It’s the time of year for saving money!
Last week I read a review of a hyper-expensive, over $50,000US power amplifier that was “better in every way” than the only slightly less expensive power amplifier it replaced. And while I would never accuse another professional reviewer of making stuff up, I started to wonder if there will ever be a point where “newer and better in every way” will hit a performance wall.
Ever since the beginning of the audiophile hobby, the primary tenants of audiophilia has always been “onward and upward” as far as sound quality goes – never has there been a new technology introduced to the audio world that only sounds “the same” instead of better. Would audiophile marketers even know how to approach a product that didn’t promise sonic improvements? I doubt it. Continuous sonic improvements have driven the industry forward.
And while I would never posit that there would be a point where sonic improvements for a particular technology would cease completely, they could recede to a point where they are so incremental that even golden ears can’t hear an improvement (it’s pretty much a given among subjectivist audiophiles that measurements are inadequate to fully describe a component’s ultimate performance capabilities). What if the $10,000 differential between last year’s “Greatest” and this year’s “Greatest” comes without a sonic difference – would audiophiles even look at it?
Can any flagship component succeed if it is not considered sonically superior to the previous model?
Personally, I have little interest in a pricier component that does NOT offer some sonic improvements.
So, if enough other audiophiles feel the same way as I do, it would be very difficult to sell a new audiophile component that did not promise some sonic upgrades. In this scenario any review that did not notice and comment on a sonic improvement could be a review that would have a negative influence on sales.
Recently I reviewed a flagship DAC. It replaced a DAC, made by the same manufacturer. At first, I heard no differences between the two components, and if I had not had more time to listen, I would have concluded that there were no discernable sonic differences. But after doing more listening (and allowing for the possibility that all the brand new parts inside the new DAC did need a little time to warm up) I had to conclude that the new, more expensive DAC was sonically superior, but it was certainly less than night and day. But if I had not, after several listening sessions, been able to identify some sonic improvements, I suspect the review would have been viewed with some concern by the manufacturer.
If you look at what market segment has seen the largest amount of sonic improvements, it is NOT in the highest-priced components. After all, a 50+-year-old Marantz Model 7 preamplifier, brought back to original specifications, is still competitive with top-level tube preamplifiers of today. But if you look at what was available in entry-level high-fidelity components in the Model 7’s day with what we have today, there is no comparison. Budget buyers nowadays have far superior options. On the other end of the spectrum, high-end audio has been “advancing” with incremental improvements for the last twenty or thirty years…but since current state-of-the-art components supposedly offer “nearly perfect” sound, how much room “at the top” is there for continual improvement? It reminds me of Martin Colloms’ HiFi Critic magazine which had a “etched in stone” numeric rating system with 100 being the most a component could ever achieve – he eventually had to add numbers over 100…so incremental improvements will probably always continue, but…
Obviously, if budget-priced audio keeps making major advancements while high-performance audio merely creeps along, making incremental improvements, there should be a point where the hare does pass the tortoise (in Aesop’s tale he takes nap, which won’t happen to entry-level audio) and when that happens, what then?
There will be a point where even the least expensive smartphone can produce arresting sound quality that is indistinguishable from what you hear from today’s state-of-the-art hyper-expensive components. It definitely won’t happen next week, but it will eventually happen…but when it does, will there still be a high-performance audio industry as we know it, left?
As long as you have an active imagination, electronics will always improve.
I agree. Are there really improvements? Or are there just differences? Maybe we have already hit the brick wall? If you took that up-to-spec Marantz and pitted it against a modern high end preamp they would likely sound different from each other. But which would astute listeners prefer? I’m pretty sure you could find some that would conclude that the old Model 7 was “better in every way”. Especially if you told them upfront that it was the “new improved” model.
Totally agree. I’d have more respect for audio reviewers if occasionally they admitted that they could hear a difference, but not a preference. But no, everything they review is always better. Different is always better. And some bits are better than other bits… What will really change the game is when a system can deliver a fully holographic image, that will not only be different than the typical stereo image we all listen to, but actually better as well, if we go by Harry Pearson and his definition of the absolute sound. A definition I’ve yet to hear bettered!
I think to the time when digital clocks in pro recording gear were getting better and better. For a time, the goal (or at least the stated goal) was to reduce jitter down to absolute zero.
After some time, I distinctly remember reading a piece from a well-renowned DAC developer, who opined in a very simplified way that “jitter” was one of the things that actually added a certain character to a converter.
Digital recording removed the hulk of harmonic distortion, and then lo and behold, a market forms around hardware and plug-ins designed to add back that harmonic distortion.
The goalposts move, and as they do, the concept of what a “100” score is changes.
I think we’re already there in most respects. It’s hard, often impossible, to distinguish the electronics of decades ago from the products of today in controlled testing. In speakers, we seem to be near the limit of what can be achieved with existing driver technologies. Perhaps headphones and virtualization are the only places where we can still witness notable jumps in audio performance. For me, the Smyth Realiser and the BACCH-SP represent huge improvements in performance. At present, both are too exotic and expensive to appeal to anyone but very devoted audiophiles, but further experimentation and ever-increasing DSP horsepower may make these technologies more accessible someday.