chain, but with the added benefit of HDR. Man, did those prices drop fast, as that is a one hell of a big, bright, state-of-the-art UHD TV for not all that much money. But we know television sets don't hold value very well when other audiophile components are safer, more blue-chip investments.

AR-InvestingInDigitalAudioSONOS225.jpgIf you are looking to do the Safety Dance in with your audio system, you want to invest your money in robust components like stereo preamps, power amps, and speakers. Relatively speaking, the technology on these components don't change that much over time and the best of the best products today aren't all that much different than what you could have bought five years ago. Conversely, products like video and specifically digital audio change at a much faster clip. The pressure to sell video as a "white goods" product, fully designed for the mainstream consumer complete with razor-thin profit margins and rock-bottom pricing, makes for more volatile market.

In the audiophile world, the most dangerous category that you can get into is digital audio. We've given a lot of attention to the death of physical media both at AudiophileReview.com as well as at HomeTheaterReview.com, and we are right. Vinyl is beyond dead in terms of sales ($400,000,000 in sales according to the RIAA in 2017 out of $8,900,000,000 total sales, and a small fraction of the 12 percent of ever-shrinking physical disc market) while providing about the worst quality audio, but let us not stomp on the grave of the Compact Disc too while we are at it. Compact Discs are not anywhere close to the pinnacle of audiophile performance anymore, even if they make up the lion's share of most of our music collections, be it spun on silver discs or ripped to some sort of hard drive system. 

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The fact is: for a little more than the retail price of a single Compact Disc per month, a streaming service like Tidal can provide a CD-at-worst resolution (if not much higher resolution like 96/24) experience for nearly every record ever made. That's game changing, but you still need a good front end to make your system sound its best.

This is where the DAC, DAC-preamp, or some other level of preamp/streamer-type device comes in. In the audiophile world, no category is more subject to change than DACs (digital to analog converters). Chipsets change. Constantly. Digital audio designs change quite frequently too. There are streaming features, like being a Roon "endpoint," which is key to get that Kaleidescape-like "cover flow" experience that once cost $14,000 from a Meridian-Sooloos system a decade ago for a mere $500 today. It is hard to imagine living without that level of excellence in metadata, streaming access, and more. 

There is so much that goes into a good DAC or DAC-preamp today it isn't funny, but the fact that the category is ever-changing and ever-improving makes for a dangerous place to invest, relatively speaking. There are low end solutions that are simply fantastic from the likes of Meridian, AudioQuest, and Schiit Audio that will not break the bank for really nice performing but feature-limited digital audio. These can be a great place to start off with a high-end system, but as you a growing your system into an Audio Research, Krell, Mark Levinson, Wilson Audio killer, at some point your digital audio needs to keep up with the rest of the components of your system. But how do you best go about that?

AR-InvestingInDigitalAudioDAC225.jpgThe guys over at ESPN networks warn against being a "prisoner of the moment" when it comes to sports, and that advice is good relative to audio as well. Do you need or just really want an MQA-capable DAC? If so, then the tax will be on you as you will need to buy something pretty new to the market. Do you need a Roon endpoint? Same story. These are cool features, but you have to pay to have easy access to them in your digital audio system. If you can live with older feature sets, you likely will get really good DAC chipsets, fantastic design, and wonder AC power supplies, which all help to make a really good digital audio component.

Let's be clear: there is no one absolute answer for any one audiophile. Linn Audio, makers of the legendary LP-12 turntable, always said "your system is only as good as your source," and I tend to agree with them on a philosophical level. At the same time, as you are following your own personal audiophile journey, is it smart to invest most heavily in the category of audio that is most likely to lose you money? Should you not build your system around the products that will make the biggest difference (room correction, room acoustics, subwoofers, great speakers, killer electronics) first and then take your chances in the more volatile world of digital audio as your system gets more sussed out down the road?

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 In a perfect, Powerball winning world, every component in your system would be at the same high level of performance, but most of us have budget, room, and other limitations in our music playback systems. Over time, we will likely get to the endgame, but this article is about the best strategy to get there the fastest and with the least amount of pain.

Tell us about your digital audio rig today. How do you handle Tidal and Qobuz (if at all)? Do you use Room or other music management systems? Where do you stand on silver discs and what are your plans for the future? Let us know in the comments below.

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