Written by 4:16 am Audiophile • 5 Comments

Could Incremental Improvements in High-End Audio Sound Quality Ever Hit a Brick Wall?

Steven Stone looks at the unthinkable, when ultimate sound quality doesn’t get any better…

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. 

AR-SQ21a.jpgEver 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. 

AR-SQ22a.pngSo, 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… 

AR-SQ24a.pngObviously, 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?

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