In the world of audiophilia we're always talking about references. Many reviews eventually come down to a Mano-a-Mano between the reviewer's "reference" and the piece of gear under review. Usually a reviewer's reference is the best-sounding example in a particular category, be it speakers, preamps, power amps, or cables. Also, generally, a reviewer's reference is the priciest piece of gear that they can afford or manage to get loaned to them. And while I certainly understand the rational behind high-ticket reference gear, I think it's time to expand the concept of reference to more than merely the "best" example that crosses a reviewer's path.
It's time for the concept of the cost-effective reference. That is a product that, while it is not the best all-around performer, is the best performer within its price class, and most likely several rungs above. A cost-effective reference can be almost as good as the price-no-object reference, but obviously it should cost much less.
And just as the selection of an ultimate reference is a personal choice, a cost-effective reference is even more subjective. It comes down to what can you live without in terms of performance and still enjoy the music?
I've been employing cost-effective references for years. I still own a pair of the original NHT Super Zeros. I also use other vintage components, such as my Accuphase P-300 as benchmarks. If a new power amplifier can't outperform the Accuphase, it needs to be dirt-cheap or it's not going to cut it.
DACs are a product category where cost-effective references abound. I have a $500 reference - The Music Hall DAC 25.3, a $800 reference - the Musical Fidelity M-1, a $1500 reference - the Wyred4Sound DAC-2 and a $7500 reference - the Weiss DAC 202. Even the least expensive DAC on my list is good enough that I could live with it permanently without feeling sonically deprived.
In many product categories the performance gap between cost-effective products and cost-no-object products has never been smaller. And I, for one, consider this a wonderful thing.