Golden Nails and Blingy Audio Gear

In the homebuilding and real estate world there's a term, "golden nail." It refers to a home or commercial space where the owner or builder has gone overboard on "premium" features to the point where they can never get their money back out because they've sunk so much into the details - including using golden instead of regular nails. OK, so the last bit is an exaggeration - no one really uses golden nails to build a house, but if they could, some people would... 

AR-nails7a.pngAn audio component is basically a bunch of parts that when assembled in the right way make sound. The better the design and the better the parts, the better the final results are. Sometimes changing just one part in a signal chain can have a significant effect on the final results. Several years ago Andrew Jones, the speaker designer for Pioneer and now ELAC, had an interesting demonstration at RMAF. The demo employed two pairs of his TAD monitor loudspeakers, which were identical except for one detail. One pair used WBT 5-way connectors while the other pair used fake/copy WBT connectors. Everything else in the signal chain was identical. In a matched-level comparison the WBT-equipped TAD loudspeakers sounded superior to the other pair. Even with my eyes closed so I did not know which pair were which, I could hear a difference - the WBT-equipped pair had more precise imaging and a larger, better defined soundstage. And that was from one part... 

Even the most objective audiophile will admit, if pressed, that the parts quality in a component do make a sonic difference. But what about the chassis that holds all the parts? You could, if you wished, take the most expensive audio component you could find, and remove it from its chassis, and place it in a plastic project box. In some cases it would probably sound the same, but in other cases not so much. If the original chassis was an all-metal case that also served as a faraday cage (that's a box the prevents RF from disturbing the circuitry inside) there could be a substantial difference in performance over a plastic box. But that's only one of the reasons that most high-performance audio components are not sold in plastic project boxes. The main reason is that a plastic box doesn't send the right message to prospective buyers. Plastic boxes look cheap. No, instead the tendency among manufacturers is to use thick front panels and carefully constructed chassis. Some manufacturers even use solid slabs of aluminum that have been carved out by CNC machines as their chassis. While there are some "technical" reasons for using solid slabs of aluminum, the principal reasons for much of the cosmetics we see on audio gear is for visual style points that help differentiate their products from the competition. Obviously creating a strong, identifiable visual style is vitally important to a manufacturer's identity - would McIntosh have been as successful without their emblematic black glass faceplates and blue VU meters? 

AR-nails2a.jpgThe problem, as I see it, is that there is large gray area between useful and necessary build quality and high-end bling. And very often the reasons a product crosses or does not cross that line is difficult to define in terms that a prospective buyer can absorb and understand. And that's when instead of elegant design we tumble into "golden nail" oligarch audio. 

I recently took delivery on a Pass Labs 150.8 power amplifier. It weighs close to 100 lbs. Why does it weigh so much? Because it has a thick front panel (with a cool blue meter) and immense metal heat sinks on both sides because it has a Class A amplifier topology. Given the weight and bulk of the heat sinks alone, there was no way this design could be shoehorned into a smaller chassis closer in size to Nelson Pass' First Watt J-7. And given the chassis size, a large thick faceplate was also inevitable. And while the final presentation is impressive, it is not bling for bling's sake, but a situation where form follows function. This is not always the case with "high-end" components. 

Personally, I have the most problems with blingy components where the bling seems to have little to do with the core functionality of the component. Does any DAC need a 1" thick gold plated front panel? Probably not. And while I understand a manufacturer wanting to show the same level of quality on the outside as on the inside, there is certainly a point of diminishing returns for both the manufacturer and the consumer. In extreme cases a component could have more money and design effort lavished on its exterior than its interior. If you are into high-performance rather than high-end audio this could be rather off-putting. 

ARnails5a.jpgSo what is the point of my six paragraphs of blathering? Simply that perhaps it would be better for audio firms to consider themselves as purveyors of high-performance sound rather than high-end sound. Because in the final analysis the companies that deliver high-performance and high value without an excess of bling are, in my humble opinion, the ones that will still be around in ten years...

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