It’s the time of year for saving money!
I feel it fair to say one immutable decision process in choosing an audio system is how much it costs. We all must adhere in some fashion to a budget. Most of us buy a component at a time, as opposed to deciding one day to invest fifty grand in a stereo system. Cost, however, isn’t the only decision in audiophilia. Let’s start in the days when an amp, turntable and speakers encompassed an audio system.
In the 1950’s and into the early 1960’s, amplifier technology was pretty simple. You had tubes and not much else. Only decisions remaining were features and options offered by any one manufacturer and of course, cost.
Turntables presented an equal challenge and were overwhelmingly the only source around. Yes, reel to reel existed but they were only on the very best audio systems costing a whole lot of money. Consequently, turntables ruled the day.
Speakers. Well you had dynamic speakers and also some horn designs, and while electrostatic speakers were on the horizon, they were by no means an overwhelming choice. Planar speakers made their debut in the early 1970’s but here again, no design was a serious threat to dynamic drivers and companies like Acoustic Research and the sealed air suspension speaker pioneered by Edgar Villchur.
Yes, the early days of our hobby were not imbued with endless technological decisions. Mostly, which tube amp from which manufacturer. Which turntable from which manufacturer. Which dynamic speaker from which manufacturer. Such was the way stereos were essentially purchased at the time. Simple time, the 1950’s.
My how things have changed.
In amplifier technology alone, we still have tube amps, sometimes even a combination of technologies such as a solid state input and tube output. Or maybe operating in different modes like tetrode or triode. Tube amps exist in high wattage output designs and also low wattage technologies like a 12-watt SET amp.
We also have the hugely popular transistor designs. Solid state amps have dramatically improved and many feel have equal sonics to tubes. They may be found in a variety of operating parameters such as class A, Class AB and Class D, to name the most popular. As previously mentioned, solid state is even creeping into tube technology in the form of hybrid componentry. My phonostage, the VTL TP6.5, is one such animal – solid state input, tube output.
What about cables? I connected the speakers of my first system with some leftover lamp cord my Dad had hanging on a nail in the garage. And whether anyone believes cables matter or not is irrelevant because no one can claim various technologies do not exist. Anyone who believes, as do I, that cables do matter, has so many choices and designs available it is time consuming to simply make a decision on which one.
Thought lately about audio racks? I wonder how many audiophiles at some early time in their lives put their system on concrete blocks and a piece of wood? I know I did. Now audio racks are considered by many as an actual component chiefly because of the vibrational control they provide. I once priced (not purchased) a world class rack for my system from a highly regarded manufacturer that wound up costing just a shade under $40,000.00. I don’t know, but that sure seems to me like a long way from a cinder block and a 1 x 12.
This brings us to sources. Perhaps the most comprehensive changes have occurred in sources. While turntables are still a major force in high performance audio, by no means are they the only one. Yes, Virginia, we have entered the digital age. We actually entered in circa 1982 with the advent of the CD. How many audiophiles, like myself, packed up their turntables, albums, bought a CD player and thought they’d never look back?
Today? Oh, my stars. Just look at the availability of digital sources. We have almost reached the point where the “perfect sound forever” CD has been universally displaced by something called Streaming. Admittedly, the popularity of this format is not difficult to comprehend – CD quality or better (although some will argue that point), access to more music than one person could hear in ten lifetimes, and all at one low monthly price. Streaming’s meteoric rise is not difficult to comprehend at all.
We have music servers, network players that purportedly do it all, and high capacity storage systems. Perhaps most surprisingly, we still have the venerable CD player. And why not, there are many audiophiles with substantial, even huge collections of CDs, many of which are not available as a streamed selection. Compounding the difficulty is the fact the once almost dead LP has come fully back to life and is more popular than it has been in many years. Reel to reel is even popping up on occasion. Then there is the recent popularity of all in one integrated components as opposed to separates. Talk about choices!
Lastly, speakers. Dynamic. Planar. Electrostatic. Horn. Piezoelectric hybrids. Designs encompassing two or more subsidiary designs. And on, and on until making a decision on which type, which design, and which manufacturer becomes a very bewildering, daunting task.
There are not ears nor time enough to critically listen to them all. About the only constant in speakers is the perfect design does not yet exist. If you want perfection, live music is still about the only game in town.
Any audiophile looking for simplicity is facing a hard road. Gone are the days where there was one design of anything. We now live in a time where it is actually, realistically, impossible to try out everything. Attempting to do so would encompass so much time a decision on which one of anything would never be reached.
All of this makes the audiophile hobby more difficult to enjoy. Or equally possible, it makes the hobby far more interesting. Deciding which one, ah, now that’s the fun part.
The problem today is that with most brick and mortar stores gone the chance to audition the gear you MIGHT want is nearly impossible. Great gear can cost too much to make a mistake. Fortunately, much affordable gear sounds and performs great.
I’ve had folks tell me that they don’t like to use music streaming services (e.g., Qobuz and TIDAL) because there’s too much choice. The same goes for the system components you discussed here. For better or worse, we are no longer wed to our local audio dealer and the limited number of products they carry. Instead, we have a world of choice in front of us and a world of information on the Internet to sift through. It certainly can be overwhelming.
The good news, I think, is that audio components at all price points are getting to be really good. Value for money is still all over the place, but it’s challenging to find a bad-sounding product from any of the popular “audiophile” manufacturers these days.
I think the final frontier is and will always be getting optimizing the setup. Getting whatever components we might select to play well with the room is as much if not more important than the selection of the actual components these days, given how good everything has become. Moving your speakers two inches can (and often does) make a more significant difference to what you actually hear than buying a new DAC, for example.
Having lots of options is not a bad thing when almost everything on the menu is delicious. 🙂
For me the choices in the streams are not the issue, but the slightly less sound quality from physical media. I just downloaded JRiver Media Center and I really like the sound of it and having all my files in one place. They have a $20 off coupon code right now. There are so many great USB boxes out their right now for under $200 that do a great job of playing back up to 24192 files. A great time to be an audiophile. Speakers will always be the final frontier and that is what I recommend people really agonize over and then placement in their rooms.
Check out this Steinway Streaming site and you can see that streaming can be done right and sound wonderful.
I think the problem can be just the opposite, at least once one has decided on one of the new high-tech options. In my case it has been to use a high-quality digital music player/DAC/headphone amplifier (DAP) with high quality headphones. My extensive library of CDs are transferred to the DAP from my PC via ripping and transferring to the DAP music file memory by USB cable. Sound quality is beyond anything I had in the old days with speakers and separate components, at least in my opinion.
The problem, at least to a long-term audiophile like myself, is that this system is now extremely simple in configuration and doesn’t allow much of any “tweaking”. The only ways of adjusting things to improve the sound is to replace the DAP with a better one, the headphones with better ones, or the headphone cables with better ones. No tweaks like AC power conditioners and AC cables (the system is battery powered and not affected by power line noise), no USB or interconnect cables, no separate CD transport or DAC or headphone amplifier to improve, no vibration absorption feet or equipment platforms, it goes on.
The hobby just loses a lot of its former interest due to the high technology being used. The tradeoff of course is better sound due to things like no sound degrading USB interface, no AC power line grunge, no interconnect and speaker cable and SPDIF digital cable degradations, no vibrational degradation needing special platforms and feet, etc. etc.
The audiophile is reduced to, instead of enjoying both the music and the tinkering, to just enjoying the music. It’s a new world out there for the audiophile, maybe the end of audiophilia as we have known it for so many years. The newest high tech in the form of DAPs and headphones may be high-teching the audiophile aftermarket tweak business out of a good part of its business base.