Let's face it, the prospect of being completely at ease with deciding on the purchase of a new piece of audio equipment is never complete and total. Oh sure, we may tell ourselves we have made the right decision. We may easily feel our decision will yield a commendable sonic improvement, but we will never really know for sure until we do one thing - play it in our own system.
Following in the "let's face it" category is the realization that for most of us, testing and demoing in our own system the exact component in which we are interested is less likely than realistic. Dealers may not have the piece of equipment we are considering. Maybe instead they have a close relative or something in the same family only not as good. Or maybe much better.
We may or may not be able to take a component home to evaluate and even if we do, it may not be the one we really want. How can we tell if our choice is correct? Even if our demo unit is our chosen component, how many dealers will let a customer keep something for weeks on end to be totally sure the result is an actual sonic improvement? It is a sobering realization the very industry to which we are endeared is not doing more to assist in its own advancement.
I remember how nervous I was after deciding to trade in my then current preamp for one decidedly, more expensively better. As I wrote a five-figure check for a whole lot more than I felt comfortable, I kept assuring myself that if I liked the preamp I had, I would really like the one I was buying. Here I was, spending a significant amount of money on something totally unknown to me. My purchase was completely faith based - certainly not a wise practice in audio where products can sell for remarkable sums of money. My gamble paid off as the new preamp proved sonically excellent, but it was a nervous enterprise until I actually activated the power button and listened to a song.
Because not especially having a commanding advance knowledge of a component's sonic worth is a distinct possibility, what happens if we take a leap of faith only to find we feel like we hit the pavement below? What do we do if the sonics for which we were hoping prove mostly disappointing?
One preventive measure is an upfront guarantee. Such agreements with the seller, be it a dealer or manufacturer, said agreement to be a full refund if not satisfied, is probably the safest assurance the investment is not wasted. Of course, many dealers will not grant such a guarantee because the manufacturer will likely not extend them a reciprocal assurance. It is an all too frequent an occurrence that it will be necessary to actually buy the very component we want to demo to determine if we even want to make the purchase. Some manufacturers selling direct will offer buyer's remorse protection on some level - maybe or maybe not a 100% refund - but one certainly more advantageous than a complete and total loss.
Perhaps one of the more expensive pitfalls of a new component that fails to measure up is the assumption other components are now a problem. Buying a new preamp only to find it does not sound as expected or hoped may, for some, instill the suspicion the amp is now the problem. If a new amp fails to correct things, it must then be the DAC. Is this an extreme example? Of course it is. Is it realistic? Maybe not for most but for some, who knows? Then again, this is an extreme hobby where reality is often colored outside the lines.
Buying audio equipment can be a daunting task. If a new car is of interest or required, it is very easy to go to the car lot, test drive not a car but THE car, negotiate a price, sign the paperwork and presto, new car. Buying clothes is similarly easy, just try on the garment to see how it fits, pay and presto, new outfit. There is no need to see if the car looks good in the garage or driveway, no need to take the new shirt home to see if it clashes with the other shirts and how it interacts with all the pants on the lower shelf. We simply buy a car or new piece of clothing and we're done.
Think audio is like that? Hardly. Most of us start well in advance of the actual purchase with investigative work. This includes reading reviews, examining the technology, comparing that technology with competitive brands, talking to dealers, and other similar inquiries. Next comes some type of demo exercise which may reveal a trove of useful information or equally possible, not much at all. After all of that, negotiate a price, and finally, pull the trigger and hope enraptured sonic marvels await.
My hope is most audiophiles will not find a new component sonically disappointing. Through trial and tribulation, it is possible to make an informed decision on some level - be it simply optimistic to completely assured of sonic improvements. Speaking as one who has made this mistake once, or maybe twice if my memory is correct, I know how infuriating and how totally dejected the feeling is that yes, you made an expensive and horrible error. In my case, it meant buying a replacement in a scant month or two and feeling pretty ignorant.
Doing your homework is fine. Making what you are confident is a wise decision is all one can really do. At best, we can ideally be absolutely confident our decision was the right one. When we push the power button and play a song, we will then know if our choice was correct. And if it was not, well, there's always the proverbial drawing board.